Friday, July 27, 2012

Daring to Dream

The summer movie season, as we all know, is dominated by Blockbusters. This year that means a Spider-Man reboot, another Batman sequel, another Bourne sequel (minus Matt Damon) and a Total Recall remake with Colin Farrell replacing Arnie. This is to be expected I suppose, although, I do not always feel so sanguine about the parlous state of modern mainstream movie making. The problem with all of these films is that they do not exactly inspire anticipation or strong feelings of any kind, for that matter. Right or wrong, good or bad, most people have already made up their mind about what those films are going to be like.

But what about those entertainments that are not as easy to second guess?

The winter schedule, however, is shaping up rather differently. Typically dominated by awards worthies, this year, the Hollywood studios have backloaded many of their most colourful projects by their most visionary directors.

I don't expect all of these films to be good (in fact, I would wager that at least one of them will be an absolutely Turkey). Whenever you take a chance, you risk failure and even ridicule - ask Andrew Stanton. But risk is synonymous with creativity and it is really creative films that excite me most because, when the investment in time, money and effort pays off, the result is invaribly spectacular.

Here are 11 reasons why the Winter is better than the Summer:


The latest outing from Australian director John Hillcoat. Following hot on the heels of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and his feature film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road comes this story about criminal gangs and law enforcement officials in Prohibition era America. 


An outlandish but beguilingly simple premise - a young time travelling bounty hunter is hired to assasinate his older self. Story and characters are at the centre of every good film, regardless of genre and provided Rian Johnson gets those aspects right (as he has done in his previous two films, Brick and The Brothers Bloom) I think we can expect good things. Also, when Bruce Willis is good he is very good and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is about to become a big star. 

The Master

Do you like bleak existentialist dramas with great acting and exquisite Kubrickian direction? Well, step right up because boy do we have a show for you ladies and gentleman.

Rumoured to be P.T. Anderson's take on Scientology, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a proto L. Ron Hubbard offering pearls of wisdom to a troubled naval veteran played by Joaquin Pheonix.

Is everything what it seems? I doubt it very much.

After the towering performances and epic imagery of There Will Be Blood a few years ago, count me intrigued, even if I am more than a little apprehensive as well. The trailer is creepy as hell and I don't trust any of these people, although, I suspect that is probably the point.  

Cloud Atlas

This has unmitigated disaster written all over it. No. Wait. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It could equally be something very special indeed.

The first film since Speed Racer from the Wachowskis. And Tom Tykwer (most well known for helming Run Lola Run) to boot.

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant.

The biggest budget 'independent' film of all time. Most of the estimated US$130 million production cost came from German financiers, although the film has now been picked up for domestic (that is US) cinematic distribution by Warner Brothers.

An 'unfilmable' novel set over the course of 1,000 years, with the same actors playing multiple roles across five distinct time periods, Blackadder style.

If anyone can pull this off, it is probably the trio mentioned above.

Not many people liked Speed Racer. The Matrix sequels disappointed many. Was the original Matrix movie just a fluke? We're about to find out.


I was not looking forward to this very much until I saw the trailer.

It looks a little bit serious, but the promise of Ben Whishaw as Q and the presence of a Brit director in the form of Sam Mendes gives me hope that the finished film will find sufficient fun (what Bond is really meant to be) to conterpoint the brooding menace Daniel Craig plays so well.


Daniel Day-Lewis returns to our screens this year as the non-more iconic 16th President of the United States of America Abraham Lincoln in a film directed by non-more iconic beardy filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

There has been nary a peep about what the film is actually about - what parts of the Lincoln legend will be covered and in what fashion - but with a cast list that reads like a Who's Who of great character actors from the last 20 years, I am expecting nothing less than an historical epic in the tradition of Lawrence of Arabia.

Not asking too much is it?

Life of Pi

What an intriguing challenge Ang Lee has set for himself. How do you make an exciting and engaging adventure film set almost entirely on a boat that is lost at sea and occupied exclusively by a peasant boy and a Bengal tiger. If, through some strange alchemy, Lee can convince me that the premise is anything less than ludicrous, he will be richly deserving of the Oscar is likely to receive for his efforts.

The Hobbit

Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth twice more (or, if the rumours are to be believed, thrice more), this time will Martin Freeman in tow. Will The Hobbit be hampered by its association with the The Lord of the Rings epics and the desire to 'tie-in' with the original trilogy of films, or will it be allowed to stand or fall on its own merits and remain true to the more personal and adventurous (as opposed to portentous) spirit of Tolkien's earlier, sprightlier novel.

Jack Reacher

This is the only film on this list where the primary attraction is the star, as opposed to the director or the premise. Originally named after the first novel in the Jack Reacher series, One Shot, many fans of the book already feel alientated by the casting of Cruise as their treasured 6'5'' blonde bruiser. I have not read the books myself, but can understand perfectly well how Cruise's laser-like intensity could make up for his lack of height. 

Django Unchained

Back in the early 1990s, when so-called independent films were in danger of disappearing into Sundance-inspired self-indulgence, an ex-video store clerk made a movie about a bunch of small time hoods and a bank robbery gone wrong that reminded everyone what cinematic storytelling looks like when someone with a passion for the medium and a desire to express themselves gets a fresh script to the screen. Pulp Fiction won the Oscar but Reservoir Dogs was a landmark 'declaration of principles'.

Tarantino has not always delivered on that promise. Kill Bill works well in parts but was ultimately too baggy. Likewise, Inglorious Basterds has sequences that are among the best Tarantino has ever written, whereas some others probably should have probably been cut.

In spite of that, Tarantino remains one of the most readily identifiable and important voices in modern cinematic discourse.

Django Unchained is what Tarantino has himself described as a Southern. Set in the mythical American West at the turn of the 20th century, it tells the story of a black former-slave played by Jaime Fox, who is aided in his quest for vengeance by a German bounty hunter played by Christophe Waltz. The villain of the piece is Leonardo DiCaprio (whom Tarantino originally wanted to cast as Col. Hans Lander in Inglorious Basterds - the mind boggles) as an amoral slave owner called Calvin Candie.

The one big concern I had was the casting of Jaime Fox. At one point, there was talk of Will Smith Britain's very own Idris Elba taking on the mantle of Django. In the trailer, however, Fox is as smooth and charming as one has come to expect and not nearly as out-of-period-place as one might have feared.

An intriguing plot, witty dialogue and DiCaprio playing a villain for the first time.

Count me in.

The Great Gatsby

Another visionary director is planning to make a splash in December. Adapted from One of The Best Novels Ever Written, staring Leonardo DiCaprio (again!) as Gatsby, Baz Lurhmann is one director who will not cowed by audience expectation. For good or ill, Lurhmann goes his own way, whether you like it or not, and he knows what he is doing and why.

When it works - Romeo + Juliet - it is spectacular, but even when it doesn't - Australia - it is never less than interesting.

Mr Lurhmann is not to everybody's tastes. He paints on large canvasses in unashamedly broad
brushstrokes - not to say he cannot be subtle, he is a director in complete control of his craft. The fact that small-minded people who seek to dampen and dillute his vision because it does not accord with their personnel opinion of what is in 'good taste' is a sure sign that he is doing something right. That we should have such bold and daring artists working in a mainstream medium is a wonderful thing. The last thing anyone could fault is his ambition.

Go for it Baz!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How do you solve a problem like The Dark Knight?

"They may be drinkers Robin, but they are also human beings, and may be... salvaged."

Adam West's Batman was a wonderfully pompous stuffed shirt. Christian Bale's Batman is somewhere between long-term trauma victim and violent vigilante. How times change, eh?

I have so far managed to avoid all spoilers about the soon to be released The Dark Knight Rises. For their part, Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan have been playing their cards very close to their chests.

I have enjoyed both of the recent Batman movies up to a point, but, over the past few days, I have managed to convince myself out of looking forward to TDKR. I can already see the levees beginning buckle under the pressure, but, come Friday, the sluice gates will be opened and the cascading hype and critical adulation of a million newspaper articles, Twitter comments and Facebook posts will wash away any and all negative comment.

I would be very surprised if TDKR is not the biggest box office hit of the year. Even some of the least credulous people I know, invoke its name with a querulous tone. But I have not the heart to tell them what I really think.

Dare one hope that the film might live up to the hype? Are not my reservations those of a truculent fanboy who has had his fingers burned one too many times?

There is a grain of truth in that, but it is not my main point.

Do you remember when mainstream movies were fun? Actually fun. Not part of a mass marketed, fast food affiliated promotion machine, but actually capable of invoking a sense of genuine childlike wonder, of proffering an invitation to willingly suspend one's disbelief.

Maybe I am looking back through rose tinted specks, but before Hollywood hit upon its present formula of superheros and sequels, there was a space for proper storytelling. Films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Goonies and ET, among many, many others, promised young people a world of mystery, adventure and humour. That tradition of what have become films for a 'family audience' is continued today by the likes of Pixar, and, in a clumsy and illiterate manner by the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Then there was a quite separate realm of moviemaking reserved for adults, not in the sense of sex (although that might be part of the appeal), but in the sense of a story that addressed adult issues and offered the more discerning viewer something to sink their teeth into, even as they sat back and watched a crackerjack story unfold. Examples of the later might be All the All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, Marathon Man, The French Connection, The Godfather...These were certainly not made for children, but they were not stilted agitprop or European art cinema either, they were part of the mainstream American tradition of spinning a good yarn. 

In the 1990s, a strange thing happened. Films that were once intended for a limited audience of grown-ups started to merge with the family friendly blockbuster format to create the bloated behemoths that now clutter up our multiplexes, of which TDKR is just the latest example.

Arnold Schwarzenegger came to fame in the 1980s, starring in series of violent action that made more money on home video than they ever did at any cinema - Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Commando, Predator and Total Recall. This was new. Schwarzenegger was the poster boy for a certain type of hyperbolic action movie that had not excisted before the advent of VHS and the fact that he pulled it off with so much more style than any of the other wannabees that followed in his path meant that by the beginning of the 1990s, brand Schwarzenegger was big business.

At this point in his career, he returned to the character who had made him famous and the decision was to have fateful consequences. The Terminator has been a popular cult movie, talked about and passed around between the sorts of oddballs who used to watch Alex Cox present Moviedrome on BBC2. It was a B-movie, scorned by the mainstream. But from small seeds do mighty acorns grow and from so called muck and trash and garbage does Hollywood take most of its best ideas. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release and would go on to break box office records around the world. However, full admission into the maintream required that Schwarzenegger round down his few remaining sharp edges.

The result was a movie with more car chases, less (graphic) violence, less horror, less threat, less of a sense of menance and a creeping sentimentality that would come to replace seemingly all other forms of emotional engagement in mainstream cinema in the years that followed. Even though Terminator 2 was not a movie made for children, it was mercilessly marketed towards them - the action figures were advertised between Saturday morning kids cartoons and images from the movie featured prominently in children's comic books - and it shared the simple-minded morality of the most condescending kiddies fare. This odd muddying of the waters is directly related to the thoroughly confused state of affairs we enjoy (or otherwise) today, where all the big blockbusters seem to want to appeal to both children and adults at the same time.

TDKR is obviously not supposed to be taken seriously (it's Batman!), yet The Guardian and elsewhere want to tell us what it 'says' about the current 'state of the nation' - and for the sake of appearances or some sort of cod pseudo-scientific reason, people are supposed to pretend that any of this actually matters. Of course, it is a film for children (it's Batman!), yet it will undoubtedly feature prolonged sequences of (probaby quite sadistic) violence.

America no longer seems capable of making serious films or fun films, when what they once excelled at were films that did both. Hollywood didn't have the poetic yearning of Akira Kurasawa, or the 'mind forever voyaging' style sensibility of Andrei Tarkovsky, or the tragi-comedic melancholy of Frederico Fellini. Hollywood told stories, and it used to tell them rather well. It used to make films for both children and adults in a way that dared to appeal to a smaller audience; now that everything it makes costs US$100-plus, appealing to a smaller audience is no longer an option. Now it makes films that are inherently ludicrous (in itself no bad thing), but which trumpet their own seriousness and leave little room for humour, wit or an individual point of view. Inception is clearly supposed to be serious because nobody smiles. Even the trailers for TDKR are overflowing with portent.

Whatever happened to movies that are meant to be fun?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Global Network of Light and Glass

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet is a book written by Andrew Blum about the fundamental truth (too little understood) that the internet is not a single, amorphous mass or ‘web’ or even ‘cloud’, as so many corporate marketing departments have been determined to tell us over the last few years, but a physical system of copper and fibre-optic cables, routers, severs, network exchanges and data centres – all with a distinct geographical progeny.

The title of the book stems from a speech delivered by American Senator Ted Stevens in 2006, who described the internet as “a series of tubes” and was greeted by ridicule and derision for his ‘naïve’ and ‘anachronistic’ understanding of mankind’s most modern communications technology. It is Blum’s contention that Stevens was (in essence) spot on in his choice of metaphor.

Blum delves briefly into the history of the ‘network of networks’, describing the innovative work of early packet switching pioneers at the American Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and UK National Physical Laboratory. One of the first visits on his whirlwind tour of internet landmarks is UCLA and the office of Leonard Kleinrock, who was part of the largely graduate team that operated the world’s first IP network node on the university grounds – the first message sent via the internet was delivered down the phone line to Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in October 1969 – as part of what was then known as the ARPANET. This important area of recent technological history is covered in even more detail in John Naughton’s ‘A Brief History of the Future’ and Katie Hafner’s ‘Where Wizards Stay Up Late’.

At the heart of Blum’s analysis is the contention that the internet is not nearly as vast or sprawling as we are generally encouraged to think – the cover of practically every book about the internet depicts it as lines of light or webs of tangled connections. The ‘centre’ of the internet (if it has one) can in fact be found in a dozen or so network exchange buildings – the places where one network plug into another network and interconnects.

Those buildings are themselves intimately linked to the geographical and political history of the world in which we live. 60 Hudson Street in Manhattan is one of the most important buildings in the global internet infrastructure because it was once the central nexus of Western Union’s telegraph communications infrastructure. The most active submarine cable systems in the world are those that run between London and New York – and London, Frankfurt and Amsterdam are home to the three largest internet exchanges (IX) in the world, all three being cities with important ties to the history of commerce and telecommunications.

The main criticism one might level at the book is its Western-centric point of view. The comparative importance of Far Eastern hubs such as Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore is scarcely addressed and the author deliberately sidesteps (for obvious reasons) the thorny issues that surround China’s massive and expanding internet infrastructure. This oversight is still more striking when one considers that the top ten ‘best connected’ cities in the world in terms of bandwidth and connection speed are all now in Asia.

There is an important chapter towards the end of the book about the submarine cable systems that have started to land around the coast of the Africa – EASSy, SEACOM, Main One and WACS – connecting that vital and vibrant continent to the rest of the world. The book’s keen focus on the places where the physical meets what Blum calls the ‘logical’ universe of the computer means that little attention is paid to what these connections might mean for society, politics or economics. In Africa, for instance, it is worth noting that the introduction of new submarine cable systems has lead to explosion in mobile phone adoption, and, in Kenya in particular, an explosion in mobile banking. Fibre-optic cables have enabled network operators to replace the comparatively expensive and unreliable satellite systems that were previously relied upon – mobile phones are not nearly as ‘mobile’ as one might imagine – thereby enabling them to provide higher bandwidth, speedier and lower priced telecommunications services for millions of customers.

The book is breezily written and sure-eyed in its focus on the all too often overlooked physical and geographical realities of the internet. The book understandably steers clear of some of the more contentious issues about the comparative openness of certain networks, but does a sterling job of demystifying the thin fibres of light and glass that now encircle the globe.