Sunday, March 25, 2012

Long Live the New Flesh

Few things this week made me quite as happy as this new film trailer:

I love the black-on-black titles with their sickly neon corona. I love the dark industrial electronica. I love the glimpses of a seedy urban underworld. I love the surrealistic violence, and I love the grit and grain of the camera stock that evokes the best Cult Cinema of the 1980s.

According to DuckDuckGo, Cosmopolis is Greek for 'Universe City' or 'Order City'. It is also the name of a 2003 novel by North American satirist Don Delillo about A Day in the Life of a bored American billionaire, as he travels in his limousine through a disaster-hit New York on his way to have his hair cut. I have not yet decided whether or not to read the novel before I watch the film (as I surely will), it being the latest cinematic outing of one of my favourite writer-directors.

David Cronenberg made his name in the late 1970s and early 1980s making relatively low-budget Canadian body-horror movies, during what is sometimes referred to as the 'plastic reality' era - an unimaginatively primitive time in which special effects crews worked with latex and cellulose to create practical and physical effects. Anti-pixel activists look back on that time as a Golden Age that gave birth to An American Werewolf in London, The Thing and Dawn of the Dead.

The Sui Generis of plastic reality, however, was David Cronenberg, who elevated visual metaphor to the status of Art in the low-rent but high-minded Videodrome; and achieved mainstream commercial success with The Fly (1986), for which Jeff Goldblum should have won the Best Actor Oscar.

In recent years, Cronenberg has used his considerable talents to tell stories about less outre subject matter - unassuming diner proprietors who may or may not be what they seem; murky Russian gangsters living in a modern, shadow London; and the historical tussle of ideas between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud (A Dangerous Method). Cronenberg insists that he does not care about his previous films; his only thought is to give his present project 'what it needs'. Cronenberg is serious about the idea of film as Art.


As a fan of the early, funny ones (sic) I am pleased to see Cronenberg return to the exploding heads, vaginal stomachs (see Videodrome) and horrific metamorphoses of the past. It is the rigour with which he addresses science-fiction subject matter that so inflames the imaginative intellect.

Some will carp at the casting of Robert Pattinson, but, from a hard-headed economic perspective, his casting is a very wise business decision. The thought of innocent Twi-hards (for whom the names Cronenberg and DeLillo mean nothing) going to see Cosmopolis on the basis of Pattinson's presence alone makes me smile a wicked smile. 

(((Supplemental: If Pattinson can do Cosmopolis for Cronenberg, how about casting him as Case in Neuromancer?)))

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dark Shadows Indeed

When did the star of offbeat oddities like Cry Baby, Ed Wood, Dead Man, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and and Ninth Gate decide to become Hollywood's Dial-a-Weirdo? Depp hasn't been the same since Pirates of the Caribbean - a performance that garlanded an unexpected Oscar nomination and global fame and fortune. Previously, Depp rebelled against the Matinee Idol status accorded him by the success of 21 Jump Street in the 1980s, working with John Waters on Cry Baby and Tim Burton on Edward Scissorhands. Now, Depp is set to play Tonto for Disney in a US$200 million reboot of The Lone Ranger...

The trailer for Dark Shadows shows us all of the things we would expect from a new Burton-Depp collaboration - Depp dresses in a dandyish costume, wears white-face make-up and speaks in a declarative voice that calls to mind a hamming English thesp. The entire exercise is akin to a parody of just predictable Burton-Depp's quirky, offbeat style has become.

Naturally Depp's character is a Fish-Out-Of-Water or, more specifically, a vampire out of time. Barnabus Collins was buried for 200 years  before being awoken in 1972 *cue T-Rex*. The voluptuous witch played by French beauty Eva Green is the one bright spark in what otherwise appears to be almost completely devoid of life.

Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, The Mad Hatter - ironically, some of Depp's worst performances have given him his biggest hits. What about helping old buddy Terry Gilliam get that Don Quixote film off the ground instead? :)

Back to the Beowulf

Robert Zemeckis has had a strange career. Starting out making low-budget oddities like I Want to Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, he was on the verge of being kicked out of Hollywood (figuratively speaking, of course) when Steven Spielberg (at the height of his commercial and artistic power) decided to produce yet another of Zemeckis' and writing partner Bob Gale's quirky B-movie ideas - this one about a time machine built into a car. Back to the Future went on to be the biggest box office hits of 1985 and was followed in 1987 with what is arguably Zemeckis' masterpiece - Who Framed Roger Rabbit - the first film to successfully blend live-action actors with animated characters (cell paintings, as opposed to CGI) in a real-world environment.

Two Back the the Future sequels and one CGI showcase - Death Becomes Her -  later, Tom Hanks and Oscar glory beckoned. Post-Gump Zemeckis found a new sandbox and via the 'miracle' of CGI performance capture cast Tom Hanks as every man and his dog in fun-for-all-the-family action-adventure The Polar Express (2004).

That brief sojourn through time brings us to 2007 and the realisation of a long-in-gestation Hollywood adaptation of the Norse myth of Beowulf. Once again using CGI performance capture, Beowulf does not descend as deeply into the Uncanny Valley as its forebear, The Polar Express, but the character models are still slightly Crash Test Dummy. Anthony Hopkins is recognisable as King Hrothgar and Crispin Glover is perfectly cast as the monster Grendel, but Ray Winstone is tasked with giving voice to a mannequin that far more closely resembles Sean Bean, while Angelina Jolie's non-specific Continental European accent is never less than distracting.

The film's trump card is the fact that at least some of the sense of Myth and Heroes survives the  adaptation of the Epic Poem for a modern cinema audience. The attempts to portray Beowulf as a flawed man ring hollow, but the fantastical threat of Sea Monsters at The Edge of the World tap into Mankind's primal fears and desires in a way that even Hollywood executives and CGI cannot entirely erase.

At the other end of the scale, one laugh-out-loud funny fight scene that depicts our hero, Beowulf, starkers, dancing between chalices, goblets and dismembered limbs to hide his shame, calls to mind a 5th century Austin Powers - 'yeah, baby!' - hardly the stuff of Legend.

The film zips along and is enjoyable enough, but it does come anywhere near evoking the portentous power of an ancient poem that has survived for centuries. Zemeckis did a better job making people believe that a if a Delorean were to ever reach 88 MPH it would travel through time. 'Great Scott!'

Thursday, March 15, 2012

John Carter... of Mars

Nowhere is the gulf between filmmaking and the film industry more vast than in Hollywood, a place where big business, high-tech and artistic talent come together to create big spectacle unlike anything made anywhere else in the world. Science fiction author Bruce Sterling speaking in 2005 summed up modern Hollywood fantasy filmmaking thusly: "I'm a technie and a tech journalist so I'm just really interested in how they get those pixel on the screen, and I think that is the most important thing in modern science fiction filmmaking". This acerbic but possibly accurate point of view offers a crucial insight into the critical reaction towards Disney's latest tentpole release John Carter, formerly John Carter of Mars.

Almost the least interesting aspect of the John Carter project seems to be the film itself; the Blockbuster economics are interesting - look at all those zeros! - the technology is interesting - look at all those CGI creatures and environments! - the choice of casting is interesting - no big star? - the film's long and fraught development is interesting - there have been dozens of mooted versions stretching all the way back to the 1930s when Looney Toons director Bob Clampett convinced Edgar Rice Burroughs it would be feasible to bring his strange vision to the silver screen in the form of a feature length cartoon (had it been made, John Carter of Mars would have beaten Snow White & the Seven Dwarves to become the World's First Feature Length Animated Film - how about that for an interesting alternative reality?) Not to mention numerous subsequent live-action attempts by the likes of Ray Harryhausen, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau. Presently, it seems like the Andrew Stanton film is near the bottom of a large pile of interesting things about John Carter

This is, of course, a shame.

Stanton himself is an interesting choice of director. Credited as a writer on all three Toy Story films, director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, Stanton is one of the highest ranking people at Pixar, probably the most successful movie studio in the world right now. The fact that Disney was willing to hand over US$250-plus to a first-time live-action director is as strong an endorsement as anyone could hope to recieve in recognition of their talents, not to mention a thrillingly bold move on the part of Disney, especially on a project as complicated as John Carter, where so many disparate elements need to be brought together. Not least amongst them is that fact that the film has reconcile the competing ideologies of a pulpy science fiction source with elements of Dune, elements of Superman (both of which it preceded, the first novel in the series having been published 100 years ago this year) and a spiky late-Victorian sensibility, with the demands of a special effects spectacular produced under the Disney brand and intended to appeal to the widest possible audience. Does one stick closely to the source and risk alienating a modern audience or does one 'modernise' the text, filling it with one-liners, hero arcs and genre cliches?

James Cameron achieved a not entirely dissimilar alchemy with Avatar, creating a film that appealed to both hard-core science fiction fans and general movie goers alike, at least enough to get into the theatre. The bottom line is: Avatar did the numbers. John Carter (so far) has not. The crucial difference is that Avatar was not based on a pre-existing source; it was the product of James Cameron's imagination and at least 10 years of hard work by concept artists, production designers and computer animators. Also, from what I have read, James Cameron is a pretty belligerent character (to put it mildly); he certainly comes across in interviews and press conferences as superconfident and forthright in his decision making - and with Avatar, Titanic, True Lies, Terminator 2, and Aliens under his belt, he has earned an almost complete autonomy in Hollywood.

Andrew Stanton has had commercial successes - big ones - but he is not James Cameron. Oddly for a major studio, Disney took a chance on him anyway, granting him an almost unprecedented level of creative control to develop a passion project based on a character that is not well known (outside a very small group of passionate fans), that does not have a major star and that is not based on a theme park ride, a computer game, a toy range or a well known comic book - and how do the critics and commentators who decry Hollywood's 'cookie-cutter' mode of filmmaking which churns out sequel after sequel, how do these guardians of the common wheel reward this boldness? They do everything in their power to denigrate and ridicule and belittle a simple fantasy adventure.

The expectation of a mega-flop was being reported on even before the box office numbers were in, and so entrenched was the common mass media position, even when the film opened with a respectable (though not great in the context of mega-budget movies) US$100 million worldwide, the narrative was still that John Cater was a flop akin to Heaven's Gate or Ishtar, which it patently is not.

Before I get into describing the peculiar vindictiveness of the backlash against the film, I would first like to express a point of solidarity with the critics. The film's marketing campaign was bodged and bungled from the outset to the point that the studio could not even decided on what the film should be called. Initially changed from the Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars to John Carter of Mars, so as to avoid alienating young boys - wrong-headed, but I can see a certain logic - the name of the film was then changed again to John Carter under the ludicrous pretext that the filmmakers wanted to avoid 'accidentally' labeling the movie as sci-fi and closing it to wider audience. This is nonsensical for at least two reasons. Firstly, almost all of the highest grossing films of all time could be labelled as 'sci-fi' or at least fantasy: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean. The only exception is Titanic. Secondly, because the name John Carter doesn't mean anything to most people. Call a film Tarzan (Edgar Rice Burroughs' most famous creation) and most people will know what it is. 'Oh, there's a new Tarzan movie coming out. Do I want to see it? Yes/No.' John Carter on the other hand has no cultural cache what so ever and the inability of the marketing folks to explain the legacy of the books and of the character to a wider audience (a tricky task, I know) is in no small part to blame for the film's lackluster opening weekend, in America in particular. Calling the film John Cater of Mars would have got people half way there.

But wait, here is the bizarro-world Hollywood explanation of what the film could not be called John Carter of Mars: films with Mars in the title don't make money. *raised eyebrow* Since 1995 we have had Mars Attacks!, My Favourite Martian, Mission to Mars, Red Planet, John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, Martian Child and, last year, Mars Needs Moms - all of which flopped - and Disney has probably learned this 'lesson' better than any other studio because they made three out of seven.

Lackluster marketing and poor 'brand recognition' however, do not explain the level of scorn being poured on John Carter. It is not that critics seem to dislike the film (that is to be expected, isn't it?), it is that a large proportion of the press seem to be willing John Carter is to flop. In much the same way that The Industry decided that Arnie (Last Action Hero) and Costner (Waterworld) needed to be taken down a peg or two, now it seems to be Disney and Andrew Stanton's turn for a kicking. The most 
disquieting aspect of the backlash is the level of animus towards what is seemingly an old-fashioned adventure story and the condemnation of the filmmaker's 'hubris' for daring to spend so much money on something so trivial.

Now we delve into the psychology so, hold your nose and follow me. The implicit implication in all of the greatly exaggerated reports of the film's box office failure is that Disney shouldn't be spending such an obscene amount of money on its films and that the studio therefore deserves to loose its shirt - we, the public, will have performed a moral act by bringing this bloated juggernaut to its knees. If an audience can deny just one of these ravenous Hollywood beasts the vast quantities of money that a they deem to be unearned, they will have re-asserted their power over what they see as an oppressive Hollywood system, at least in a small way, and be able to feel better about themselves for their victory. The irony is that John Carter (love it or hate it) is one of the most creatively adventurous films produced by one of the Big Six Hollywood studios in many a moon. Critics claim to want originality, then when they are presented with it, they rail against it and dismiss it as not following the tried and trusted formulas that they claim to dislike. And anyone who doubts Andrew Stanton's sincerity about his love of the John Carter mythos need only watch this video. You might not like the film he made, but he really does mean it when he says he made it 'for himself'.

For those reasons, I think that the work of hundreds of creative people over a number of years is deserving of a little bit more respect, or at least understanding of the craft. Should Disney adopt a different 'tentpole' strategy and make more and cheaper movies? That is a strategic business decision for the studio, and one I am sure it will be looking at very closely following this debacle. But the idea that it would be good if John Carter fails is wrong, even if you really didn't like the film. Last year saw the release of more sequels than any previous year on record, and nine of those 10 were the highest grossing films of the year. That is a pretty sorry state of affairs. With Battleship (a film based on the board game battleships) coming out later in the year, and still more Transformers sequels in the pipeline, there are cynical exploitative cash-ins far more deserving of your vitriol and boycott (I'll say it now - when the new Transformers film comes out, don't go, you only encourage them to make more) but John Cater is not one of them. Misjudged, mismarketed, maybe it is even a bad film, but the earnest endeavour of the artists involved in bringing Barsoom to life deserve more than brazen dismissal.

Ultimately, I think the filmmakers may have been set a nigh on impossible task - to adapt what is clearly a genre piece of niche genre fiction into a mass market Blockbuster. I will find out for myself and report back soon; until that time, I reserve my judgement.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

If it Walks Like a Duck and it Quacks Like a Duck...

I remember clearly the first time I used Google. I sat down in front of a workstation in one of my school's many computer labs and immediately loaded up Yahoo, still the search engine of choice at the time. At least, I thought it was. As I looked along the row, I saw that all of my friends had loaded up a page with a white background, brightly coloured lettering and a search box. "What's that?" I asked. "Google". I typed the URL into the browser and the rest of the story could not be even remotely described as history.

Google became my default search engine, and not without reason. Before Google, I would use Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos, AskJeeves and AOL. All gave different results and all were equally bad. Google was just better.

Since that time, Google has come to dominate 'search', with over 60 percent market share in the US and a still higher percentage in much of Europe. The utility of Google meant that when people picked it as a search engine they tended to stick with it. I had certainly fallen into that pattern myself.

Not withstanding recent changes to Google's privacy policy, which will enable the company to share data across multiple platforms, the amount of personally identifiable information Google collects about its users has been a longstanding concern. I understand that Google does not share this data with third-parties (as is made clear in its Privacy Policy) but with Google Search, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google StreetView, Google Earth, Google Voice, Google Android, Google+ and more, the range of information to which Google has access is vast.

The major issue then is one of trust. Can Google be trusted to act responsibly with sensitive, personal and private information?

In 2010, Google admitted that its StreetView cars had "mistakenly" collected WiFi data from unsecured private networks. Then there was Google Buzz, which automatically made user's contacts public, and the Android GPS tracking controversy - both undertaken without users' permission - not to mention the cavalier way in which Larry Page managed the sensitive ownership and rights issues surrounding Google Books.

I understand that Google is a big company and that the top execs can't keep tight control over every aspect of its day-to-day operations. It could be argued that such "mistakes" or "leaks" are an intrinsic part of doing business on the web. Indeed, the most troubling aspect of the Google/Facebook business model is the 'normalisation' of universal surveillance and the idea that surrendering your privacy for a life inside of Foucault's Panopticon is a reasonable price to pay for free digital goods and services. I think users have a right to expect better from the company that adopted "don't be evil" as its unofficial corporate motto.

Luckily, alternatives are beginning to emerge.

DuckDuckGo could scarcely be clearer about the fact that it "does not collect or share personal information". Those few short words are the essence of the company's Privacy Policy, which includes a detailed technical description of why users should care. There are, of course, many more persuasive philosophical and political arguments why privacy is an essential aspects of Freedom, Liberty and Justice. I am not expert enough to know how Google and DuckDuckGo compare in terms of search (both are clearly at the higher end of the market), but, DuckDuckGo is right to recognise that user privacy is more important than search utility.

So, in the spirit of free enterprise advocated by Google Executive Chairman, Dr Eric Schmidt - when challenged on the issue of Google's market dominance and 'creepy' user profiling, Schmidt repeatedly counters that competition on the Internet is "only one click away" - I am exercising my consumer choice. Until Google acts in a way that accords user privacy the priority I believe it deserves, I will be using - If it Walks Like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck... - A description of the reasons why DuckDuckGo is preferable to Google for users who are concerned about online privacy

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Life of Pi

The UK has a rich heritage in computing, British hardware and software engineers having played a vitally important role in both the theory (mathematician Alan Turing) and practice (electrical engineer Tommy Flowers) of developing the world's first programmable electronic computer – Colossus – which was used to break the German Enigma code during World War II.

The UK was also home to a number of pioneering technology companies during the home computing revolution of the 1980s. Sinclair Research, headed by eccentric British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair, released a series of products that sold for considerably less than anything produced by major American companies such as IBM and Apple. The ZX80 and ZX Spectrum introduced a generation of British youngsters to the concept of computer programming and the BBC Micro, produced by Acorn Computers (which also developed the ARM processor now favoured by mobile computing devices including the Apple iPhone), was subsidised by the British government to carry on the learning in school. The DIY approach that was prevalent in the 1980s is widely credited with inspiring the software engineers that went on to make the UK a global hub for the computer games industry, developing international hit games such as the Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto series.

Since that time, British companies have continued to innovate but the industry has fared less well. Government education policy has singularly failed to inspire a new generation of British software engineers, a fact that was recognised by former Google CEO, now Executive Chairman, Dr Eric Schmidt during his keynote speech at the annual MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh in August 2011. He said, the country that “invented computers in both concept and practice” risked “throwing away [its] great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming in schools. “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in UK schools,” he said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made.”

The Raspberry Pi Foundation, a British not-for-profit company established by Eben Upton, Robert Mullins and a group of like-minded Cambridge academics, is now aiming to address those concerns and reinvigorate computer education. The aim is to provide every child in Britain with a credit-card sized PC board with simple components and a limited instruction set – costing just £22 – to encourage an understanding of electronics, coding and the relationship between the two. Modern games consoles, smartphones and tablet computers are monolithic devices that limit and discourage programmability. The Raspberry Pi, on the other hand, embodies the traditional 'hacker' ethic and encourages people to learn and play.

Sceptics have said that people do not need or want to know how to program – comparatively few people understand engines, yet most people are happy to drive cars. The Raspberry Pi is clearly not for those people. The device is designed to appeal to people with an imagination, who understand the potential that computers embody. Most of the biggest industries in the world rely on software engineering to some degree, and in an increasingly digital media landscape understanding how to program may one day become part of basic literacy.

Imaginative children in their bedrooms keying in BASIC on their ZX Spectrum were the future computer industry innovators and significant numbers of people are already being enthused by the same ideology, as embodied by the Raspberry Pi. The first batch of ARM-powered devices went on sale at 06:00 on Wednesday 29th February 2012 and sold out within minutes.

Will Raspberry Pi be a worthy inheritor of the Spectrum and Acorn Computers legacy? As we all know, the proof of the pudding is in the eating!

Find out more at the Raspberry Pi Foundation website.