By Kate Lunau - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - 0 Comments
You don’t have to be a scientist or a naval officer to explore the ocean’s depths
What do you get for the billionaire who has everything? Maybe a new toy for the mega-yacht, like a tiny submarine. For the ultra-rich, the deep sea is now the most exclusive of playgrounds.
This week Triton Submarines will show off its line of personal subs, complete with comfy seats, air conditioning and transparent acrylic hulls for that eye-popping view, at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
The Vero Beach, Fla., company makes four different models that can be launched from boats. The smallest is just 3.2 m long, meaning it won’t take up too much space on the deck. The battery-powered submersibles, which stay underwater for several hours, can carry two or three passengers, including a pilot, to depths from 300 to 1,000 m. “Tritons are designed to be highly intuitive to operate,” says Marc Deppe, vice-president of sales and marketing. With a few weeks of training, owners can learn to pilot the vessel themselves.
By macleans.ca - Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 11:57 AM - 0 Comments
James Cameron filmed the first-ever video footage of the Mariana Trench
This clip includes some of the first ever video footage of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the Earth’s surface. it was taken by James Cameron in his state-of-the-art submersible at the bottom of the Mariana Trench during his historic DEEPSEA CHALLENGE scientific expedition on March 26, 2012 (a joint partnership between Cameron, National Geographic and Rolex).
Check out our Maclean’s feature article, James Cameron’s great dive for mankind
Video Courtesy National Geographic.
By Kate Lunau - Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 4:53 AM - 0 Comments
The Canadian-born filmmaker takes a sub of his own design to the deepest place in the ocean
Update: James Cameron completed the first solo dive to the furthest depth of the world’s oceans on Monday, diving more than 11 km into the Mariana Trench, in the western Pacific Ocean. The enterprise, though, wasn’t entirely successful, as a hydraulic failure forced an early end to the mission. See here for more details.
To the tight-knit community of deepwater explorers, the deepest point in the world’s oceans is referred to as “Ocean Everest.” But Challenger Deep, a chasm at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Paciﬁc, is deep enough to swallow the world’s tallest mountain whole. As of last week, only two people had ever ventured into it; by contrast, 12 have been to the moon. In 1960, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and then-U.S. Navy lieutenant Don Walsh took a vessel called the Trieste more than 11 km down and stayed 20 minutes before returning to the surface. As Maclean’s went to print Tuesday, Canadian ﬁlmmaker James Cameron was set to become the third, in a sub of his own design.
For the man who made Titanic and Avatar, the two highest-grossing ﬁlms in history, visiting the bottom of the Mariana Trench has been an ambition as tremendously outsized (and vainglorious, some would say) as his sprawling, epic ﬁlms. But it’s a goal he’s quietly pursued for years. “People think he’s doing it for the movies, for the publicity,” says Cameron’s long-time friend Phil Nuytten, president and founder of Nuytco Research Ltd. in Vancouver, whose subs were used in Cameron’s 1989 ﬁlm The Abyss. “Not at all. The stuff he’s done has never been done before.” Cameron has said in the past his main motivation is curiosity.
Last week, Cameron and his team arrived on the tiny island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Paciﬁc, and waited out powerful 30-knot winds for calmer seas. On Monday evening, they boarded a ship called the Mermaid Sapphire and set out for the patch of ocean above Challenger Deep, carrying Cameron’s high-tech sub. It is the size of a stretch limousine, but not a luxurious ride: if the dive goes according to plan, the filmmaker will squeeze himself into the tiny pilot sphere (a shape that can resist the crushing pressure of the deep sea), a ﬁt so tight he can barely move his arms and must fold his legs up against his chest. Barring technical difficulties or bad weather, more than 1,000 lb. of steel weights held in place by electromagnets will pull the sub vertically downwards in a slow, spinning motion.
There, Cameron will ﬁnd an environment as strange as the science ﬁction worlds he creates on ﬁlm. With its ferocious pressure and near-freezing temperatures, the bottom of the Mariana Trench is more like another planet than anywhere else on Earth. With the advantage of a series of thrusters controlled by a joystick, Cameron will propel himself along the ﬂoor, using 3D high-deﬁnition cameras and other scientiﬁc tools to capture images of his surroundings, documenting bizarre species and even retrieving samples. The plan is to explore the bottom for six hours; after that, with the ﬂick of a switch, the sub’s steel ballast will fall to the ocean ﬂoor, allowing its buoyancy to lift him back to the surface. Cameron’s ears won’t pop once: the sub’s interior is pressurized.
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 Brian D. Johnson - Friday, February 4, 2011 at 5:00 PM - 0 Comments
This weekend I’m looking at a couple of movies—one big, one small—that are essentially about claustrophobia: Sanctum, a 3-D IMAX thriller about cave divers who get in over their heads; and Oliver Sherman, a Canadian-made, small-town Gothic drama about a couple who get stuck with a creepy house guest. Sanctum is a cheesy, overblown, badly-scripted melodrama with some good action sequences. Oliver Sherman is a spare, tense character drama that’s well acted and artfully shot, though endowed with a narrative that makes such a virtue of restraint it feels a bit thin. You might say one movie has too much story, the other two little.
The past year has seen a wave of trapped-in-a-hole thrillers. Aside from the real-life saga of the Chilean miners, we’ve seen Ryan Reynolds stuck in a coffin in Buried, and James Franco pinned by a boulder at the bottom of a canyon in 127 Hours. And perhaps the only thing scarier than being trapped underground is being trapped underwater underground—which is the situation faced by the cave divers in Sanctum. Cave divers, in case you didn’t know, are scuba divers who like to swim through underwater caverns and wriggle through tight openings like moray eels. I’m a sucker for movies that require actors to wear wet suits and use sign language while their eyes bulge out in panic from behind a mask. I’m old enough to have been raised on Sea Hunt, the old black-and-white TV series starring Lloyd Bridges (father of Jeff). And what I like about seeing actors work underwater is they can’t fake it. They have to know how to swim, breathe through a tube, and clear their mask. Diving dramas have come a long way from Sea Hunt, and the underwater action sequences in Sanctum are impressive. The drama, not so much. The biggest star associated with Sanctum is James Cameron, the world’s leading pioneer of both 3-D and underwater movie-making. And given the prominence of his name in the promo, you’d think he directed it. But Cameron simply gave the movie his blessing as executive-producer and provided the 3-D camera gear that he developed for Avatar.
Sanctum was written and produced by Andrew Wight, who has worked with Cameron on 3-D documentaries for the past decade, including Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss. And it was directed by Australia’s Alister Grierson, who made a small but successful World War II combat picture called Kodoka, set in New Guinea. That’s also the setting for Sanctum, which is loosely based on Wight’s own cave-diving experience, in 1988, of being trapped in an cavern after a freak storm caused the entrance to collapse. That’s what happens to the characters in this movie, who are exploring the world’s largest cave system when a tropical storm triggers a flash flood that seals the entrance, leaving them no choice but to find their way out to the sea through a labyrinth of underwater caves.You’d think that would be story enough. But the filmmakers have added a rickety superstructure of a plot. There’s a bitter conflict between a 17-year-old Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and his spartan father, Frank (Richard Roxburgh), who we are told, via the clunky dialogue, is “the most respected explorer of our time—he’s like Columbus.” There’s also a stock villain, a tycoon adventurer named Carl, portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) in B-movie showpiece of bad acting.
Some of the underwater action sequences are genuinely gripping. But the 3-D seems less than state-of-the-art. In some scenes it’s downright diorama-like, with layered planes of action, which is surprising given that it bears the James Cameron pedigree. But worst of all, when the actors take off their diving masks and start to talk, the drama is strictly 1-D.
Based on the short story Veterans by Rachel Ingalls, this deft feature debut by Canadian writer-director Ryan Redford is the simple tale of a peaceful family being threatened by a scary and unknowable outsider. Its chief pleasures like in the fine-tuned performances of its three principals—American actor Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood, The Road ) and two Canadians, Dillahunt’s Deadwood co-star Molly Parker and Donal Logue (The Tao of Steve, Zodiac). It may seem fitting that an American is cast as the menacing stranger, while the two Canadians play the placid couple whose life he invades, but the story is set in a rural-gothic limbo, without the nationality of the characters or the setting ever being identified.
Sherman (Dillahunt) and Franklin (Logue) are both veterans of an unnamed war. Franklin saved Sherman’s life and received a medal for his efforts; Sherman has a long scar down the back of his skull, and a head injury that seems to have left a permanent mark on his behaviour. One day, out of the blue, Sherman shows up at Franklin’s door, stays for dinner, stays the night, and soon becomes a disturbing fixture. He spends his days at the town library reading books about war, and spends his nights in the bar with Franklin, raking over the past. Franklin has a job, a devoted wife (Parker) and two young kids; Sherman is a drifter with no loved ones, no future and a simmering jealousy of his friend’s normal life. Sherman still carries his army bayonet, and there’s a certainty that it—like the proverbial gun introduced in a play—will eventually be used. But perhaps not quite as we expect.
Parker is especially effective as Irene, Franklin’s wife, whose warmth is gradually frayed by fear. And Redford builds the tension with minimalist dialogue and thick silences. He’s a fan of Terrence Malick, and the influence shows in the stark compositions by Spanish cinematographer Antonio Calvache (Little Children). Composer Benoît Charest (Polytechnique) complete the austere mood. It’s becoming more common to see Canadians films that harness international talent and don’t feel the need to advertise their Canadian identity. The same can be said of Daydream Nation. Yet in both cases the setting still seems oddly authentic, not generic. In the end, what’s maybe most indelibly Canadian about Oliver Sherman is its shy introversion—and I’m not talking about the characters, but the narrative itself. The result is a kind of anti-melodrama, a movie that’s esthetically rich yet not entirely satisfying.
By macleans.ca - Friday, February 4, 2011 at 1:31 PM - 0 Comments
Check back every Friday for Brian’s take on the films opening each weekend
Special thanks to Toronto’s Magic Lantern Carlton Cinema
By macleans.ca - Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 12:42 PM - 5 Comments
Director wants to shoot movie at the ocean’s deepest point
Canadian film director James Cameron is gathering a team of engineers to build a submersible that can visit the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest point, to gather footage for the sequel to his blockbuster 2009 movie Avatar. Only one other team has ever visited the Mariana Trench: Captain Don Walsh, a US Navy submariner, and Jacques Piccard, a Swiss engineer, who descended for five hours in a steel submersible called the Trieste in January 1960. No one has ever tried to repreat the descent, until now. Cameron’s vessel is reportedly being assembled in Australia and tests on the hull are already completed; a trial dive might occur later this year. Cameron’s engineers are studying the Trieste’s descent, in which—less than an hour into it, at a depth of 4,200 feet—a dribble of water appeared on the wall. Another leak was sprung at 18,000 feet, which sealed itself again, and at 32,400 feet (deeper than Mount Everest is high) there was a crack and the vessel’s cabin shook. But they made it.
By macleans.ca - Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 4:40 PM - 1 Comment
Gifts we’d give to the most memorable personalities of the year
The new mom of twins gets two Metro Babycotpod cribs ($595), a “Bandit” Doll ($65) from Vancouver’s the Cross (ships across Canada) and a Hudson’s Bay blanket, to keep her Canuck roots strong. For René Jr., the start of a broader musical education: “Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings” (Columbia/Legacy, $130).
Infamous for her blood diamonds, compliments of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, the supermodel could use some conflict-free bling: ethically sourced sapphires and Canadian diamonds from Brilliant Earth ($1,150).
A tea kettle, of course. How about this Michael Graves design from Alessi, along with a sample of soothing herbal brews? As for all those righteous tears, Beck could use a fresh pile of Paul Smith handkerchiefs ($42), all 100 per cent woven cotton. This striped one is nice, though he might also like the white one that says: “Bless You.”
By Colby Cosh - Monday, October 4, 2010 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
How the oil sands industry tried to convince him it’s not all bad
Nature versus the machine: it’s the great theme of James Cameron’s visual poetry. He would have appreciated the vantage point that journalists and photographers had for his Hollywood-style arrival at Syncrude’s South Bison Hills reclamation area on Tuesday morning. As Cameron’s helicopter swooped in like a predator, showing off with lazy circles around the helipad, it set a nearby cluster of wood bison dashing off at a full-speed lope. Their brute power, as they fled nature’s self-appointed protector, was breathtaking. The contrast could not have been more Cameronian if he had been there, yelling, “Action!”
The man himself, clean-shaven and cheerful in his lime green Syncrude safety chapeau, disembarked from the chopper for a brief hike through Syncrude’s top environmental showcase. What was once a bitumen mine of the type that inspired the nickname “Canada’s Mordor” is now a mix of humdrum boreal forest, grassland and wetland. A modest little lake on the site teems with life. Once a traveller leaves the road behind, only the pen separating the Syncrude bison herd from their disease-bearing free-range fellow ungulates suggests a human presence on this land—land that, not long ago, was utterly eviscerated by petrocrats.
Cameron said little, but seemed impressed at how Syncrude had handled the problem of re-establishing biodiversity from scratch—a movie-director kind of problem, as he pointed out. After deflecting a few questions (“I’m still . . . finding out how all this works and getting my arms around it”), he was whisked off to view more oil sands vistas, ones carefully chosen to appeal to his green conscience.
By macleans.ca - Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 10:12 AM - 0 Comments
We’d still be stripping screws if it weren’t for Robertson, but we wouldn’t have the special effects we do without Cameron
Why he’s famous: He’s the inventor of the Robertson screwdriver—you know, the square-shaped one in your toolbox.
Why he deserves to win: Before Robertson’s invention in 1908, we were stuck with the slip-prone flat bladed driver and slotted-head screw, a combo notorious for causing injuries. Later, when the cross-shaped Phillips screw and driver were invented, Consumer Reports magazine declared the Robertson superior because Phillips’ screws are easily stripped and degrade with wear. As writer Witold Rybcynski put it, “no matter how old, rusty, or painted over, a Robertson screw can always be unscrewed. [It’s] the biggest little invention of the 20th century.”
Why he’s famous: The Terminator. Aliens. True Lies. Titanic. Oh, and those blue people in Avatar.
Why he deserves to win: Whether you like his movies or not, director James Cameron is a visionary. If the technology he needs to shoot a film doesn’t exist yet, he invents it. He initially dreamed up Avatar in 1995 and spent over a decade waiting for technology to catch up to his vision. His most notable invention is the 3-D camera that mimics human sight, revolutionizing the cinematic 3-D experience, and allowing the people behind the camera to observe the actors in their virtual forms. Now Cameron is working with NASA to incorporate that 3-D technology into a camera for the next Mars rover. Show off.
By macleans.ca - Friday, June 11, 2010 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
Pamela Anderson writes a letter to Putin, Japan gets a less embarrassing PM, plus a Lou Reed concert for dogs
It was Warrant Officer Russell Arsenault’s day to be honoured for service in Afghanistan, but it was his two-year-old daughter’s moment in the sun when she decided to stroll the aisle at a presentation ceremony at Rideau Hall and talk loudly to some of the assembled troops. Even the Governor General realized that young Rose Arsenault was stealing the show. So Michaëlle Jean stopped her speech, approached the little girl and asked, “Who’s your daddy?” After Rose was back in her seat, her proud papa received the Meritorious Service Medal.
And because he can see Canada from his house . . .
When Prime Minister Vladimir Putin banned the seal hunt in his native Russia, he won the heart of PETA spokesperson Pamela Anderson. After learning about his “fondness for animals,” she sent Putin an affectionate letter asking him to refuse seal-pelt imports from Canada. Meanwhile, Brooke Shields got no love from PETA after having a Danish mink coat made especially for her. A PETA blogger called her a “fur pimp,” but Shields was unapologetic: “I will wear the fur garment when I follow my children to school, when I drink coffee and when I sleep.”
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 - 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 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 11:58 AM - 21 Comments
This is a live-to-tape blog. Written in real time offline while watching the Golden Globe Awards and cleaned up (and tarted up) the morning-after so it’s less boring and at least semi-coherent. Gotta love the Globes. Acceptance speeches keep getting undercut by dark hints that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) is one of the more corrupt awards outfits on the planet, a cabal of obscure junketeers who are (ahem) prone to influence, even if it’s just face time with a superstar. But Hollywood has appropriated the HFPA’s event as a party and a publicity orgy. And for the stars, this dress rehearsal for the Academy Awards is way more fun and less formal than Oscar night. They can get loaded on champagne then let the emotions fly on the podium. Plus it brings together film and TV, even though the TV folk get treated like minor league players.
Our host, a TV genius who has made the jump to the big screen with a movie unrecognized by the Globes (The Invention of Lying), is Ricky Gervais. He comes out swinging. Takes repeated shots at Steve Carell, then plugs a boxed DVD set of The Office, his breakout BBC series, which he says is better than Carell’s U.S. spin-off. Carrel mouths “I’m going to kill you,” making a joke of it, but frankly, he looks unamused.
“I will be making the most of this opportunity,” says Gervais. “I’m not used to these viewing figures. Another is NBC.” [This will be the first of many swipes at the train-wreck network. The other constant reference to NBC is in the frequent pleas to donate to the Haiti relief effort. Presenters ritually ask viewers to go to NBC.com. So this morning I did go to NBC.com, expecting some serious hype for charity. What do you know, amid all the glitz ads promoting Jay Leno and various NBC programming triumphs, I found a tiny, unadorned "Donate to Haiti Relief" box , which takes up maybe two percent of the NBC home page.]
Gervais’s nothing-to-lose monologue veers into blue territory as he praises the great work done this year . . . by cosmetic surgeons, then talks about his penis reduction surgery. “Just got the one now. And it is very tiny. But so are my hands. So when I’m holding it, it looks pretty big. And let’s face it I usually am holding it. I wish I was doing that now, instead of this, to be honest.” 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 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…