Our fascination with the last few hours onboard the doomed 1912 passenger liner Titanic and its now eerie, watery grave – to quote Celine Dion – “will go on and on and on”. James Cameron took this then moulded it into a classic love story for the big screen back in 1997, and the film and its young stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio, encapsulated the emotions of hope, fear and determination. The story itself is still as powerful and goose-pimply as the first time and simply made for big-screen viewing.
Everyone knows the ending – Titanic sinks, but for the uninitiated, this is actually a story of love crossing the class divide as the urge to live outweighs any social boundaries. In this sense, the success of Downtown Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and the latest Titanic TV series by Downtown Abbey creator Julian Fellowes follow a similar pattern; exploring class distinctions within one environment. And in every social circle there are the good characters and the bad ones – the latter we revel in seeing them get their comeuppance. Cameron’s timeless love story is no exception. It does paint a rather near-perfect and rose-tinted picture in its path, but its daydream potential should never be underestimated.
The 2D film was shot for its wow factor wides to show the enormity and scale of the disaster, so the addition of 3D does little more than create some depth at times, but hardly adds anything dynamic to the frame where you most expect it. There would be a sinking feeling, if the tragedy unfolding wasn’t captivating you. Still, first-timers will get a greater sense of the grand scale of the event and Titanic herself, which isn’t a bad thing. Bizarrely, watching this time around didn’t seem as much of a marathon – possibly as this reviewer is older (and wiser, hopefully) so has more stamina to endure the 194 minutes. It was also rather nostalgic viewing and targeted the old romantic inside.
Regardless of mixed views on feeding the Cameron 3D crusade by paying more to see something old a second time around, Titanic is simply one of 20th century cinema’s greatest, old-fashioned love stories, full of still impressive effects (pre 3D) and decent, if theatrical acting – with fashion crimes committed by Bill Paxton. But is that a bad thing to reinvest in?
Many name James Cameron as the man at the forefront of 3D. But Hugo (3D) has just added another exciting contender in one of the most unlikely directors, Martin Scorsese, who is best known for chronicling the rough and gangster-ready parts of urban America, with such greats as Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The Departed. The artistic, colourful and quite magic wizardry of Hugo is perhaps a shock departure from the Scorsese norm – maybe like many actors, he wants to start creating films he can share with his family?
Based on Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a young orphan boy called Hugo Cabret (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’s star Asa Butterfield) is left to live rough and run the railway station clocks of the Gare Montparnasse, after his drunk of an uncle, Claude (Ray Winstone) goes astray. All Hugo dreams of is getting the one inheritance from his clock-maker father (Jude Law) working again, a broken mechanical automaton that could hold an invaluable message or memory from happier times.
One day, he is caught one day stealing parts from local toymaker Papa Georges’s (Ben Kingsley) stand and is father’s ideas pocketbook is taken from him. Desperate to get it back from Papa Georges, while avoiding being caught by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo meets Papa Georges’s daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who holds the heart-shaped key that he needs to wind up the automaton. However, once the two join forces, they discover a whole new world of secrets about Papa Georges’s past.
The first awe-inspiring moment is being whirled along – like through a fly’s eye – on a gravity-defying trajectory through the station platforms and concourse that has to be seen to be believed. Scorsese’s whole 3D affair is a sumptuous one of artistic marvel that has a wintry festive glow to it. There is so much scene detail to take in it’s quite breathtaking in fact, like pouring over the illustrative brilliance of an old-fashioned storybook.
Scorsese sets up his characters and their settings well, giving insights into what makes them tick and what ticks them off, all within the period context of 1930s Paris. And while we are thrilled by this and invest in the romance of the time, as well as the promise of a child-led adventure with Hugo and Isabelle, the non-cinephile among us might find the latter half of the film rather obsessive as it veers off into cinema history to not only serve Scorsese’s gratification, but also to hammer home his work with The Film Foundation, an organisation that campaigns for motion picture preservation. It’s here the younger viewer might find things a little bit of a slog, regardless of the cinema magic on show.
Indeed, as we begin to lose track of Hugo’s own adventure a little, we certainly hear Scorsese cries of his organisation’s aim through this part of the narrative, and much as his creative indulgence into the visionary entrepreneurism of cinematic forefathers’ The Lumière brothers, Harold Lloyd and Georges Méliès may mean more to some while educating others, the eventual reasons for this tangent take some time to materialise.
Still, the performances are nothing short of compelling, with child leads Butterfield and Moretz illuminating the screen, especially a confident Moretz as headstrong Isabelle, without falling into the standard, overacted and dewy-eyed portrayals in other kids films. Baron Cohen is his usual comedic self, like a contemporary-talking cross between Inspector Clouseau and Officer Crabtree from TV’s ‘Allo ‘Allo! series. But for full effect to demonstrate Scorsese’s awe at the work of Méliès, the director has cast the enigmatic Sir Kingsley as Papa Georges to capture both this character’s long-held bitterness and his majestic transition at the end of the film. Kingsley’s acting dexterity is reborn in this, after the disappointing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time last year.
Hugo (3D) is a sumptuously crafted film that underlies Scorsese’s aims of touching hearts, taking us to other places and providing us with striking visual memories. Like all family entertainment, it has its wholesome moral values at its core. Even though the journey to the grand reveal meanders while doubling as a parallel Scorsese campaign for film preservation, the director has produced one of the most strikingly visual films of 2011 and demonstrated a correct use of live-action/animated 3D.
This is one of those films that fill you with great expectations, especially with Avatar’s James Cameron at the producing helm, but leaves you thoroughly underwhelmed afterwards. Exciting visions of a watery ‘other-world’ wonder from Cameron, especially with The Abyss reference (Virgil), turn into a lengthy cave-exploring/father-son-hugging tedium. Still, it is based on a true story, so can’t be that far-fetched.
The characters, a bunch of super-fit thrill-seekers, seem potentially intriguing. Leading the expedition is megalomaniac explorer Frank, played by deadpan and hunky Richard Roxburgh (on poster), who is the no-nonsense father to frustrated and under-appreciated Josh (Rhys Wakefield) who is equally toned and provides the beef for the younger eye. Admittedly, the father-son relationship needs to work for the film to be credible, and it does. But there seems to be too many strops and pent-up hormones at the start for you to really care, or sympathise with Josh at his father’s apparent disregard for life and Frank’s ‘playing God’ with his crew. Schmaltz, bizarre poetry moments, and illuminating tooth aside, our interest does grow as the film proceeds and the group gets into deeper troubled water.
From a female perspective, both female characters are clichéd. Butch Judes’s (Allison Cratchley) lack of sleep and pigheadedness lead to tragic results, whilst Alice Parkinson adds the glam and the brains as Victoria, a scientist who has never dived. Queue underwater disaster. The trouble is, far from adding anything constructive to the group’s dynamic that includes an accent-confused Ioan Gruffudd as her corporate boyfriend, Carl, the latter takes on the token ‘burden female’ in tow, obsessed with her appearance, and made worse by a stiff performance. Only once do we empathise with Victoria, after she struggles to follow the team through a claustrophobic rock tunnel, but once she meets her grizzly demise, it’s a case of ‘good riddance’. Gruffudd provides the only recognisable big-name on the list, and takes on the baddie role quite satisfactorily, if a little under-used. This is probably deliberate by Cameron and director Alister Grierson to prevent distractions from the subterranean world they are trying to make us in awe of, or simply a matter of budget.
Indeed, this seems to be another carrot-led element: the lack of really breathtaking 3D scenery that should trigger the ‘wow’ factor. Although some of the cave scenes look amazing, the 3D doesn’t sit comfortably on the eye at times, especially with darker, gloomier areas, or light shining directly from a character’s helmet torch. Again, for someone who bangs the 3D drum loudly and is experienced in the format, Cameron often doesn’t use the technology to its full potential with the camera framing, resulting in a lot of wide shots, and the film actually not being tailored for a 3D experience at all. With 3D ticket prices costing a pretty penny at the box office, this is a big consideration.
Perhaps this critic has seen too many subterranean horrors and was misguided by Sanctum 3D, if perfectly honest, expecting a repeat of The Abyss’s alien life discoveries in the caves at the core of the earth? But the overall effect, including the 3D, was quite disappointing, considering the film gets off to an epic build-up of enthralling tension at the start as the storm sets in.
For a film with such an emotive title that conjures up all kinds of stereotypical sci-fi imagery of Earth being taken over by extraterrestrial life forms, Monsters by documentary film-maker Gareth Edwards is quite the opposite. It’s actually a surprisingly tender relationship study between two humans that blossoms amongst nature of the Earth and alien kind, here on this fair planet. It also helps that little-known leads Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (All The Boys Love Mandy Lane) are a real-life couple, too, making their union on the screen seem all the more stronger and believable, complete with the inevitable highs and lows.
The sci-fi element that you would come to expect from the film gradually develops into a peripheral factor that intermittently thwarts the couple’s path to true love, like ‘a sci-fi obstacle course’ that strengthens their resolve. But fear not; this is not a ‘rom-com in an alien disguise’ either. It’s just a very personable journey with two intriguing characters that has alien dangers to it, but what the real danger is, is apparent in the end.
Edwards’ style of ad-libbing certainly pays off, and which also highlights his documentary roots. As his first feature film was always going to be a gamble at the box office, it’s interesting to speculate whether the strong relationship factor really was Edwards’ original intention, or whether this film is a taster for an intended saga, with Monsters establishing the characters, and a more revealing sequel about the alien life on Earth to follow? Certainly, those expecting a pitch battle between humans and aliens will be disappointed. The closest our couple get is a Jurassic Park-style encounter with some Triffid/Martian-like creatures that results in man being more brutal than the former.
That’s the beautiful ambiguity of the title: Who are the true Monsters – us or them? There are lots of parallels flagged between ‘aliens’ and US immigration issues on the Mexico/US border – much like the ‘illegal alien invasion’ parallels in District 9. Although this is a well-trodden film topic, Monsters does well not to dwell on the matter because the relationship is key, and how our leads learn to respect and live alongside another race.
The alien segments are undoubtedly homage to James Cameron, from pulsating, luminous wildlife in the trees, as in Avatar, to illuminated aliens straight out of The Abyss. This appears to be Edwards’ self-indulgent aspect of his film, allowing an insight into the creator’s mind of what might have been produced with a bigger budget to hand – although bigger is not necessarily better. Edwards’ credit here is just what he’s achieved in atmosphere and tension with very little finances.
The chosen pseudo-documentary style seems to be becoming the norm for this genre, as in District 9, as though any other cinematographic style would not be credible anymore. But the pace is a graceful, almost serene, especially in the jungle river scene, which is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, allowing us to get a feel for the territory that the couple invades and disturb.
Monsters has déjà vu elements for certain, but it also has a unique style that feels slightly alien in itself. It’s often very relaxing to watch, like an extraterrestrial wildlife expedition from remote jungle land. The couple’s chemistry is genuine, as are the events like the parades in the film that justify Monsters being described as ‘the most realistic monster movie ever made’. For fans of the genre, it’s definitely one to catch and respect for its low-budget film-making values. In fact its success may be to Edwards’ detriment, should he have planned another, as money may give birth to a Hollywood monster instead.
In the famous words of one American icon, “I have a dream…”, Hollywood got all giddy and happily jumped aboard the James Cameron vision express with his latest epic, Avatar, even though the blockbuster film-maker of Aliens, Terminator and The Abyss has been less than influential (studio-translated, ‘mega profitable’) on the movie scene over the past decade since ‘that weepy boat tragedy’, Titanic. Unless you’ve been on Mars, you haven’t been on faraway moon Pandora, and heard about the troubles between the warmongering and greedy humans and the beautiful, coltish-looking, blue-skinned indigenous Na’Vi population. This is where the grand Cameron fantasy takes place in the year 2154, and it’s a stunning ride of vivid, awe-inspiring intensity that is undeniably unique-looking, as production designs go.
Whether Tinseltown has been wise in indulging Cameron is by the by – the curiosity in the film will help recover some of the studio spending. Avatar is arguably the most imaginative live-action film to date with 3D effects so subtle that anyone seeing it in 2D will not experience anything less magical. But it does have to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated, just not necessarily on an IMAX one. Thankfully, the vast arsenal of technology does not override the performance-capture performances from the leads that eerily bring to life each facial expression and nuance, including central character Jake Scully, a wheelchair-bound marine who is chosen to control his dead brother’s engineered hybrid (human and Na’vi DNA) ‘Avatar’ body through a form of telepathy, played by rising Terminator star Sam Worthington. A credit to the almost seamless blend of reality and effects that Cameron has WETA to thank for is Sigourney Weaver as visionary, fag-puffing scientist Dr Grace Augustine’s final moments under the spiritual ‘Tree of Souls’ that reinforces how cutting edge this production is – although ‘revolutionary’, as Cameron claims, may be a little audacious, given recent performance-capture offerings like A Christmas Carol.
Cameron’s battle cry sounds firmly for Mother Nature throughout every luscious scene in Avatar in an unashamed manner that has had some mocking his tree-hugging, hippy tendencies – even his Na’vi attempt to reach out and educate us before it’s too late. That said concerns for the environment are now universally felt, regardless of whether these are played out on Pandora that does not look that alien in hindsight, apart from some ultraviolet touches that lift the vegetation textures out of frame. In addition to the rich tapestry of foliage and looming mountainous landscapes and waterfalls that hang like Dali-painted rock sculptures from the sky, Cameron has created whole new species of prehistoric- and underwater-styled creatures to delight in, influenced by his passion for deep-sea marine life that would make David Attenborough a little green around the gills.
References to man’s obsession with mining natural resources are not lost either, as the humans try to solve their eternal energy crisis by plundering the rare mineral ‘Unobtainium’ from Pandora’s core, resulting in displacing the Na’vi and the tragic devastation of their Home Tree community. Global corporate power is still alive and well in the 22nd Century. The over-simplified political connotations are equally evident as the nature ones, with the gunship finale reminiscent of another Vietnam, and the toppling of the Home Tree and its subsequent, rushing cloud of enveloping ash not dissimilar to 9/11 footage. This is where the film reverts back to ‘action epic’ type and reinvents the wheel, given Cameron’s great ‘revolutionary’ claim, with the genocidal, two-dimensional military villain, Colonel Miles Quaritch, played by a pumped Stephen Lang – like life-sized Chip Hazard from Small Soldiers, spouting groan-inducing, Uncle Sam-styled rallying one-liners. There are also moments of déjà vu with some of the military hardware borrowed from Aliens, such as Quaritch’s robotic ‘AMP Suit’ that is similar to Ripley’s in her alien fighting scenes.
Cameron does not miss a controversial trick in stirring up anti-invasion (post-Iraq) sentiments, too, going back as far as European colonisation of the indigenous Americans. Whatever Cameron says, his Na’vi quite literally represent the latter, living in a tribe, chanting in a tribe, throwing spears and arrows, living off the land, and believing in spirits like the jellyfish/fairy-like ‘Woodsprite’. Their horseback skills are demonstrated on the back of ‘Direhorses’ and flying winged creatures called ‘Banshees’ that they must connect with, mentally, in order to tame to ride. The story also flags interracial unions between the human/Avatar, Scully, and the spirited tribal leader’s daughter, Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana, who sulks like a teenage Xena, Warrior Princess and growls when things don’t go her way. The whole message is one of unity that is the Cameron-desired harmonious effect, or one that will spark scoffs from the more cynical among us.
Cameron’s claim that Avatar is the most challenging film that he has ever made is imaginatively correct. This sumptuous feast of visual vitality absorbs the viewer completely and has the necessary ‘wow’ factor and thrills. This alone is deserved of any cinema entrance fee. Narrative-wise, it can be a little preachy and convoluted in places, plus eyes-to-the-ceiling obvious in others, such as the call-to-battle scenes, but you are wooed back onto the side of Na’vi because of their gentle and graceful nature. For Cameron fans and cinema aficionados it is a must-see epic of epics for effects alone, but also because Cameron has another Avatar 2 story waiting in the wings…