Originality v Hollywood: Dawn of Mediocrity?

A curious phenomenon is occurring in the centre of society’s entertainment universe. Perhaps it’s a sense of potential failure casting a net of fear around what was once a creative powerhouse. Perhaps it’s a descent into mediocrity as our collective society has embraced a sense of complaisance, where banality passes for acceptable quality. Whatever it is, there can be no denying it: Hollywood appears to be running out of fresh ideas.

Instead, we’re being treated to the wonders of rehashed entertainment. I’m reminded of a sentence Nick Offerman’s character, Deputy Chief Hardy, says in 21 Jump Street (ironically, a reboot of a popular television series)

“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

I feel like this is exactly what an executive-led creative industry is doing. I can almost picture the suits in their corner offices somewhere in Los Angeles, cigar in hand, smug grin on their faces, signing-off another reboot, knowing that our pop-obsessive society will eat this all up and fatten the studio’s bottom line. How stupid do they really think we are?

There will come a point, hopefully soon, when cinema audiences will tire with this. When we will finally open our eyes to the fact that it’s the same movie, with the actors-du-jour fitted snugly in to a predictable plot.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m just as excited about the new Star Wars as the next fan. Likewise, I can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store with Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m an (obsessive?) follower of their Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, and an ardent watcher of both Arrow and The Flash, two of DC’s darling television spin-offs. These are all properties based off existing source material, whether it’s comic books or one of the most famous cinematic franchises of all time.

However, I feel that there are talented writers out there with exciting, fresh stories yearning to be unleashed from their paper bounds and brought forth onto the reflective-silver screens of our cineplexes. These stories are being marginalized when studio execs opt to “play it safe” with rehashes of recently-completed rehashes (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man), with bloated adaptations of beloved source material (The Hobbit) or the hope of capitalizing on unexpected, explosive success. In the case of this last example, I’m of course referring to the recent news that Lionsgate, boon of the young adult dystopian fiction adaptation fad, is considering continuing the Hunger Games stories beyond the book. As a fan of the series and its cast and wonderful director, I sincerely hope this will not materialize. Whilst it would be great to see more of the world that Katniss inhabits, and the fact that the last book left much to be desired in terms of an ending, the stories should just be left alone. Hollywood needs to learn about a story’s limits. They need to learn how to let go.

At the end of the day, we as cinemagoers make the final decision. We have a choice about what we want to watch. That’s the great thing about cinema: we live in an era when there are so many possibilities; were spoiled for choice, essentially. We can choose whether we feel like watching an inventive story like Birdman, or rekindle some nostalgic feels with a viewing of a Godzilla (or Ghostbusters or Robocop or Terminator) reboot. The thing I truly wish for, through, is for original stories to receive the same level of care and treatment that these existing, beloved properties are currently getting.

2015 in Cinema

2015 films

Every year I make a list of films I’m looking forward to. Being a cinephile, I make an effort to seek out not only those movies that I know will be surefire hits (I’m looking at you, Avengers 2), but also those dark horses (Chappie, perhaps?).

2015 looks like our best year in film yet. It’s got one of the most anticipated films of the past decade (Star Wars Episode VII), the gritty setup for Marvel Phase III with Avengers 2, and a host of reboots that I can’t wait to get into the cinema and watch.

Without further ado, here’s my pick of films to look out for this year.

(Films marked with an asterisk are my must-see items of the year).

  • Mortdecai (Jan 23)
  • Jupiter Ascending (Feb 6)
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service (Feb 13)
  • *Chappie (Mar 8)
  • The Gunman (Mar 13)
  • Furious 7 (Apr 3)
  • *Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15)
  • Tomorrowland (May 22)
  • *Jurassic World (Jun 12)
  • Inside Out (Jun 19)
  • Ted 2 (Jun 26)
  • Terminator Genisys (Jul 1)
  • Minions (Jul 10)
  • *Ant-Man (Jul 17)
  • Pan (Jul 24)
  • Pixels (Jul 24)
  • Hitman: Agent 47 (Aug 28)
  • Everest (Sep 18)
  • Victor Frankenstein (Oct 2)
  • St. James Place (Oct 16)
  • *Spectre (Nov 6)
  • *The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Nov 20)
  • The Good Dinosaur (Nov 25)
  • The Martian (Nov 25)
  • Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Dec 18)
  • Mission: Impossible 5 (Dec 25)

A lot of exciting films coming out this year, but a few notable mentions regarding this year’s selection: this is the first year that Pixar Animation Studios will be releasing two films in one year. Perhaps this will make up for last year’s lack of a single film from Emeryville, CA. I do hope they regain their classic touch, something I feel they’ve lost in recent releases.

Star Wars will be the biggest movie of this year. Yes, even bigger than Marvel’s “Avengers” sequel. That’s because there’s so much riding on this movie, such anticipation, and most of all: the great mysteries surrounding this release are sure to compel fans new and old to this franchise to check out what director J.J. Abrams has in store.

Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which will release sometime later this year (no official date yet). This revenge western set around the Civil War is another film I’m really excited about.

I will once again post my thoughts on some of the films above once I’ve seen them, and this year I will also write a few posts a month on cinema, the technical aspects of the industry and my thoughts on some of these upcoming releases, in anticipation of watching them.

Dawn of the Age of Spectacular Performance Capture

RavP8uSbC0Ux
Good science fiction stories offer one an opportunity to escape to fantastical worlds. Great science fiction goes a step further: it brings up philosophical issues, questions human nature and societal constructs. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes certainly falls into the latter category. It is a film deserving of the “blockbuster” status because it not only has a deeply compelling narrative, but immerses audiences in captivating performances, breathtaking scenery and masterful use of new cinematic technologies to bring a screenplay that’s rich with layered meanings to life.

I haven’t watched the original “Planet of the Apes” films, so my review won’t be comparative. Instead, I approached this film as a continuation of “Rise”, and as one of the tentpole action films of mid-2014. “Dawn” is so good that I actually watched it twice – in both 2D and 3D.

Director Matt Reeves does a sterling job of balancing intense, emotional scenes with Caesar and his brethren of apes, and explosive action sequences between apes and humans. This is the kind of pacing and delivery that so many sci-fi films of late are lacking – here’s hoping this film serves as a guide on how to make a good, well-rounded picture. Ape society, led by Caesar and now thriving 10 years after the events of “Rise”, comes across as a sort of parallel to (early) human society – one that is built on the foundations of fear-induced leadership to some extent. This becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses and one of the two primary villains, Koba, wins over the apes. Parallels can again be drawn between Caesar and his son, Blue Eyes, and Malcolm and his son – this suggestion of similarity between both species brings heart to the story and adds an appreciated dimension to both Caesar and Malcolm, the two protagonists of their respective species.

The villains of “Dawn” are well crafted. We can empathise with both Dreyfus (the human villain played by the always brilliant Gary Oldman) and Koba (the rogue ape that turns on Caesar). This is a mark of good screenwriting:  both ape and human villains have justifiable reasons for their respective actions, and if one were in their place, one could indeed see themselves acting similarly. Both parties are operating inherently on fear, and on trying to preserve their respective species. This is where the philosophical implications arise: can two dominant, intelligent species co-exist? This is explored to an extent, but along with the entire plot, sets up the answer to be determined in the planned sequel to be directed by Reeves with a release in July 2016.

Now, intrinsic to the sci-fi genre is the use of high-end cinematic technology to create such immersive experiences. And in “Dawn”, the true star is the spectacular use of performance capture. Watch the video below to see how not only body motion, but intricate facial expressions were captured and superimposed onto the ape CG models.

Andy Serkis is a veritable legend when it comes to performance capture, cementing his role as the leader in this realm with his breakout role as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In “Dawn”, he brings Caesar to life, creating the most compelling digital character I’ve ever seen. Watching this film in 3D with Dolby Atmos sound is an experience unlike any other; the Atmos soundscape draws you in to the auditory world, and the 3D used in this film is some of the best in an otherwise contentious aspect of modern blockbuster cinema. It felt like I was right there next to Caesar and Malcolm, right there in dystopian San Francisco witnessing the battle for the fittest species.

Michael Giacchino adds to the film’s overall impression with a great musical score that is equal parts nostalgic – the high notes of energetic flutes mixed with thunderous brass and strings, and powerful timpani – and dynamic, creating a strong soundscape that accentuates the drama unfolding onscreen.

The future of this rebooted Apes franchise should, in my opinion, be the arc of Caesar – thus, there should be a new human cast in the next film, so that we see how Caesar’s interactions with various humans affects his judgement as the battle for the Planet of the Apes reaches its high point. Having said that, it would still be nice to have James Franco return, at least briefly, and meet Caesar. That would be another poignant ape/human interaction that would add immense tension to the impending battle.

Should you see this movie? Well, let me put it this way: apes on horseback, with machine guns, riding through flames. Your argument is invalid. Go and see this. Now.