Monday, 28 December 2009

Need help? Call The Equalizer

Equalizer,McCall,Edward,Woodward,New York,spy,action thriller,crime,uzi,gun
I’ve just finished watching my cheaply bought DVD of The Equalizer season one.

For those not in the know The Equalizer was a US TV show set in New York that ran for four seasons from 1985 to 1989 and starred the wonderful Edward Woodward as retired super spy Robert McCall. McCall, disenchanted with his former work in international espionage, decides to give his time and abilities (mostly free of charge) to those most in need. Often utilising irregular contacts from his old life as well as in local law enforcement, McCall helps ordinary people who are being victimised or persecuted and for whatever reason have nowhere else to turn. Basically he’s a one man A-Team who offers his services anonymously through an ad in a major New York paper that simply reads 'Got a problem? Odds against you? Need help? Call - The Equalizer'

I didn’t remember that much about the show having only seen it when it was originally on the box over twenty years ago. However I did remember loving it as a kid - especially McCall’s satin black Jag he uses to tear around the Big Apple. And I remembered the wicked cool title sequence and the awesome theme music by The Police’s Stewart Copeland (see below.)

What I didn’t remember, though, was quite how violent and grim The Equalizer is.

Above I compared it to The A-Team. But that’s not fair. It’s pretty much the anti-A-Team having far more in common with Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Frank Millar’s or Chris Nolan’s Batman. The tone of the series is deadly serious. It is grim and chilly. The New York setting is used to its best and constantly evokes a worn and dangerous urban world where something nasty is lurking around every street corner, be it uptown or downtown. In The Equalizer people are stabbed, shot, beaten, raped – all sorts of nasty things. People get hurt, suffer and die. This ain’t the comic book shenanigans of Hannibal Smith and BA Barracus, no sir. Sure, the show trots out the usual formula plots you always get in shows like this: the obligatory hostage drama with McCall stuck at a wedding reception as a gang of Middle Eastern terrorists take it hostage. A siege drama with McCall and his son staying in an isolated log cabin having to fend off a gang of locals after McCall’s son rescues a girl who the gang was trying to kidnap. Familiar plots, yes, but nicely tense and quite brutal – especially for TV. But other plots are not quite so clear cut, often mixing in elements of McCall’s past, or him reluctantly taking on a job for his old friend and ex-boss, Control, played by the granite faced Robert Lansing.

It is notable that the show used a lot of talented actors throughout its run borrowing heavily from the local New York theatre scene. In this season alone I spotted Tony Shaloub, Will Patton, Lori Petty, Bradley Whitford, Keith Szarabajka, Saul Rubinek, Jon Polito, Jim Dale, Burt Young, Jasmine Guy, Patricia Clarkson, Fred Williamson, a very young Melissa Joan Hart as a little girl McCall protects from her abusive father. And…drum roll please…the legend who is The Guzman. Yes, Luis Guzman. Love that guy. The behind the camera talent is a whose who of 70’s and 80’s TV including stalwart producer/writer Maurice Hurley and director Richard Compton. But ‘new’ talent pops up as well. There is an episode called ‘Lady Cop’ about a young female police officer who is being pressured by murderous colleagues in to corruption. It’s a very good episode with good acting (Will Patton amongst others) and a story co-written by none other than Kathryn Bigelow who went on to do her own lady cop movie, Blue Steel, with Jamie Lee Curtis.

The Equalizer is a great show but far from perfect. Although grim, violent and serious it is also a little too formulaic and very much a product of the neon lights and Flock of Seagulls haircuts of the 80’s – many of which are very amusing to see. But it has one single brilliant thing going for it that more than cancels out its shortcomings:

Edward Woodward

As Robert McCall, Woodward is tremendous. He oozes charisma, confidence, capability and a taut steely menace. When he grabs a lowlife, roughs him up and yells in his face repeatedly: “I DO NOT FORGIVE!” You believe him. McCall is a stone cold badass. Despite being grey haired and bit on the portly side, you really do believe he could go medieval on a whole bunch of young punks and send ‘em home crying to mommy. The dude is scary. The overriding phrase I had stuck in my head while watching The Equalizer was ‘You don’t wanna fuck with McCall.’ But then being the ace actor Woodward was he also exudes a world-weary warmth and fatherly concern to almost all of his clients – especially the youngsters. Woodward also brings something rather mournful and lonely to McCall’s character. He doesn’t seem happy or fulfilled. It’s as if he has lost out on a real life of his own. He is a long time divorced and is fairly well estranged from his son. And we go on to discover that he and his ex-wife also lost a baby daughter. His ‘friends’ are all business related contacts and he spends almost all of his time working, helping people through his unique abilities, as if to fill a void in his life and to make up for things he may have done (or not done) in his past. I see a familiar format here. I think Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt must have been fans of The Equalizer when they spun off Angel in to his own show, as it’s pretty much the same format. Angel is a supernatural Robert McCall, helping the helpless and searching for redemption.

The Equalizer is a compelling, adult and very watchable slice of 80’s TV, far better than most of its ilk. But it is Edward Woodward who really makes the show, who kicks it up a gear in the entertainment stakes. He is fabulous. Watching him in action you wish that every big city had its very own Equalizer to balance the scales when things get to be really bad. Shame they never released season 2 as it is supposed to be the best of the lot.

R.I.P. Edward Woodward. You were a class act, sir.

Friday, 25 December 2009

My Favourite Books of 2009

Being an avid reader I’ve worked my way through a few paper and ink tales this year. I’ve counted up and have read twelve new (to me) books since Jan 1st 2009 and four rereads of ones I love. Also this year I purchased Necronomicon: the best weird fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. It’s a huge hardback book of around nine hundred pages with all Lovecraft’s stories including the famous Herbert West: Re-Animator, From Beyond, At The Mountains of Madness and The Unnameable. I bought it back in the summer and keep dropping in to it to read a short story here and there with still plenty left to go. Creepy, weird and freaky good it is too.

Of the new (to me) books I’ve read this year, my top five are:

5. Go Ask Malice: A Slayer's Diary by Robert Joseph Levy (2006)

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel about rogue slayer Faith Lehane, Go Ask Malice is presented as a journal written by Faith herself as a form of therapy encouraged by her social worker. The journal chronicles teenage Faith's troubled life in the few months leading up to her becoming a Slayer and then the first few months after. It ends with Faith, alone once again, making her way to Sunnydale. All Buffy fans know what happened next.

This is pretty dark stuff. Poor Faith had a horrible life as a kid ending up in foster care and finally in a mental institution. It's at that point that a Watcher finds her and takes her in, telling her of her destiny. Faith's Watcher, Professor Diana Dormer, is caring and protective of her new charge and the two, though very different, form a bond. But Faith is having bad dreams and blackouts. Something is trying to take control of her. Something is looking for revenge from beyond the grave. Revenge against the worst of the worst, the beast who still lives. And it is looking to use Faith, a brand new Slayer, as the instrument of its vengeance.

Go Ask Malice is a very good read and a spot on rendering of my second favourite character in the Buffyverse. The author really captures Faith's speech and attitude on the page. I found myself grinning quite a bit at some of the things she says and does with the journal approach allowing for revelatory and confessional insights in to the mind of this tough and smart yet emotionally and psychologically fragile girl. Oh, and we also find out where she gets her saying “Five by Five” from as well. Go Ask Malice is a must for Buffy fans and utterly essential for Faith fans like me while being a very good book in its own right.

4. Frostbitten by Kelley Armstrong (2009)
Frostbitten is book ten of Canadian Author Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series of supernatural drama/thrillers. The series started back in 2001 with the werewolf novel Bitten, but progressed to other interconnected tales of ghosts, witches, demons, half-demons etc. Bitten was told first person by Elena Michaels, the world’s only female werewolf, turned against her will by her (then) ex-lover Clayton Danvers. At the start of Bitten, Elena had already run away from Clay and the werewolf pack that he’d brought her in to and was trying to make a new life for herself while struggling to cope alone with her lycanthropy. However she was soon pulled back in to pack affairs when a full-scale bloody conspiracy threatened to erupt. Elena reluctantly rejoined the pack and over the intervening years she and Clayton have become a couple again and she has had two young twins by him.

Frostbitten is Elena’s fourth book and is set in the snowy wastes of Alaska, where, as the packs chief investigator and enforcer now, she has gone with Clayton to investigate rumoured wolf attacks and the disappearance of several young women. It could be just wild animals with the women’s disappearances a coincidence, but Elena suspects foul play by possible rogue werewolves. The investigation takes a few unexpected turns including dredging up faces from Clayton’s past as well as terrible memories of Elena’s childhood. And soon she discovers that there is something else is out there in the Alaskan wilderness, something previously unknown that stalks the ancient, frozen land. Something so old, primal and ferocious that it terrifies even the most powerful of werewolves.

Frostbitten, as with all Kelley’s books, is a fun read with lots of great characters thrown in to twisty plots and deadly circumstances while struggling with their own personal relationships. It also has some fun with werewolf mythology while delving deeper in to Elena’s psyche and exploring her complex relationship with Clayton as well as her troubled past and her likely future with the pack. There are mysteries to be solved, some steamy sex and plenty of chases and violent, bloody clashes both in the city and out in the snowy wilderness. Kelley’s prose is not particularly flashy but it is firmly character based and crisply descriptive and she has a knack for dry, witty dialogue. This is partly the reason she was brought in last year to write an arc for the new Angel comic at IDW. She is a Joss fan and he a fan of hers. She has the ability to really get deep inside her character’s minds and make them come alive on the page. Reading them (especially Elena, Clay and the rest of the pack) is just like catching up with old friends you haven’t seen for a long while.

But in the end, when all’s said and done, Frostbitten is just a darn good lycanthropic yarn.

3. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002)
The Lovely Bones
On 6 December 1973 fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon was raped and murdered by her neighbour. In The Lovely Bones, Susie tells us her story in first person narration while watching over her family and friends from her own personalised heaven, ‘the in-between’, watching as they struggle to come to terms with her most awful of deaths.

The Lovely Bones was hard going. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very good book - solidly written, always intriguing and never boring. The problem is the almost unending emotional gut punches it delivers to you. For a parent reading this book I’d imagine it would be one hell of a gruelling experience. I’m not a parent and it was pretty tough for me at times. But, thankfully, despite the horror of Susie’s murder, there is a warmth and hopefulness around the tale. The Lovely Bones is primarily about discovery, growing up and moving on. It’s a unique coming of age story about someone who will never come of age - at least not as she should. It’s a love story about life and about family.

While not the best-written book ever, The Lovely Bones is always fascinating in its telling of a sad but also hopeful tale in a tough and emotionally challenging way. It is quite simply the most emotionally affecting book I’ve ever read. But it didn’t come across as sentimental or manipulative. It didn’t need to. The subject matter; the realistic way characters behave; the ponderings on love, life, loss, family, guilt, childhood - they all ring true. Powerful stuff.

2. The Travelling Vampire Show by Richard Laymon (2000)
The Travelling Vampire Show
It’s a hot August day in 1963 and three sixteen year olds - narrator Dwight and his two best friends Slim, a tomboy girl, and Rusty, an overweight boy, are determined to go and see the titular Travelling Vampire Show coming to their town that very night. The carnival show promises the only real vampire in captivity: the beautiful, seductive and utterly lethal Valeria. To get to see the show at the notorious spot outside of town called Janks Field, the three friends must overcome various obstacles as well as an unfolding mystery that someone or something may actually be out to get them. This all leads up to one heck of a thrilling and blood-curdling finale, which doesn’t go quite where you’d expect it to go.

The Travelling Vampire Show is not just a horror story. It’s also a coming of age tale much like Stephen King’s The Body (filmed as Stand By Me) - only bloodier and sexier. Getting to the Travelling Vampire Show and overcoming the many obstacles in doing so (rabid dogs, parents, troublesome siblings, arguments, accidents etc.) is the main narrative backbone. But supported by that backbone is an affecting story about three kids’ lives, the bad things some of them have had to endure and the friendships and first love that comes out of it all. This is quite a wonderful little tale with characters you can emphasise with and really care about. Slim in particular is a great creation. She’s a total tomboy and the brains of the operation but is a girl with a troubled family life and an identity crisis. She changes her name every few months depending on what book she’s been reading and what character in it she identifies with most. All three teens are on the cusp of adulthood and their relationships are changing - with each other as well as with family and peers. This is one of the main themes of the book: Change. Along with growing up and maturity in what you do and how you behave.

Along with The Stake this is, in my opinion, the late Richard Laymon’s best work. It is very well written, subtle and sensitive where needed and all out bloody, nasty and gross where you’d hope it to be. I’ve been a fan of his work since the early eighties reading his Beast House books. His style of uber-violence, sex and gore, though never very popular in the US, found a willing audience here in the UK. His books were always such wonderful titillation for a young eager horror-loving mind like mine. But the man could also write character and drama with equal amounts of depth and sensitivity when he wanted. He just didn’t do it that often. A shame really.

1. Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar (2007)
Lonely Werewolf Girl
Lonely Werewolf Girl is my favourite new (to me) book I’ve read this past year and the past several years. It does everything exactly right. The characters; the story; the tone and mood; the themes and most of all the humour are all utterly perfect. I’ve never laughed out loud so much while reading a book as I did with this one. It’s like Martin Millar reached in to my brain, scooped out my weirdest, deepest thoughts and wrote this novel just for me. This is most excellent. My only complaint is that the version I have (self-published by the author in the UK for various technical and legal reasons) has quite a few silly typos – something he has apologised for explaining he had no editor or beta reader at the time. The book did have proper publishing deals overseas and has been a big hit. So much so that Martin is currently writing the sequel and a movie is allegedly in the works. A ‘proper’ UK edition of Lonely Werewolf Girl is being published in March 2010, which will have fixed all those typo problems. But to be honest it didn’t really bug me that much as the book is otherwise so well written and wonderfully funny and creative that you just take the typos as a quirk rather in keeping with its punk style.

I won’t bother with a plot synopsis as I’ve already written about this book at length in an earlier blog.

Lonely Werewolf Girl blog post

A great excerpt:

Upstairs, Thrix was shocked at Sarapen’s sudden appearance. She didn’t understand how he could have arrived without her receiving a warning. It was impossible. But there he stood, in his full wolf form, huge and menacing. Vex was nearest to him. She giggled.
“A big wolf! He’s so cute,” she said, and started to pat his head.
Malveria spoke sharply to her niece.
"Agrivex. Please do not pat the werewolf. He is a deadly enemy."
"But he's so cute!"
“Step away this instant.”
Vex withdrew, grumbling that her aunt never let her do anything.

The bottom line is Lonely Werewolf Girl is a fabulous book by a gifted writer who can weave a big, complex tale with a myriad of distinct and interesting characters while juggling drama, action and humour exactly right. I’ve since bought two other books of his to read - Lux the Poet and The Good Fairies of New York. I shall be diving in to The Good Fairies of New York next. A tale about rebellious Scottish fairies going to New York and getting mixed up with a fairy civil war, some oddball humans and The New York Dolls’ Johnny Thunders (?) Sounds bonkers. Yay!

So there you go, my most favoured reading material of 2009. In 2010 Kelley Armstrong has two new books out and Martin Millar has his Lonely Werewolf Girl sequel. Bring it on.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Brittany Murphy 1977 to 2009

Actress Brittany Murphy died Sunday morning from a cardiac arrest.

I can't believe this. She was one of my favourite actresses and just 32 years old - seven years younger than me. Awful, awful news.

I loved her natural charisma, charm and the quirky style she brought to many of her roles with Clueless being the first thing I saw her in back in ’95 playing new girl Tai. I was an immediate fan. I remember her popping up around the same time in an episode of SeaQuest where the ship goes back in time to the Cuban Missile Crisis. She played the teenage love interest for the shows teen star Jonathan Brandis, also sadly no longer with us. She was great. It is one of the very few episodes of SeaQuest I own. Brittany then starred in possibly my favourite role of hers as Deliverance Bodine in the fab direct to video action movie Drive. Deliverance is a rather odd girl. She's kinda crazy, rather risqué but also very cute and funny. Every second she is on screen you can’t help but smile. Brittany then starred opposite Christopher Walken in Prophesy 2. She made a splendid double act with Walken in what was an otherwise forgettable film. Girl, Interrupted was next. An excellent film filled with many wonderful young actresses. Brittany played Daisy Randone, a sexually abused girl who comes to a very sad end. And Brittany did the role proud. Angelina got the Oscar (and she was brilliant) but it was Daisy’s story that did it for me. Watch the great scene between Angelina and Brittany embedded below. After that came a total change of pace with Cherry Falls, a quirky teen slasher flick that suited Brittany’s style down to the ground. A fun flick and she was most entertaining in it. There followed the Michael Douglas thriller Don’t Say a Word, Summer Catch and, of course, 8 Mile. Then came Just Married, an above the title starring role opposite Ashton Kutcher. However it wasn’t until she took the role of Shellie in Robert Rodriguez’s amazing Sin City that I got to see her again in something I really liked. Post Sin City she was constantly busy in a variety of roles in film and TV including her voice work in King of the Hill and Happy Feet. She had only recently completed a role in the upcoming Sylvester Stallone/Jason Statham/Jet Li all action extravaganza The Expendables. I’d been holding out hope that she would also get to be in the still gestating Sin City 2. Sadly, that will now never happen.

Brittany Murphy was certainly a beautiful girl. She was also a very talented actress with a unique style and a gift for comedy. She always brought a smile to my face or in the case of Girl, Interrupted a tear to my eye.

My thoughts are with her husband and family at this awful time.

Girl, Interrupted - Lisa antagonises Daisy

Drive - a great action sequence made all the better by Brittany being bonkers and cute. At 2:38 "Are you outta your mind?" "Okay." LOL

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Lovely Bones (book)

I’d been meaning to read The Lovely Bones for a long time now – even before the Peter Jackson film was announced. And with the film adaptation's release imminent, I finally got around to it.

For those who don’t know, The Lovely Bones is a novel by Alice Sebold published in 2002 that tells the story of a girl called “Salmon. Like the fish. First name Susie.” On 6 December 1973 fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is raped and murdered by a neighbour. Susie tells us her story in first person narration while watching over her family and friends from her own personalised heaven, ‘the in-between’, watching as they struggle to come to terms with her most awful of deaths. While watching her family in pain, Susie is struggling to let go of her mortal bonds and the terrible sense of loss she feels for the life she will never now have – especially the budding first love with a boy at school that started and ended with just one fleeting kiss.

I liked The Lovely Bones a great deal but it sure was hard going. It’s one of the most emotionally affecting things I've ever read. There were several places in Alice Sebold’s text where I was unable to keep the old eyes from leaking. Several places where I just had to stop and say to myself ‘Okay. That’s enough for now.’ Why? I guess the subject matter and the original way in which it's presented. The way the book presents the characters and how they relate to each other in the wake of tragedy. I’d defy the hardest of hearts not to be moved by young Susie Salmon, and then for that heart not to break as her tale goes on, before becoming healed at story’s end. For a parent reading this book I’d imagine it would be a gruelling experience. I’m not a parent and it was pretty tough for me at times. But despite the horror of Susie’s murder there is also an inherent warmth and hopefulness around the whole tale. It is sad and tragic, yes, but also rather life affirming in a strange way.

The Lovely Bones does a great job showing the different dynamics of a family shattered by the worst possible tragedy, of showing how that family tries and fails and tries again to put itself back together. As a novel it didn’t quite go where I thought it would. It’s not a murder mystery or solve the crime and catch the killer type of story. There are elements of that in there but that’s not what the story is about. This is primarily a story about discovery, of growing up and of moving on. It’s a unique coming of age tale about someone who will never come of age - at least not as she should. It’s a love story about life and family told from the perspective of someone who can now see every tiny aspect of life and family but cannot participate in it anymore.

The Lovely Bones is not the best written book ever. The prose can be a little dry at times. However it is always intriguing and tells a sad but also hopeful tale in a tough and often emotionally challenging way.

I hope that Peter Jackson’s movie captures the spirit and feel of the book, the horrific tragedy that can move you to tears but also the warmth and humanity that can make you smile.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Lonely Werewolf Girl

I’ve just finished reading Lonely Werewolf Girl, an off beat, very funny, hugely entertaining book by Scottish author Martin Millar.

This is a most excellent novel. It’s a darkly humorous tale with a strong story and a big cast of characters who are just so much fun to follow through its five hundred and twenty pages. These people feel fully rounded with their own distinctive voices and attitudes and complex sets of problems and issues. The tone, for the most part, is darkly humorous with monsters, magic, mayhem, horror and violence mixed in with the normal everyday of work, study, failed romance, endless mugs of tea, going to gigs, going to the pub, watching cable TV, listening to and talking about music. The book feels leftfield and more than a little punk in attitude with non-conformist outsider characters that end up coming together in uneasy, difficult yet ultimately beneficial relationships. It is also, quite simply, very, very funny. I laughed out loud a lot while reading Lonely Werewolf Girl. As a total coincidence I found out after the fact that author Martin Millar is a massive Buffy geek…just like me. And Lonely Werewolf Girl does have a bit of that Buffy vibe about it – the tonal shifts in the mix of action, then quirky/dry humour, then horror, then emotional drama and often all in the space of the same scene and always with an underlying theme. But it’s not a copy or homage to the Bufster. It is most definitely its own thing with its own voice. And a mighty fine voice it is too.

The central plot hinges on a family power struggle as to who will be the next Thane of the Scottish MacRinnalch werewolf clan - basically becoming leader of all werewolves in the world. The eldest son, Sarapen MacRinnalch, thinks the title is his by right, whilst his mother, Verasa, will do whatever she can to make Markus, her younger, favoured son, the new Thane…even if it means a bloody civil war. Votes are needed at the clan council to secure the victor, to secure the new Thane legally. However, things are at a stalemate as the three members of the clan with the likely deciding votes are not around to cast them. Two of the three being the young rebellious twins Beauty and Delicious who are living a drunken hedonistic life in London while half-heartedly trying to become rock stars. The third voter is Sarapen and Markus's youngest sister, seventeen year old Kalix. Kalix, the titular Lonely Werewolf Girl, ran away from Castle MacRinnalch several months prior after attacking her father and indirectly causing his later death. Poor Kalix is a deeply troubled girl. Living rough in London, she’s lost and alone and can barely read a few words or write her own name. She suffers from extreme depression and anxiety while also being addicted to laudanum. Despite continually running away from everything and everyone, events soon conspire to throw Kalix together with two kind-hearted young students whom, by taking pity of her, become unwittingly embroiled in the complex and deadly werewolf world. And big bad Sarapen’s forces are on the move in London and Scotland. He's determined to eliminate any and all obstacles to his becoming Thane. And young Kalix is right at the top of the list.

It has to be said that Kalix is a brilliant character. The best I’ve read in a long time. You can’t help but feel for her and just want her to be happy. She lives her life on the streets, ostracised by her family, swinging from extreme anxiety to extreme depression with substance abuse (mostly laudanum) and self-harm being her main ways of handling things. She is also affectingly innocent in her ways with a very sweet, longstanding obsession with the 1970’s girl group The Runaways. Kalix believes them to be the greatest thing ever and longs for Joan Jett to be her real mother. Later on she also develops an addiction to Sabrina the Teenage Witch but can’t understand why such a great show isn’t on the TV all the time and why they keep repeating the same episodes when there should be an endless supply of new ones. Yet, despite her problems and naivety, Kalix is a ferocious and powerful fighter who, when the battle madness takes her, can tear apart other werewolves and werewolf hunters more than twice her size as if they were nothing.

A couple of funny quotes from the brilliantly hilarious, fashion obsessed Malveria, the powerful Fire Queen from another dimension:

"Their blood-soaked bodies are no doubt strewn about downstairs at this moment!" cried Malveria. "If we hurry we may save the shoes!"

"That is it. Cricket. Apparently the rules of this game are most puzzling and complex. Daniel tried to explain these rules to Vex. As a consequence of this I understand she almost lost consciousness, and had to be helped to a chair, in a very poor state of mind. It was some time before she could summon enough energy to return to her own dimension. She has subsequently refused to leave her room, and has only her favourite cuddly toy for comfort."

Bottom line: this is a great book by a gifted writer who can weave a big, complex tale with a myriad of distinct and interesting characters while juggling drama, action and humour exactly right. So if you like urban fantasy/horror with a smart, blackly hilarious and counter culture feel, then you should love this book. Martin Millar is currently working on the sequel tentatively titled Queen Vex and due out late 2010. And a Lonely Werewolf Girl movie is apparently in the works too.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Take me to Pandora. Now!

Avatar Poster
Seeing is believing on the world of Pandora. A recurring theme in Avatar is of seeing what is real and important around you. The Na'vi greeting is 'I see you' and the film is bookended with Jake Sully opening his eyes. Another theme is the world of dreams vs. reality. You can wake from a dream in to reality but can you wake from reality to live a dream? Characters are constantly being told to wake up and to see things they can't or won't see. And the Na'vi refer to human driven avatars as 'dreamwalkers.' It is James Cameron's way of saying to humanity, "Wake up and look around you. Look what you are doing to your home." It ain't a subtle message but it is one worth giving.

I had faith in James Cameron and he didn't let me down.

Avatar is a great movie and something to be experienced on the biggest screen possible in perfect quality 3D. The lush, intricate and stunningly beautiful bioluminescent world of Pandora is realised in huge sweeps and in minute details. Cameron takes us on a wondrous journey through this world, through its seas and skies and floating mountains and colourful rainforests as if he’d taken a natural history camera crew to a real and previously undiscovered location of infinite beauty and danger. It’s hard to imagine that this is all just ones and zeros on lots and lots of hard drives somewhere, as the world of Pandora feels genuinely alive. With its varied flora, fauna and wildlife all bound together in a complex ecosystem, this new world is a truly beautiful, hostile and thrilling place.

And then, on top of that, Cameron only goes and gives us the best and most believable CGI characters yet created.

The Na’vi are simply amazing. The level of performance capture and photo realism is far beyond anything previously managed with the dreaded dead eye that plagues most synthespians nowhere to be seen here. Quite the opposite in fact as the Na’vi’s eyes burn with feeling. But the technical side of their creation would mean nothing without the performances of the actors playing them. And they do great work especially the fabulous Zoë Saldana who makes leading lady Neytiri the single greatest synthespian character ever. And I don't care what anyone says, I say Neytiri is beautiful...even if she is eight feet tall and blue. Zoë's gestures and movements - be it subtle eye work, a twitch of a cheek muscle, a trembling lip, a ferocious snarl, a tiny giggle - are all captured perfectly. After a short time I totally forgot I was watching a CGI character. Neytiri is brave and ferocious yet gentle and wise. She is patient, funny, caring and ultimately forgiving. And Saldana nails it perfectly. Blue cat lady or no, how could any man not fall in love with her? The humans are all fine too with leading man Sam Worthington doing a solid if unspectacular job. Better is the legend who is Sigourney Weaver playing a scientist who runs the Avatar program and Stephen Lang as the nasty ‘shock and awe’ mercenary Colonel in charge of security at the human base and who's just itching for a fight.

Storywise Avatar is nothing original. The Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Ferngully comparisons are all valid. But that’s fine as Cameron borrows elements from lots of other things too including Frank Herbert’s Dune and most notably to me Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tales of pulp sci fi fantasy in which human soldier John Carter gets mysteriously transported to Mars (or Barsoom as it’s known locally). On Mars Carter falls in love with a beautiful alien princess, becomes a great warrior, unites separate factions and leads them to fight off invaders and other threats. Just as in Avatar. Make no mistake Avatar is most assuredly pulp sci fi drawn from everything that James Cameron has read, watched and digested since he was a small boy. Cameron also borrows from his own back catalogue too. The hardware in Avatar is very Aliens inspired and the final intimate good guy vs. bad guy showdown is highly reminiscent of a certain legendary sci fi heroine encased in yellow metal telling a scary monster to “Get away from her you bitch!”

No matter what recycling is being done here (very fitting considering the films eco themes) Cameron is a consummate storyteller who can pull it all together in to a sparkling new, well-told package. He is also an unashamed romantic. All of his films have a love story at their core. They have heart and a passion for something but aren’t exactly what you’d call subtle in their ideas, themes and messages. Jim likes broad strokes and wears his heart on his sleeve. He says as much. But his broad strokes are always so much better than anyone else’s while being coloured by the finest of paints. Whatever you might think of his films this stuff comes from deep down inside of the man. He lives and breathes it. Nothing is done cynically. In Avatar what we get from Cameron is a huge and gorgeous pulp sci fi movie that tells a familiar cautionary tale about a ‘superior’ race exploiting and ultimately threatening to destroy a more ‘primitive’ indigenous race to selfishly take what it is they have. The eco message in the film is big and blatant. It is made clear that in this future humans have all but ruined Earth yet have learned nothing and are quite happy to do the same to another world. “On their world nothing green remains. They’ve killed their mother and now they want to kill ours,” says a Na’vi. Not subtle but poignant and, sadly, likely to be true if we carry on the way we are. So the story isn’t original or subtle. But what it is, though, is expertly told and emotionally engaging. And this makes it feel fresh. I swear the destruction of a tree (a very big tree) has never been as devastating as it is here. It’s a horrible, mindless, cruel image that evokes memories of 9/11 and other similar atrocities. A reminder of just how callous and cruel humanity can be.

Avatar's structure follows Cameron’s usual steady, methodical plotting and storytelling style. A patient build up with time to meet the characters and get to know a bit about who they are and what they are after. All the while enough information is given in small enough chunks to be easily absorbed. Elements are set up throughout the film, which come in to play later on and pay off handsomely. His pacing is spot on. At two hours forty minutes Avatar never feels like a long film as all too soon we have come to the giant finale. And what a finale it is. It’s an epic, mythic showdown; a massive battle between human gunships and Na’vi flying on dragon beasties in the skies while on the ground infantry and powersuited human mercenaries battle Na’vi armed with only bows and arrows and some charging creatures. It is huge scale but filmed exactly how something like this should be filmed - meaning not with crazy random destruction and epileptic editing ala Transformers 2 (I hate that film). Nope, this battle is structured and has clear goals and obstacles with clever tactics being employed. It is also personalised so we follow the characters we care about and will them on to win, or at least to survive.

Other technical aspects are top notch. The production design is intricate and detailed, as you’d expect from a Cameron film. The cinematography by Mauro Fiore is beautiful with muted blues and greys and deep shadows for the humans while being lush, colourful and glowing for the Na’vi. James Horner’s score is fine and services the story nicely. He does do his usual trick of cannibalising past themes here and there – a bit of Star Trek 2, a bit of Aliens. Was that Titanic? But it sounds nice and is fairly unobtrusive. The main theme (which forms the basis of the theme song ‘I See You’ sung by Leona Lewis) is a pretty piece of music and is used to good emotional effect throughout.

So, anything that I didn’t like or that bugged me? Very few films are perfect and you can usually find things that niggle in most. Avatar is no exception. If I was to nit pick then some of the (human) dialogue gets just a tad cheesy at times. Also some of the characterisation felt a bit lacking. I really wanted to know a bit more about what made Jake Sully tick, why Michelle Rodriguez’s pilot acts as she does. But more importantly I wanted more time finding out about life among the Na’vi. Jake stays with them for three months but most of that is in montage. Could we not have had more of him spending time amongst The People and forging deeper bonds so we get to know more about them as individuals? We do get to know the big and important stuff while rightly focussing on Jake’s burgeoning relationship with Neytiri. So I guess I’m just being greedy here. I’d have loved to have seen more day to day life amongst the Na’vi. Seeing their kids at play, how their families functioned, Jake making some friends’ maybe.

To sum up - I loved every second of Avatar and can’t wait to see it again. The way I measure the personal success of a film is by how I’m feeling near its end. If I truly love a film, then when I’m watching it I’m hoping for it not to end, dreading leaving its world behind. Not many films get that reaction from me. The last one being Let The Right One In. Avatar is beautifully made pulp sci fi, a lush imaginative epic with a soft heart and a thumping fist. It is broad strokes story telling, which is what James Cameron does. And he does it so very, very well. Long live the King of the World.

Get me a seat on the next shuttle back to Pandora.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Loving the Alien

Is it just me or does the female alien character Neytiri from James Cameron's soon to be unleashed Avatar look very beautiful? To be honest I hadn't paid much attention to how she actually looked up until now, being more interested in the animation and technology behind the movie. But as I've been seeing more clips and more images of Neytiri and getting more and more excited for the film - especially as the reviews are now coming out saying it is pretty darn amazing - I've been looking closer. I love this picture below. I think that through the performance from the uber-hot and highly talented Zoe Saldana, Neytiri is going to become a favourite sci fi poster girl of mine right next to lovely Zoe's Lt Uhura. I'm so jazzed to see Avatar. Come on Jim, knock my socks off!
Neytiri from Avatar

Saturday, 14 March 2009


Oh bollocks! Thought I'd start some blogging. Dunno what, mind. Nothing interesting ever happens to me.

Watch this space.