I watched Avatar in IMAX 3D, adding my above-average share to its 2+ billion record box office, after I read half of the Cinefex article covering it. Here are some quotes NOT about the technical details but about the revolutionary and illuminary visions.

A 4-second Shot Takes 50TB

This is from another article on 2012 in the same issue about the shot of an aircraft carrier hitting the White House. It just shows the incredible scale of current CG technology.

Scanline keyframe animated the aircraft carrier to slowly roll in the crest of the wave, then added secondary animation, including tiny aircraft skidding across the deck. A dynamic fluid simulation created a film of water across the surface of the ship. “One of the hardest things in CG water is to make surfaces look wet,” noted (Scanline visual effects supervisor Stephen) Trojansky. “If you render little particles falling over a surface, it still looks dry. Instead, we simulated sheets of water contacting the ship. Those simulations were done at such a high level, interacting with every little airplane wheel and curve on the deck, they filled 50 terabytes of space.

Reinvent the Wheel When You Should

Man am I in the wrong industry. This is a coder’s dream come true: do things in the right way from first principles. BTW I think the Ring Trilogy’s greatest legacy is not the movies themselves, but the Weta companies. They were founded before the Rings, but the Rings elevated them to truly world-leading FX shops. And almost every Cinefex article I read afterwards mentions the use of Massive.

“To figure out how we were going to light and render these very big, complex shots, ” explained (Weta Digital visual effects supervisor–now director–Joe) Letteri, “we went back to ground zero and questioned everything we had ever done. A lot of techniques that are used in computer graphics go back 20, 25 years. They were developed in the days when computers didn’t have early the speed and power that they have today; and so there were a lot of shortcuts taken. Back then, you could never render something as big as what we were rendering for this show. Now that we could do that, what was the best way? Was it still appropriate to use these old ideas? We reexamined every technique we’d ever used. If it held up, great; if it didn’t, we came up with something new.” …

“The goal of everyone over the years has been to make shots look real,” stated Letteri. “But we decided to bite the bullet and make them real, to actually calculate the reality.” (The example is CG character movements are driven by real muscles, fat and tissue, instead of fake muscles “like balloons under the skin that move based on joint movement” and so forth.)

You Can Do Anything You Want, but You Don’t

This one is from James Cameron at the end of the article, showing how far CG has come, and how far he is ahead of everyone else.

“…when you’ve got all these possibilities, when you can do any kind of action imaginable, …you have to be very disciplined. Applying rigor and discipline to the process has been the biggest challenge, in fact. Early on, we came up with the principle of denying ourselves infinite possibility–which sounds wrong. You’d think you’d want to embrace the infinite possibility; but you don’t because you’ll never get there. Ever. We stood by the principle of making a creative decision in the moment, and never second-guessing it. And just by making that decision, we had eliminated possibility. Every single day was about eliminating possibility, in face.”

My aunt has been teaching technologies in Beijing Film Academy for many years. She was an early (for China) proponent of digital film making, and a few years ago she asked me to get her Cinefex so she doesn’t have to fight other people for getting it from the library. I don’t know other specialized magazines, but every issue of the quarterly Cinefex is like an art book. I enjoyed flipping the pages to see the amazing FX/CGI shots, and learned the basic storyline about some latest movies.

One of the few things I really learned is that an FX shot sometimes doesn’t look like FX at all, and those are probably the hardest ones to make. A funny anti-sample is that Peter Jackson said among all the things he did for Lord of the Ring, including adjusting color tint for almost every shot, he did NOT do anything to Frodo Baggins’ blue eyes.

Still, I was surprised to see a cover of an old-aged Benjamin Button. What’s special about a makeup?

Turns out it’s a very significant milestone in FX. We’re probably still many years from a really convincing 100% CG head (Final Fantasy was a decent try), but BB shows that we can already do CG head tracked to human almost perfectly.

The movie itself was a bit lame, as the concept is way too bizarre, and it’s pretty absurd and pretentious when the artificially young and handsome Brad Pitt tried to act and speak with 60 years of life experiences. So when I first watched it without knowing the FX behind it, I was really bored. I didn’t see any FX, and that’s the best FX there possibly can be.

Finally I watched it, after years of knowing it, and months of recording it on DVR.

And I can’t wait another minute to write about it. Thank god tomorrow (er, today) is Thanksgiving.

I think it was one of the earliest western movies semi-publicly shown in China in the 80’s, so I’ve known its name for a long time. Fortunately I only knew one spoiler, that a runner gave up an Olympic event due to his religion and won another, so up until the scene where Liddell learned about the Sunday heat (actually he knew months ago and trained specifically for 400m and earned his spot), I thought it was Abrahams who gave up something on Saturday.

I knew Vangelis from some songs from his collaboration with Yes’s Jon Anderson (mostly from the 1981 album The Friends of Mr. Cairo, in the same year as the movie). I can probably write a full post about that, but basically those were among the first rock (in a general sense) songs I’d ever heard, and they just blew my mind wide open. “Outside of This (Inside of That)” is still one of my favorites to date. And the super long (12’04) and winding title song was like a complete short film. And I can still hear the ocean wave in Mayflower now when I close my eyes, which I played during a family gathering when we made dumplings together and was ridiculed (on the same tape I had Genesis’s Domino, and someone commented “is that what they called the Screaming Rock Star?”). Oh, and I couldn’t believe it when I found out after many years that the singer is a man.

Anyhow. The movie theme song is one of those modern classics that have been so abused that hearing it would almost cause instant nausea, but it really serves the movie well. And I’m surprised that Vangelis did the whole song track (except those hymns, of course), which must be a first in movie history, blasting the way for cheap synth into pop culture (followed by the Beverly Hills Cop theme). By “cheap” I mean the cheapest keyboard can do it now, but it certainly was beyond everyone’s imagination back then.

I think I read somewhere that the movie is considered a milestone for modern sports movies. The script is very well written (deserving its Oscar) with the interleaved and contrasting paths of two great athletes. The movie is very well paced, in 80’s standard at least. And all the slow mo’s actually aren’t that sickeningly cliche, for example the 100m final goes in real time in the first play, and slow mo’ed a few short times afterwards, just like a real TV broadcast nowadays.

Other interesting tidbits:

  • In the opening scene when they ran to the Carlton Hotel (J noticed the name; in real life it’s a student residence hall) in the distance, I said “that looks like St. Andrews”. Lo and behold, it is actually filmed there. And most of the runners in the scene are caddies there.
  • I couldn’t understand most of the dialog in the beginning due to the English and Scottish accent, and that I couldn’t turn up the volume since baby is sleeping. So the first half was quite confusing as I couldn’t understand how the two runners are related until Abrahams watched Liddell winning the 400m after falling down.
  • I can’t believe Liddell’s story isn’t more known in China (especially this year), since he is the first Chinese-born Olympic gold medalist and he dedicated the second half of his life to Chinese people. (Actually I completely understand why: he’s a missionary. Religion is poison, isn’t.) He was born in a missionary family in Tianjin, died in a internment camp in 潍坊, and buried in the same cemetery along with Norman Bethune and Dwarkanath Kotnis.
  • Sam Mussabini is a very successful coach. He coached Olympic gold medalists in 1908, 12, and 20 games, so Abrahams in 24 would be almost like a routine for him. So his emotional celebration in the movie is probably another nice fabrication.
  • When the Americans appear in the Olympics, I was wondering how many stars the flags have (should be 48). Wikipedia and IMDb say the flags in the movie all have 50 stars.
  • In real life, the text from the Bible was handed to Eric Liddell by a coach on the US team, not by Jackson Scholz, who actually won the 200m (Liddell won bronze, and Abrahams was last in final).
  • I thought the scene in a church where Liddell gave signature to a young girl was odd, because I thought Jennie was his wife (she’s his sister), so it’s completely against his religious conviction to flurt with a girl in front of his wife. IMDb says that a scene was cut where he courts the same girl in Paris, and she is from Canada, as is Liddell’s real life wife.
  • I suppose the Paris Olympics scenes are pretty accurate. What a contrast with Beijing 2008! The stadium is smaller than a high school football field. There’s no show or firework. And the runners have to dig their own holes at starting line.
  • The rather conspicuous Lipton Tea sign (the only one) in the stadium for the 100m may be a sign of commercialization, just like the fact that Abrahams used a professional coach, of which the Cambridge guys accused him, is probably a sign of the death of amateurism in Olympics.

It’s a quite disturbing movie, not because the guy got away with a double (or rather, triple) homicide and kept his rag-to-riches marriage intact, but because the staleness and cliches of the story.

The only thing I like is the soundtrack, mostly of Caruso singing Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. It’s not that I like that opera or opera in general, but the heavily scratched mono sound is ironically a lot more innocent and pristine compared to the storyline and characters. The opera is a comedy, but the segments used in the soundtrack all sound tragic and dramatic, making a great ambiance.

And I really can’t understand what’s the fuss about Scarlett Johansson. Sure she looks much better than Sarah Jessica Parker, but “sexist” or “most beautiful” woman alive? Seems like some people just have a fetish of fat lips. A while ago I lamented the lack of classic beauty nowadays, and the popularity of people like Johansson and Jessica Alba seem to corroborate that.

I saw it in my dad’s video collection many years ago, but never got to watch it. The title always sounds enticing, as Helena Bonham Carter–she’s not pretty, but what an actress, a perfect personification of the Corpse Bride and match for the cranky and creative Tim Burton.

I can’t remember when I requested it from the library–must be several months ago. Given that the borrow period for DVD is only 7 days, it’s a pretty hot item.

It’s a pretty slow movie, boring at times, but the pace is perfect for the storyline and the atmosphere. These British films have a special cunningness and charm, with the ageless Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. It was Daniel Day-Lewis’ (then 28) break-out role, and certainly Carter’s (then only 19) as well. What careers are ahead of them!

The hilarious Reverend Mr. Beebe was played by Simon Callow, a good supporting actor in many movies. From what I’ve seen: Emanuel Schikaneder (the librettist of Die Zauberflöte) in Amadeus (his film debut), the wonderfully gay (in both senses) Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Sir Edmund Tilney (Master of the Revels) in Shakespeare in Love.

And we’re pleasantly surprised to see Florence featured in many shots–the first half of the story all happened there. It’s a wonderful feeling, though banal, to see a landmark in a movie and think “yeah I’ve been there, it’s not that pretty”.

Given our closest friend Cindy’s 8.5-month pregnancy, there’s not much for which she can go outside except the cinema. And there’s not many movies she can take. Also given our recent tendency to see 2nd-rate movie set in Europe as semi tourism documentary (Under Tuscan Sun, Casanova, Da Vinci Code), A Good Year is but the only choice for this weekend.

Turns out it’s almost as I expected: banal story, no-acting (doesn’t/can’t) Russell Crowe, good references to wine, but not enough Provence. The title is pretty pointless beyond the association to vintage. The market manipulation that earned Russell Crowe 77 million pounds is too childish. The belle of the town is too easy to get. Don’t waste your time unless you unconditionally love Russell Crowe.

Well, since you’ve already wasted some time reading this, why not a few more minutes, since most other actors/actresses are worth mentioning:

  • Freddie Highmore: I watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory earlier this year with my parents, in which Johnny Depp is way too wacky, so the boy saved the movie. Another fine young Englishman besides the gang of Harry Potter. And doesn’t he look like Haley Joel Osment? I guess it’s McCaulay Culkin who started this boy star look.
  • Albert Finney: I had only watched a couple of movies by this veteran before: Erin Brockovich and Big Fish. According to IMDB, he played the judge in the history-marking 1990 The Wall Live in Berlin, which I watched back in China and of course don’t remember anything except the wall breaking down at the end. He’s quite perfect for the role of mumbling adagial uncle, a bit like his role in Big Fish. Another fine old Englishman besides Michael Cane.
  • Tom Hollander: he looked awfully familiar, and we later found out that he’s the dim-witted Mr. Collins in the latest Pride and Prejudice, which J likes a lot. He seems too perfect to be type-casted…
  • Marion Cotillard: Hollywood is pretty good at sticking to a few proven foreign actresses. It seems like there are only 3 French women in the world: Juliette Binoche, Audrey Tautou, and this gal. She probably got famous as the cute/hot girlfriend from the most hilarious Taxi series (the American remake is so lame), and then we saw her in Big Fish (again) and A Very Long Engagement–oh sorry, that’s a French movie. She’s better playing cute, but she looks great in this movie–what did Russell Crowe do that deserves her?!
  • Abbie Cornish: Maybe the next beauty from Australia, ironically she plays a dumb American blonde, who supposedly knows a lot about wine because she grew up in Napa Valley. She really ought to watch Sideways carefully and learn from Virginia Madsen–now that’s a woman who knows wine!

My dad mentioned it a while ago, and I watched and liked Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes not too long ago. Bill Murray plays himself in one of the funniest C&C segments.

The movie won last year’s Grand Prix (2nd to Palm d’Or) at Cannes. It seems like a midway between indie and mainstream, and it feels like Sideways since they both cover some kind of mid-life crisis. The rhythm isn’t as tight as Sideways, or I’m just too stupid to know what the director means. Bill Murray has come a long way from Caddyshack (a big letdown for me) and Ghostbusters. I like Groundhog Day, but his latest movies are all kind of odd ball. And when there are long shots of your expressionless face, you’d be better look not too bad compared to Greta Garbo, otherwise it bores the viewer down.

Although I like the subtleties and anti-climatic ending, there are some things that I don’t quite care about. First, Winston (not Carmen’s dead dog, please) is just too unreal, too much of a setup to drive the story and having words stuff in his mouth, e.g. “you’re like Don Juan or something”.

Second, the whole movie has a denigrative feeling towards women. Surely our Don Juan feels lonely and sad and lost now, but boy did he have fun and girls and money! And look at the women he went after, each one being in a worse state than the previous:

  1. Laura’s race car driver husband died in a crash, and she’s a professional closet organizer. Now that’s not a skeleton in a closet, that’s a real Sharon Stone in there! And her daughter Lolita seems more voluptuous than the other you-know-who Lolita?! Give me a break, that household seems too much like every man’s daydream.
  2. Dora the hippie goddess is now a real estate slut who lives in a box cutter home in suburban desert. Dora’s husband, Ron (Christopher McDonald), looks so right as a real estate dude. I don’t know if Jarmusch meant to spoof Buddy “The Real Estate King” in American Beauty (Peter Gallagher), but they sure do look alike. Or maybe all real estate dudes look alike.
  3. Carmen the lawyer is now a lesbian animal psychic with a hot assistant/partner. Her life isn’t bad at all, but from Don’s perspective, which is the perspective of a common man, Carmen is a double curse: first it’s a banal joke that he turned his girlfriend into a lesbian; then she took a hot girl away from the world of men. Maybe there’s yet a 3rd curse: she “communicates” with animals, which is so out of this men’s world of reason and logic.
  4. Penny lives in a dump with some bikers.
  5. Michelle Pepe died 5 years ago.

And at the end Sherry, played by the lovely Julie Delpy from White and Before Sunrise/Sunset, hints that she may be coming back. And Don probably could have had an affair with the sunny Sun Green if he wanted to. He doesn’t deserve any one of them! What is this movie, the confession and redemption of Don Juan? What did he do to redeem himself? What can he do? If Jarmusch is really indie at heart, why didn’t he reverse the sex of the roles?

Well, I guess Jarmusch is just being honest, and it’d be doubly bad if the movie were about a female Don Juan visiting her ex-es: men won’t like it, and women think it’s demonizing. It’s a sad world of men–I don’t mean it’s sad for men, but it’s men’s world, which is sad for women. Both Lola and Sun Green lit up when they mistook Don’s name for Don Johnson. Oh well.

BTW I just learned from Wikipedia that the kid in the car in the last scene is Bill Murray’s real life son. That’s sly.

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