By Jessica Allen - Saturday, January 19, 2013 - 0 Comments
Astronomers how think our galaxy is filled with billions of planets. Kate Lunau on the Biggest Discovery Ever
Astronomers recently discovered that our galaxy is filled with billions of planets. Now the race is on to see how fast we can get there.
In this podcast, Maclean’s writer Kate Lunau talks with Jessica Allen about Maclean’s cover story this week: The Biggest Discovery Ever.
Hear them discuss the possibility of interstellar space travel. Find out about the search for life-sustaining planets and what scientists are doing right now to get us to another star. Listen to Lunau explain what the discovery of a Tatooine-like planet that revolves around more than one sun could mean for Stars Wars fans across the galaxy.
Lunau’s feature story is in the current issue of Maclean’s, now on newsstands. Watch for it on the site next week.
While you listen to the podcast, use your cursor to scroll over the planets below.
By Peter Nowak - Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 1:44 PM - 0 Comments
One of my favourite writers is Terence Corcoran, who as editor of the Financial Post is an old colleague of mine. I enjoy reading his columns because whenever he ventures into technology and telecom issues, the result is usually a car wreck. And who doesn’t enjoy watching a car wreck?
Such is the case with a recent column on copyright, which he promoted on Twitter as being penned by the “anti-Geist.” One of Corcoran’s favourite whipping boys is, of course, Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law who is one of the country’s most-cited experts on copyright law. If you follow both gentlemen, you probably know they, well, don’t like each other, to put it mildly.
By Jesse Brown - Friday, January 6, 2012 at 2:15 PM - 0 Comments
Three-dimensional, that is. A layer of schmutz floating around a few feet in front of your nose while a movie plays behind it is not a reasonable simulation of our tactile physical universe. We can sit around arguing about the increasing quality of this floating schmutz in the digital age, but schmutz it remains–distracting bits of pollen hovering around our theaters. For a moment it amazes us, and then we struggle (consciously or not) to ignore it so we can focus on the story.
And the story is at the crux of this. 3D advocates point to early resistance to sound and color in the movies as proof that they are on the right track. But sound and color became crucial elements in cinematic storytelling. We’ve yet to see a 3D film where the floating schmutz is integral to the plot, and which could not be understood if you took the goofy glasses off. 3D is a gimmick, and has been since the days of the drive-in.
Poor Hollywood. The industry’s hopes and dreams were pinned to 3D. It was supposed to be a piracy-resistant bit of spectacle that would levitate teenagers out of their basements, away from their Playstations and smartphones and into movie theatres, where they would gladly pay a hefty surcharge on an already hefty ticket price for an “in-your-face” experience. 3D was also supposed to perpetuate the endless consumer gadget cycle, compelling overcompensating dads to ditch last year’s 52 inch HD LCDs for giant 3DTV flatscreens that let them bring the schmutz home. This in turn would propel the next wave of physical media sales, wherein we all would dump our DVD (or Bluray) collections at yard sales, replacing each classic flick with a new edition, digitally upschmutzed to 3D. George Lucas was moist with anticipation!
In short, 3D was the last best hope for business as usual in both the entertainment and consumer electronic industries. A couple of years ago at CES, the massive electronics trade show in Vegas, 3DTVs were everywhere. A couple of years ago, Avatar made Hollywood salivate. But as CES 2012 gears up, the reality is sinking in: Consumers don’t really want 3D at home, and Avatar was a one-off. Sports fans are lukewarm on floating balls, and people feel ridiculous wearing those goofy glasses in well-lit living rooms where they can be seen by their friends and families. Even gamers who bought Nintendo 3Ds are tiring of the optical illusion and turning 3D off.
There are still a few (hundred million) bucks more to be squeezed out of 3D before consumers grow completely sick of the experience, so we will surely see a slew of schmutzy pictures in the months and years to come. And of course, there will be an Avatar 2.
But this thing is on the wane, and Hollywood may soon have to resort to actually producing movies people want to see on account of their content.
Or they could just bring back Smell-O-Vision.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, September 7, 2011 at 11:45 AM - 33 Comments
Don’t mess with guys who want to talk about Pinkie Pie and pretty pony tea parties
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic seems to confirm adults’ worst fears about kids’ cartoons. The show, about female ponies with names like Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie, is produced by Hasbro to convince kids to buy the line of toys it’s based on, just like the company’s Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite cartoons. But some adults don’t have time to object to Friendship is Magic: they’re too busy watching it and writing pony fan fiction. On the Hub in the U.S. and Treehouse in Canada, My Little Pony has become one of the most popular cartoons among grown-ups, for viewing and online discussion. A mostly older audience (male fans call themselves “Bronies”) has given
10 millionover 35 million views to a fan website, Equestria Daily. The founder of the site, who goes by the name “Sethisto,” told Maclean’s that the show “accidentally targeted the Internet culture.”
On Know Your Meme, a site that keeps track of pop culture phrases that have become popular online, there are more entries for My Little Pony than for almost any other show. The wide-eyed character designs, from series creator Lauren Faust, are used as the basis for fan art and games, often involving pony-based catchphrases like “anypony” and “nopony.” 4Chan, a website known for ﬂooding the Internet with nasty jokes, erupted in a “civil war” when a moderator tried to ban pony discussion; eventually the site gave up and had to allow its members to talk about Princess Celestia and the pretty pony tea parties. “4chan once took on the FBI and won,” a Brony told the New York Observer, “so you might say that My Little Pony is more powerful than the FBI.” Fans have even taken to creating pony memes based on other cartoons, like an instantly famous cartoon of an old Looney Tunes character screaming, “Confound those ponies! They drive me to drink!”
Yet unlike other cartoons with grown-up fans, My Little Pony makes almost no concessions to them. Shows like Rocky and Bullwinkle had pop culture jokes that kids weren’t supposed to understand, while Avatar: The Last Airbender was an adult phenomenon for its complex plotting. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has fewer topical jokes than Hasbro’s first My Little Pony cartoon from the ’80s (which once had moonwalking ponies). Stories, Sethisto says, are “simple and easy to follow.” Every episode ends with a moral, like: “If you try to please everypony, you oftentimes end up pleasing nopony.” Even Sesame Street, which parodies shows like Mad Men, tries harder to please adults.
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 12:10 PM - 4 Comments
Enough with the gimmickry, price gouging and 2D conversions
It was hailed as the biggest revolution in cinema technology since colour. But less than two years after the triumph of Avatar, 3D seems to be wearing thin. For the first time since the new digital format was launched, the majority of viewers are choosing to watch 3D movies in 2D versions—at least in the U.S., where a 3D ticket bears a $5 premium. There, 2D outpaced 3D at the box office by about 60 per cent for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Kung Fu Panda 2, Green Lantern—and in advance sales for the final Harry Potter movie. Canada is another story. “We see movies consistently outperforming in 3D,” says Cineplex Entertainment spokesperson Pat Marshall, explaining that Cineplex charges just a $3 premium. But as American audiences abandon 3D, studio executives who once embraced it as cinema’s salvation are sounding the alarm. Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks Animation, called the trend “heartbreaking.” Blaming a glut of bad 3D movies from other studios, he told the Hollywood Reporter: “We have disappointed our audience multiple times now, and because of that I think there is genuine distrust.”
3D’s big test is Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which opened Tuesday. James Cameron convinced Michael Bay to shoot in 3D, providing the tech he created for Avatar. But armed with that third dimension, Bay’s blitzkrieg style of kinetic action is exhausting to watch. And it will take more than a sci-fi sequel to restore our faith. To cop a phrase from Bill Maher, here are 10 New Rules for saving 3D:
1. Sell 3D and 2D tickets at the same price. Studios complain 3D movies cost more to make, while exhibitors carp about upgrading theatres. Who cares? Viewers suspect they’re being gouged. If you’re trying to acclimatize the audience to an iffy new technology, level the playing field. That would also be the acid test of 3D quality—to see how many people would still choose to see the 2D version.
By Jaime J. Weinman - Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
The success of movies like ‘Avatar’ has producers rushing out bad conversions
Critics hated everything about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, but especially the fake 3-D. Like several other recent movies, Airbender was not filmed with 3-D cameras, but was altered to seem like it was. Film buffs paid high ticket prices and walked out appalled at how bad it looked. Roger Ebert wrote that Airbender “puts a nail in the coffin of low-rent 3-D,” while the Boston Globe called it “a ghoulish simulation” of the real thing. It’s Hollywood’s new craze: charging more for a worse viewing experience.
Unlike a real 3-D movie, like Avatar or the upcoming Resident Evil, films like Airbender depend on an elaborate conversion process. 3-D filmmaker James Stewart (founder of Geneva Film Co.) told Maclean’s that “conversion is like colourization,” because converters take the images apart and rebuild them to look like they have three dimensions. “You have to fill in the gaps manually, by painting,” he explains, “and you have to shape each object to give it actual depth within the layer.” A converted 3-D film is almost a computer-animated remake of the original.
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, July 22, 2010 at 4:20 PM - 0 Comments
A spy scripted for Tom Cruise is sex-changed into Angelina Jolie’s latest avatar
On the poster for Salt, Angelina Jolie stares down the camera, a photoshopped femme fatale with witch-black hair and alien eyes. “Who is Salt?” asks the tag line, referring to her character, a CIA spy accused of being a double agent. It might as well say, “Who is Angelina Jolie?” Because that’s the secret that seems buried in her truth-or-dare gaze. For a Hollywood icon, playing a spy is the ultimate tease. Movie star mystique is itself a kind of secret identity, a charade of glamorous subterfuge in the cloak-and-dagger game of tabloid espionage. And espionage suddenly seems to be all the rage.
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, March 15, 2010 at 8:45 AM - 5 Comments
How one woman crashed the boys’ club and made Hollywood history
Barbra Streisand couldn’t contain herself. It was obvious she’d been tapped to present the Oscar for Best Director because it was expected to go to a woman for the first time in history. Even before opening the envelope, she couldn’t resist gloating at the prospect, adding as a tacky afterthought that the prize might also go to the first African-American ever to win it (Precious director Lee Daniels). Then, revealing that Kathryn Bigelow had won for The Hurt Locker, Streisand placed her hand over her heart, as if heralding the dawn of a new age, and declared: “The time has come!”
That the Academy has taken such a long time—82 years—to honour a female director makes this landmark as much an embarrassment as a triumph. And there’s no small irony in the fact that the first woman to crack Oscar’s glass ceiling prefers not to brand herself a feminist filmmaker, even if she is one. Unlike the only other women ever nominated for Best Director—Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola—Bigelow makes movies that don’t promote a feminist, or even a feminine, sensibility. She specializes in action movies populated by cowboy heroes—a gang of iconic bikers (The Loveless), a clan of vampire road warriors (Near Dark), a surfing FBI agent (Point Break), a nuclear submarine captain (K-19: The Widowmaker), and a bomb squad daredevil (The Hurt Locker). Her sole action heroine, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel, is a rookie cop with a gun fetish who seems to have erased her gender.
Pundits had a field day with the David-and-Goliath showdown between the soft-spoken Bigelow and her often bombastic ex-husband, Avatar director James Cameron. To drive home this Hollywood fable, the six-foot, 58-year-old athletic beauty was seated conspicuously in front of the 55-year-old Cameron at the Oscars, looking many years younger—like the trophy wife who got away, and was now about to take the trophies. But this convenient fiction is as far-fetched as the notion of her as a feminist torchbearer. Bigelow, who is now dating The Hurt Locker’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal, 36, seems to be on excellent terms with her ex. They never expressed a discourteous word about each other during the awards campaign. And on the red carpet, Cameron cheerfully predicted she would carry the day.
By Brian D. Johnson - Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 7:09 PM - 23 Comments
7:08 p.m. Let the Games begin. As in Vancouver, we’re rooting for the Canadians. Which means King of the World (aka James Cameron), Jason Reitman and Ivan Reitman (director and producer of Up in the Air). And the two men behind District 9, writer-director Neill Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell.
Watching Ben Mulroney on the red carpet. Mo’Nique has just called him “brother.” Ben, you can take that to the bank. Jason Reitman has his soundbite down to a weary koan. On Up In the Air: “It’s a movie about family and it was made by a family.”
James Cameron talking to Ben about his rival, and ex-wife: “Kathryn has done a number of small films. She doesn’t play the Hollywood game.” And on the results tonight: “The tea leaves tell me that it’s going her way.”
7:13 pm: Barbara Walters’ Special. Her last special. OMG. Mo’Nique has just finished talking about the frictional specifics of being abused by her brother, and now she’s leaving Barbara Walters slack jawed by talking about how sex outside of her marriage is not a deal breaker. Next the camera moves in for a close-up of her hairy legs, as she delivers defence thereof.
7: 32 pm: We’re flicking between Barbara Wawa and Ben collaring Hollywood royalty. Ben asks George Clooney whether he gets more mileage out of an Oscar or being People’s Sexiest Man Alive. George says being sexy goes further. Ben, morphing into crazed fan, lunges at Meryl Streep as she sashays by, and she pats his microphone maternally. Media version of an air kiss. Or a polite way of saying, “Get lost.”
7:57 pm: This live blog, by the way, is coming to you from Helga Stephenson’s annual Oscar party. Helga is a former director of TIFF, chair of the recent Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and a global among cinephiles. Her annual Oscar soiree is always a blast. But I feel like a freak: typing at a party while watching television is perverse. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 12:12 PM - 4 Comments
For BDJ’s live blog of the Oscars, go to LIVE BLOG….
Oscar Sunday! I know it’s not as big as Super Bowl Sunday. And after the Winter Olympics, it’s pretty hard to get into the mood for another Epic TV Event, especially one with no sports—only opening and closing ceremonies. But with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin at the helm (will the opening monologue become an opening dialogue?), tonight’s show should be good for a few laughs. Anticipating the Oscars, of course, is always more exciting than enduring them. But given the David-and-Goliath duel between Avatar and Hurt Locker, and their ex-spouse directors, there’s a nifty element of drama. And if we’re lucky, there may even be the odd wardrobe malfunction. I’ll be live-blogging the Oscars tonight, starting at 7 p.m. So for those of you who get a charge of multitasking—surfing the web while watching TV, tweeting, and shoveling nachos—consider this an opportunity. I thought of live-blogging the show from home, but that that seemed too depressing and studious. So to raise the bar, so to speak, I’ll be typing from a crowded Oscar party, trying not to spill my drink on my laptop, while abstaining from that ongoing war between those who want to talk at the screen and those who want to watch in reverent silence, afraid they’ll miss something.
For the record, I’m about to trot out my predictions. But don’t consider this a cheat sheet for your Oscar party pool, because I’m not going to weigh in on the marginal categories (none of us have a clue, really). And I have never won an Oscar pool in my life. However, I will predict that, at some point in the evening, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin will wear 3-glasses and speak Na’vi. Jeff Bridges will not wear a conventional tuxedo. Mo’Nique will give an inspirational acceptance speech that will make make us wonder what drug she’s on and where can we get some? Jim Cameron will still have the same bad non-haircut. There will be a photo opportunity in which he kisses his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow. On the red carpet, Brangelina will deserve an honorary Oscar for Performance by a Pretend Couple. And the person who receives the Oscar for best documentary short will give the longest and most tedious speech.
As for the awards, here are my votes on who will win, and should win, the major categories:
Because there are 10 nominees this year, and there’s a wacky new preferential voting system that allows second and third choices to vault into the running on ballots whose first choices have been eliminated (you still with me?), anything could happen. I think Avatar will win—and should win, not because it’s a perfect film, but because it’s a humongous accomplishment, and it has brought magic back to the tired world of Hollywood spectacle. But I wouldn’t want to put money on this one. Hurt Locker ‘s slingshot has momentum and may well carry the day.
Kathryn Bigelow will win for Hurt Locker for the same reason that Avatar should win Best Picture: she’s making history, and Oscar loves history. Bigelow won who the Directors Guild prize, a reliable bellwether, and if she wins tonight she’ll become the first female director to win an Oscar. Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, March 4, 2010 at 4:49 PM - 8 Comments
Scott Macaulay tries to explain the new Oscar voting system and how it works, with quotes from economist Justin Wolfers. Wolfers also provides some follow-explanation here. The use of ranked voting, familiar to those who follow sports MVP voting, means that a movie has the potential to win even if it doesn’t get the most first-place votes.
But that doesn’t really answer the big question: should Avatar or The Hurt Locker be considered the favourite to win? No one really seems to know. Unlike the other big categories, where the winner is almost pre-ordained, Avatar and Locker have sort of been co-favourites for a while; sometimes Avatar seems to have the momentum, and sometimes it’s Locker. (If Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were alive, they would right now be playing Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron in romantic comedy about a divorced couple whose films are competing for the Oscar.) They’re different types of filmmaking, and both of them are types of movies that would, at certain times in Oscar history, be considered the likely winner. The question is not whether history will repeat itself this year, but which moment in history will repeat itself.
I reflexively think of Avatar as the favourite, because it’s a type of production that usually wins Best Picture: the long, huge-budget mega-blockbuster that “saves” the movie industry and gets the award because it’s doo too big to ignore. Winners that fall into this category include Gone With The Wind, The Sound of Music, The Godfather, and Cameron’s own Titanic. These were movies of epic length and scale that became tremendous hits (often after people thought the studio was going to lose its collective shirt on them). They combined massive popular appeal with technical finesse and a tendency to impress movie insiders: Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, March 4, 2010 at 1:00 PM - 6 Comments
Ramrod military men with impulse-control issues may be rare in real life but not onscreen
When Col. Russell Williams, commander of Canada’s largest air base, was charged with two counts of murder and two counts of sexual assault, shock and disbelief soon gave way to another natural reflex: it’s like something out of a movie. And no wonder. Psycho soldiers may be rare in the real world, but they are remarkably common in Hollywood. Recently, the big screen has been overrun by ramrod military men whose iron discipline masks mental disturbances that range from borderline personality disorder to psychopathic cruelty. Three of the actors nominated for Oscars this year are being recognized for portraying soldiers with serious impulse-control issues—Jeremy Renner as a bomb-squad daredevil in The Hurt Locker, Christoph Waltz as a demented Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, and Woody Harrelson as a volatile sergeant in The Messenger. There’s also Tobey Maguire, who was not nominated but erupted with scary intensity in Brothers as a traumatized veteran from the war in Afghanistan whose heroic homecoming devolves into a domestic meltdown.
Hollywood’s top-ranking villain du jour, meanwhile, is Col. Miles Quaritch, the square-jawed tyrant played by Stephen Lang in Avatar. The manufacturer’s modest description for the colonel’s toy action figure describes this soldier as “a ruthless, troubled and aggressive man who has very little respect for living things, specially the Na’vi.” In fact, he’s a raving psychopath. But Quaritch is just a blunt instrument compared to Col. Hans Landa, the insidious SS officer who’s played with such perverse relish by Waltz in Inglourious Basterds.
And what is it about colonels? These are the officers whose sanity always seems to be the most precarious, in the movies at least—from Marlon Brando’s soul-destroyed Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (“Horror and moral terror are your friends”) to Jack Nicholson’s pressure-cooked Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men (“You can’t handle the truth!”). Scratch a colonel and you find a psychopath—or so it goes in Hollywood’s military ranking of organized evil.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 8:44 PM - 3 Comments
A new documentary chronicles the absurd misrepresentation of native people onscreen
As Avatar completes its quest for world domination, critics are still circling the wagons, asking if James Cameron’s visionary epic is revolutionary or retrograde, or both. The Vatican frets about its creed of nature worship. U.S. Conservatives condemn it as anti-military eco-liberalism. And the rest of us wonder how the characters in this 3-D marvel can be so flat. But there are Aboriginal people who have a more personal gripe. The Na’vi aliens on Pandora are clearly patterned on North American natives, or more specifically their Hollywood stereotype—noble savages in braids riding bareback with bows and arrows. And as in Dances With Wolves, their messiah is a white man who goes native. “Avatar angered me,” says CBC film critic Jesse Wente, an Ojibwa. “You have blue aliens with tails—why do you have to put feathers in their hair? The Na’vi even do the war whoop, which is a sound completely manufactured by Hollywood.”
Those persistent Indian clichés are the subject of a new documentary called Reel Injun, directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond. By turns funny and shocking, it’s a chronicle of how native people have been absurdly misrepresented onscreen from the days of silent film to the present. Growing up on a reserve in the James Bay community of Waskaganish, Diamond, now 41, remembers watching old movies as a kid in a church basement. “Raised on cowboys and Indians, we cheered for the cowboys,” he says, “never realizing that we were the Indians.” When he moved south, his new classmates asked this Cree from the Subarctic if he lived in a teepee and rode horses, because that was the image of Hollywood’s all-purpose Plains Indian.
With a mix of movie clips and talking heads, Reel Injun unearths some fascinating examples of inauthenticity. The Indian headband, it seems, was largely a Hollywood invention—for an actor doing stunts and falling off horses, it kept his wig in place. Indian dialogue was often just as fake. In one vintage western, it’s just English played backwards. In A Distant Trumpet (1964), Navajo speak their own language, but after Diamond heard stories of improv mischief, he had the dialogue translated and found them saying things like “You are snakes crawling in your own shit!” Some clips are more sobering. In The Searchers, cowboys uncover an Indian grave and John Wayne shoots out the eyes of the corpse, saying, “Ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit land.” Talk about rough justice.
By Robert Fulford - Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 10:50 AM - 18 Comments
On almost every level, says this critic, ‘Avatar’ is a sub-prime performance
No less an eminence than Roger Ebert has identified the special status of Avatar, the most ambitious film by the most celebrated Canadian filmmaker in history, James Cameron. “It is an Event,” Ebert wrote, “one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.”
No one will deny that it’s currently the subject of several million conversations, but the meaning of the Event deserves scrutiny. Is Avatar, as Cameron’s publicity implies, a gateway to the movies of the future and an affirmation of elevated spiritual values in a coarse, commercial world? Or is it the sign of an art form in grave danger of losing its heart to technique, proof of a public addiction to worn-out storytelling—and fresh evidence that North America is the first society in history that willingly pays good money to see itself depicted as essentially evil?
When a work of science fiction runs dry it becomes a minor footnote to contemporary fashions in opinion. Avatar, more than most films, drives itself into this narrative dead end. It comes across as a commercial for the Green party, a New Age hymn to pure nature, and a florid work of anti-war propaganda, a simple-minded story of an army dedicated to evil purposes fighting a nation of innocent victims.
By Colby Cosh - Monday, February 15, 2010 at 10:48 AM - 25 Comments
I suppose a lot of you have seen the astonishing video of the Intellectual Ventures Mosquito Death Ray. It’s a can’t-believe-your-eyes proof-of-concept so irresistible that the time to it being monetized as a mass-market product that sits on your porch must surely be a matter of months. Remember how quickly Apple went from being a computer manufacturer to being a music company that happened to have a sideline in computers? You think the same thing could happen with Microsoft and pest control?
Devised for malaria eradication in Africa, the Mosquito Death Ray seems like promising ground for the One Laptop Per Child business model (which has failed, so far, to get very many laptops to very many children); use Western punters to cross-subsidize humanitarian uses for a cool technology.
But I’m a morbid pessimist. What I think of when I see a Mosquito Death Ray built with cheap parts from eBay isn’t malaria: I think “Gee, seems like guidance systems for ground-to-air rockets would be well within the financial range and design abilities of a clever hobbyist now.” Then I think, “Hey, haven’t we seen rather a lot of news stories over the past few years about pilots being mysteriously scanned with green laser pointers?” Then I just kind of curl up into a fetal position.
(But let’s not let that stop us from enjoying more fun from Intellectual Ventures: reverse-engineering the secrets of Avatar.)
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 11:50 AM - 28 Comments
The new and improved, fluffed-up Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and surprise! . . . there were virtually no surprises. The Academy Awards are now so heavily upstaged by the glut of awards leading up to them that the Oscar campaign is like an election that just ratifies the results of the advance polls. The race comes down to a David and Goliath duel between Avatar and Hurt Locker, which have nine nominations apiece—and between their once married directors, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. Aside from the Battle of the Exes, a showdown tailor-made for Entertainment Tonight, we have a battle between two very different war movies, and two opposite worlds of high-risk movie-making—a duel between indie nerve and blockbuster brawn. Cameron has made a ideologically tinted, eco-minded anti-war epic that champions Mother Nature’s feminine spirit. Bigelow has made a gritty, no-nonsense, ultra-masculine Iraq thriller that’s remarkably free of any anti-war sentiment. The traditional polarity of male-female sensibilities is reversed. So that’s shaping up to be quite a battle.
Oscar’s big makeover this year, of course, is the expansion of the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 nominees. So let’s see how that played out. We can separate the 10 nominees into two halves. Had there been just 5 nominees, they would likely be, in roughly descending priority: Avatar, Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Precious and Inglourious Basterds. So the five “extra” nominees are An Education, District 9, A Serious Man, The Blind Side, and Up. The Academy expanded the category to make room for more boffo popcorn movies, in the hope of bumping up TV ratings for the show. That seems to have worked, up to a point. District 9, Up and The Blind Side all grossed over $200 million worldwide. But the other three films that squeaked in are all relatively small. And Star Wars Star Trek, the year’s best popcorn movie aside from Avatar, didn’t make the cut. It’s nice to see A Serious Man and An Education nominated. The Blind Side, one of the phoniest “true” stories ever filmed, has no business being there. And Up‘s nomination all but guarantees it will win in its native category, Best Animated Feature.
No matter how many movies are nominated for Best Picture, however, the number is beside the point. This is Hurt Locker vs. Avatar. Bigelow’s low-budget masterpiece has been winning the industry’s major awards. Yet Avatar is such a historic feat that Hollywood, a company town, may rally behind it. After winning the Directors Guild prize, however, count on Bigelow to take home the Oscar for Best Director, which would be a historic feat in its own right—she’d be the first woman to win that honour. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, January 18, 2010 at 11:03 AM - 25 Comments
James Cameron’s Golden Globe-winning movie has single-handedly brought back old-fashioned movie magic
It looks like the movie about blue aliens by that brash Canadian from Niagara Falls is poised to become the top-grossing picture of all time. After roaring past the $1-billion threshold in a record 17 days, James Cameron’s Avatar will likely shatter the $1.8-billion tidemark set by Cameron’s own Titanic 12 years ago, especially if it does well at the Oscars. Which begs the question: why? Everyone seems to agree that the story is corny, its message is naive, and its cliché of the noble savage is retrograde. Friends of mine who have no desire to see Avatar keep asking, why is it so huge? Is it just a massive feat of marketing?
No, it’s the magic, stupid.
Love it or hate it, Avatar boldly goes where no movie has gone before. Some of the ﬁlm’s harshest critics have even confessed they would see it again—just for the 3-D experience of being so deeply inside a movie. Then there are those who swear they’ll never see it, as if on principle. They dismiss it as just another escalation in the Hollywood blitzkrieg of special effects, a victory of digital artillery over human emotion. I would argue the opposite. Sure, Avatar’s prototype of 3-D spectacle is the biggest game-changer since Star Wars launched the arms race of sci-ﬁ blockbusters 33 years ago. But what’s revolutionary about Cameron’s ﬁlm is not its ﬁrepower. The real feat is how it uses cutting-edge technology to bring back a kind of old-fashioned movie magic.
Despite the guns and spears that occasionally poke through the fourth wall, what has Avatar audiences spellbound is not the frontal assault of 3-D, but the enchantment of being drawn into a world that softly envelops the senses. It’s akin to the childhood wonder of discovering a classic Disney cartoon. I went back to see Avatar a second time, and was struck that the 3-D was most effective when the action slowed to a virtual standstill. There’s a scene in Pandora’s bioluminescent forest where jellyﬁsh-like spores from the moon’s sacred tree ﬂoat down to tickle the blue limbs of the story’s avatar hero. Which sounds ridiculous on the page. But it’s a Tinker Bell moment of transcendent beauty. You can sense the collective awe in the theatre—time has stopped and we’re in the movie.
It’s as if Cameron, a veteran deep-sea diver, has transformed the screen’s ﬂat rectangle into an aquarium and asked us in for a swim, with 3-D glasses serving as scuba gear. The ﬂying sequences are exhilarating—and oceanic, as Na’vi natives ride bareback on giant birds that swoop over cliffs like manta rays grazing coral reefs. But Avatar’s stereoscopic vision goes beyond optics. With performance-capture technology that erases the line between live action and animation, the actors teleport their performances into another dimension; they, like their characters, drive avatars.
The ﬂattest thing about the movie is the script. Cameron’s saga of a Marine who goes native in an alien world, leading an aboriginal revolt against U.S. military invaders, is a humourless pastiche cobbled from virtually every hoary, heroic myth Western culture has to offer. Avatar wants to be Dances With Wolves, Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey all at once. But in a world of wall-to-wall irony, the ﬁlm’s earnest sentiment comes as a tonic. The state-of-the-art anachronism feels weirdly fresh, as if the entire movie is an avatar—a high-tech Trojan Horse hiding a 19th-century colonial romance.
And that’s all part of its industrial alchemy. Cameron never liked nuance. Fuelled by Wagnerian ambition, his righteous anti-war epic wrestles our emotions to the ground with operatic force. We’re drawn into a jungle paradise only to see it destroyed in a Goya-like pageant of horriﬁc beauty. It’s profoundly sad, and the depth of the 3-D drives home the tragedy with a visceral impact. The second time I saw the ﬁlm, I found myself constantly on the verge of tears, as if the screen was exerting a tidal pull on the heart.
What’s most remarkable about Avatar is how Cameron created technology in order to demonize technology. In the process, he has reversed the engines of a blockbuster culture geared to loud, fast special effects. His movie proves that 3-D works best as an immersive medium: with the detail of that third dimension, the ﬁlm’s violent action scenes tend to get too busy. Avatar plays like a movie by a man at war with himself—a gun-loving tree-hugger addicted to machines who, like the hero who goes native, wants to ﬁght his way back to the garden. Now that he’s found it, action movies may never be the same.
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, December 23, 2009 at 7:19 AM - 14 Comments
Our critic includes ‘Up in the Air,’ ‘Avatar,’ and ‘Bright Star.’ You may want to disagree.
What a strange year it’s been at the multiplex. In real life, the biggest celebrity stories in 2009 were calamities that struck two black superstars: the King of Pop and the King of Golf. But onscreen, African-Americans played inspirational heroes defying vast odds—the abused teen saved by literacy in Precious; the homeless musician saved by a newspaperman in The Soloist; the homeless football player adopted by a white family in The Blind Side; and Nelson Mandela using a rugby team to heal the wounds of apartheid in Invictus. These Oscar-buzzed titles are all rousing tales trafficking in the triumph of the human spirit. Yet oddly enough, for all their powerful performances and heavy themes, these earnest dramas lacked weight. And, as it turns out, none of them has landed on my Top 10 list.
I was, however, wowed by the most earnest spectacle of all—Avatar’s rainforest fable of blue-skinned aboriginal aliens. Any Top 10 list is subjective, and it’s an uneven playing field. Some titles I saw nine months ago, some last week. Until you see a film twice, you can never be sure. But here are the movies that made the deepest impression at the time, and that I’d be happy to see again. The order is whimsical, but the list happens to begin and end with movies directed by Canadians.
By Colby Cosh - Monday, December 21, 2009 at 1:50 PM - 20 Comments
A strong late entry in the “significant word of 2009″ sweepstakes would be the noun and verb “conlang”. A conlang is any consciously constructed language; familiar examples include “auxlangs” developed in earnest for international use, like Esperanto, but the hot new conlang is the tongue developed for the giant soft-porn Smurfs in James Cameron’s Avatar by business professor and linguist Paul Frommer.
The best-known precursors of the Na’vi language are Marc Okrand’s Klingon language for Star Trek and the various fictional-poetic tongues developed by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a philologist whose fictive universe seems to have been a consuming spiritual vocation that accidentally generated the Lord of the Rings books as side effects. Assigning features of real human languages to the tongues of different imaginary races came naturally to him, and he probably never anticipated that these languages would become objects of passionate study and popular extension. Okrand was hired to add realism to the Trek universe, building on a small vocabulary base devised for thespian purposes by James Doohan, but he probably knew from a start that there might be a nice little sideline in it.
What’s different now is that a conlang like Na’vi is an anticipated feature of big science-fiction projects. People would have been discouraged and hostile if James Cameron hadn’t hired a linguist. Avatar was released three days ago and fans are already pleading with Frommer for the information that will let them learn Na’vi and speak it with fellow fans. For nerds, the complexity built into Na’vi is a feature, not a bug. Like Elvish and Klingon, Frommer’s language has some un-English features, like grammatical infixes, that make it particularly “alien” to English-speaking viewers but that are found often enough in the “wild”, the world of non-constructed human languages, to be convincing.
Indeed, if there is a problem with Na’vi as an pure exercise in exobiology, it is probably the inherent human-ness necessitated by the use of human actors. If we ever do run across sentient creatures ten feet tall, their design is likely to be unrecognizable and surprising. Just for starters—well, there’s an old engineering joke about God’s curious choice to put a sewage system in a recreational area, but surely having our talk-hole be our eat-hole is an even clumsier kludge?
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 3:03 PM - 18 Comments
I was fully expecting to dislike Avatar. Having donned the 3-D glasses on “Avatar Day” in August, and watched the 15-minute preview on an IMAX screen, I was left unimpressed. I thought it looked too juvenile, too “cartoony.” The Fern Gully comparison made in the YouTube Downfall satire seemed all too true. But now that I’ve seen the whole thing, I’ve changed my tune. Sure, the dialogue is wooden and the story is generic and derivative, but in spite of that, Avatar doesn’t suck; it rocks. Despite the odd amusing catch phrase (often containing the word “bitch”), you don’t go to a James Cameron movie for the dialogue. It’s all about spectacle—the action and the art direction. And no matter what the Most Expensive Movie Ever Made eventually cost — estimates range from US$240-$300 million — you don’t come out of it wondering where Cameron spent the money. It’s all up on the screen. With his first fictional feature since Titanic blew all box-office records out of the water 12 years ago, the Canadian director has made good on the promise to create a game-changing movie. It’s also a game-like movie, one that borrows its avatar concept from video gaming and turns it into big-screen flesh. And as a skeptic who had always thought that inbreeding between movies and video games is a despicable trend that’s going to kill cinema, I was shocked to find myself exhilarated by Avatar.
While Cameron has made his name as an action director, here he reveals himself as a consummate visual artist. In designing the flora, fauna and blue aboriginals of this moon called Pandora, he has created a whole world from scratch. Well, not entirely from scratch—there are monsters that look like the demented offspring of a rhino and a hammerhead shark, and a lot of Pandora’s bio-luminescent jungle is clearly inspired from the director’s underwater explorations. Jellyfish are so cool. But what’s astonishing about this world is its beauty. When you combine that with the environmental message of saving the (alien) planet from Earth’s strip-mining colonial marauders, hard-core action buffs might wonder if James Cameron has gone soft. Clearly, the guy still loves the high-tech military hardware; he just can’t help himself. But Avatar shows us a filmmaker merrily at war with himself—a testosterone-loaded, gun-loving tree-hugger. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 9:10 AM - 2 Comments
James Cameron invents a new universe—and a new kind of filmmaking
Talking to James Cameron is daunting. He speaks with quick, coherent, unhesitating precision, as if he has a brain with a faster hard drive than the rest of us. So it takes a while to get up the nerve to ask him about the YouTube video of Adolf Hitler trashing Avatar. A scene ripped from the much-spoofed 2004 film Downfall shows the Führer in his bunker during the last days of the Third Reich. The German dialogue is subtitled to turn Hitler into a James Cameron fan who’s crushed that the Avatar trailer sucks. “I wait 10 years for a f–king Captain Planet with cats!” he screams. “Cameron has spent too much time underwater. He should have left the remake of FernGully: The Last Rainforest to Lucas.”
The spoof is just one example of a fierce online backlash against Avatar that’s been raging ever since 15 minutes of Cameron’s 3-D opus were previewed last August. Next week, the highly anticipated blockbuster will be released worldwide—12 years after Cameron’s previous movie Titanic became the biggest hit of all time. So you’d expect its creator to be a bit jumpy. But when asked about the online jabs at Avatar, Cameron responds with affable good humour. “The Hitler one cracks me up,” he admits during a lengthy phone interview from Los Angeles. “It’s hysterical. I want to get a copy of it, but it’s on YouTube and I haven’t figured out how to download it—I’m not very technical.”
James Cameron is not very technical. Ha! That’s rich. These days, the 55-year-old Canadian, who studied physics at university, is as much a scientist as a filmmaker. When he makes a movie, he’s like a one-man nation going to war, inventing new weaponry to meet the task. To create the quicksilver villain in Terminator 2, he led a revolution in computer graphics. For Titanic, he built deep-ocean camera housings to explore the wreck at a depth of four kilometres. And for Avatar, he invented a 3-D camera rig and refined performance-capture technology—the digital voodoo that lets an actor, covered in electrodes, inhabit the body of a blue, 10-foot alien with a tail and cat ears on a distant moon called Pandora. But the question a lot of people are asking is, why?
By macleans.ca - Friday, November 27, 2009 at 9:30 AM - 1 Comment
So a blond walks into a courtroom, A royal plot goes for naught, and a partridge in a pear tree
Mississauga, Ont., native Jordan Wimmer cleared more than $1 million last year working for Nomos Capital, a London-based hedge fund. But all was not a bed of roses for the attractive, 29-year-old blond financier. Indeed, her blondness is at the heart of her $7-million wrongful dismissal suit against her multi-millionaire boss Mark Lowe. Sexist jokes, piggish behaviour and even an attempt to run her down on the street were part of a campaign of harassment, Wimmer testified last week. She told a London employment tribunal that Lowe made cutting personal remarks, emailed sexist “dumb blond” jokes throughout the office and cavorted in front of her with a stripper, causing her to suffer depression and an eating disorder. Lowe accused Wimmer of “gross distortions,” though he admits “entirely as a joke” to calling her “decorative” and a “dumb blond.” As for his emailed gag about a blond confusing a Corn Flakes box with a jigsaw puzzle, he says that “feeble joke” wasn’t told at her expense. Depending on the tribunal’s sense of humour, the joke may be on Lowe. Continue…