Watching ‘Avatar’….and the slow death of the cinema

For as long as I can remember, I have loved going to the movies.  I still remember my dad taking me to ‘The Plaza’ on Wellingborough Rd to see a whole range of movies, including my first viewing of my favourite movie ever, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, when I was about 10 years old.  The Plaza, of course, ceased to be a cinema many years ago and last time I was past that way, I think it was some kind of furniture warehouse.  

 What got my Mum & Dad (and, therefore, me) to the cinema was the spectacle of it all.  Intense arthouse movies from the likes of Bergman or Bunuel were not likely to pack the crowds in at ‘The Plaza’, but anything that used the possibilities of a large screen – westerns, Bond movies, Hammer horror movies – these were all consumed with alacrity by the literati of Abington.

 There was a cinema here in the middle of Kings Heath, as well.  Called ‘The Kingsway’, it closed in 1980 and was until just recently a bingo hall

  

 Kings Heath High Street in 1949. The ‘Kingsway’  is set back from the road on the left of the shot.

 There’s even some amateur film footage of Kings Heath from 1960 that features ‘The Kingsway’ here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-z69OqEmTFk

 Here’s a more recent shot of ‘The Kingsway’ after the Bingo Hall closed…

 

 

 Back in the day when the ‘Kingsway’ was packing them in for the latest Bond or Hammer potboiler, a city the size of Birmingham would probably have had about 100 cinemas (taking a wild guess) but now it’s down to (I think) 4 in the city centre and probably about another half dozen in outlying suburbs like Erdington, Quinton and Longbridge.  Most of these are, of course multiplexes, but overall, this represents a massive drop in numbers of ‘screens’ since the heyday of movie houses which I’d guess would have been in the 30’s and 40’s.

 So, going back to my original starting point, I have always loved going to the movies, so why was my previous visit well over a year ago?  That was to see ‘Shine a Light’, Scorcese’s Rolling Stones concert movie, and I saw it at the ‘Electric’ Cinema which has just celebrated its 100th anniversary and after many years as a porn cinema has now reinvented itself as Birmingham’s only independent cinema.

 The Electric has built a small but loyal following on the basis of a shifting and eclectic programme, comfy settees at the rear of the auditorium and home-made cake and cups of tea delivered to your seat if you text them your order.

 

 Birmingham’s ‘Electric’ Cinema – Happy 100th birthday!

 Seeing a movie at the Electric is about as non-standard as it gets these days and if service and creativity count for anything, they deserve to survive another 100 years.  But you do wonder….if a self-confessed movie buff and cinema lover like me can measure the gaps between his visits in months and even years, then something is not right, somewhere along the line…and it’s probably down to technology…

 With all our stereo widescreen TV’s and DVD players, we can – in our own front rooms – drum up a quality of reproduction undreamed of when TV was in its infancy.  And with DVD’s piled cheap & high in the supermarkets and even given away free by newspapers, it takes something special to get us off our backsides and out to the cinema these days….something like ‘Avatar’ in 3D, perhaps…..

 So, off I duly trotted yesterday to Cineworld at the top of Broad Street.  This is a relatively new cinema, yet by my reckoning is already on its 3rd owners in less than 10 years.  I went to the mid-afternoon showing of the film, using one of their own ‘tokens’ (a birthday present from way back in March ’09) to get in.  Rather amusingly, my voucher ‘card’ (like a credit card) proceeded to crash the entire computer system; not once, but twice.  They had only one ‘ticket seller’ up and running, so a modest queue of justifiably irritated punters began to form behind me. In the end, they just waved me through.  Interestingly, they charge a supplement of nearly £2 a head for 3D movies, plus £0.80 for each pair of 3D glasses, so on a midweek afternoon, your bill is £7.00 even before you contemplate the range of congealed nachos and overpriced ice-creams on sale from various kiosks around the place.  Of course, I would imagine that if you live in London, it’s £7.00 for any movie, but then getting ripped off is one of the joys of living in our nation’s capital, so metropolitan cinephiles are no doubt used to it.

 So, having wandered through this forlorn establishment and shelled out £2.60 for possibly the worst cappuccino I have ever drunk, I wandered into an empty Screen 6 and sat dead centre.  I was interested to see ‘Avatar’ having read an excellent piece somewhere on the internet by a guy who argued passionately that the movie industry as a whole (and science fiction movie makers in particular) desperately needed ‘Avatar’ to be a success.  His thesis (roughly) was that ‘Avatar’ was the first truly original science fiction movie to be made since George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ prequels and that even ‘Star Wars’ had turned into just another franchise of the kind that were dominating Hollywood – ‘Batman’, ‘ X-Men’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Hellboy’ and so on.  In this guy’s view, James Cameron was the only director other than Spielberg who could get away with a high-concept original movie of such expense and complexity and that if ‘Avatar’ bombed, then the whole tradition of ‘going out to the movies’ was effectively doomed and Hollywood would just be subsumed within the TV industry. 

 With costs estimated at anywhere between $300 and $500 million, the backers of ‘Avatar’ are going to need it to be a colossal hit worldwide, but then movie producers have always done this kind of thing….the biggest, longest, most expensive, etc, yadda yadda………..goes with the territory.  Makes the $42 million Cimino blew on ‘Heaven’s Gate’ look like loose change, but as someone wisely remarked, we’ll only know whether ‘Avatar’ is deemed a success on the day that ‘Avatar 2′ starts production.

 So, the only question left to be answered was would ‘Avatar’ be like my cappuccino; an overpriced, misrepresented cupful of slop or would it fly?  About 15 other hardy (or maybe just unemployed) souls had also braved the snow  and joined me in the wide-open spaces of Screen 6 to find out the answer.  But first, the preamble …….remember those ‘Pearl & Dean’ advertising slots where your local curry house (“Just three minutes from this theatre’) would rub shoulders with trailers for ‘forthcoming attractions’?  Well, alongside a perfunctory ad for some sub-Harry Potter movie about to be released, what we got was an advert for a new television series starting soon on E4 plus a lengthy ad for some new computer game.  Nothing like advertising your competitors….and it occurred to me that maybe no-one else bothers with cinema ads any more.  A far cry from those surreal Benson & Hedges ads from the 70’s (with music by Godley & Creme) full of iguanas and swimming pools in the desert and giant packs of B&H getting helicoptered in….those were like works of art on their own…..

 And so to ‘Avatar’; on with the 3D glasses and away we go…..

 Let’s deal with the 3D thing first.  If you asked me whether ‘Avatar’ would have been as effective a movie without it, I would say ‘yes’.  3D might be good first time around and I’m glad I saw the film that way, but when I see it in future, any possible lack of 3D wouldn’t bother me.  I must say that the glasses they give you have come on a bit; mine looked like standard sunglasses rather than those cardboard things that make everyone look like they’re auditioning for Devo….

 As for the way Cameron uses 3D, it’s not particularly dramatic in my view and after the opening sequences, you could almost have forgotten that you were watching a 3D movie.  I think it’s to his credit that he doesn’t seem to have deliberately built in a load of sequences for 3D buffs, so what you do get in the early sequences on Pandora are insects buzzing around in the foreground (though this does noticeably drop off after a while) and grasses whipping around in the foreground whenever a helicopter lands…all pretty routine stuff.

 There is, inevitably, a lot of CGI footage in ‘Avatar’ and though it is largely rendered immaculately, I did have the feeling at times that I was watching an animated, rather than a ‘live action’ film.  The humans in this movie are pretty forgettable by and large, aside from foxy helicopter pilot Michelle Rodriguez (but that’s just my viewpoint and no-one else has to agree). Stephen Lang is effectively nasty as the military automaton Quaritch, but Sigourney Weaver is the only real marquee name on show here.  She, of course, has worked previously – and memorably – with James Cameron on ‘Aliens’ and puts in a reasonable shift as the feisty scientist Grace Augustine, but as you would expect, ‘Avatar’ is not a movie where the performances of the actors need detain us for long.  As Donald Wollheim remarked many years ago (and I paraphrase), science fiction is important for the ideas that it embodies rather than the depth of characterisation of its heroes.

 So what are the ideas behind ‘Avatar’ and do they advance the cause of human understanding at all?  Well, no, not really…

 Mentioning ‘Aliens’ is perhaps instructive, because like  ‘Aliens’ , ‘ Avatar’ features a corporate behemoth intent on transforming a planet for profit rather than out of any dewy-eyed idealism.  However, whilst Paul Reiser’s corporate slimeball from ‘Aliens’ is more than matched here by Giovanni Ribisi, the big difference on Pandora is that the aliens – the Na’vi- are indigenous, cultured and sympathetic in a way that Ripley’s insectoid adversaries never were.  Another point of comparison here would be Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, where an outsider penetrates an aboriginal alien culture and becomes their leader. 

 How blue can you get? Sam Worthington & Zoe Saldana explore the finer points of archery

 Anyway, straight off, Cameron gives us some symbolism and some clues – the alien planet is called Pandora and the hero, Jake Sully, is paraplegic but through his avatar, gets his legs back and becomes complete once again.

 BTW, I hope you aren’t looking for an explanation of the whole avatar thing here – it’s time consuming and a bit tedious to be honest and you can get the info from many other reviews.

 So much for symbolism – this early part of the film where Sully first interacts with his avatar is particularly well-handled as we experience his joy on getting his legs back and his early interaction with the Na’vi.

 After that…..well, it all becomes a bit obvious really.  The military and the corporate earthlings are just nasty and only in touch with their chain of command and their quarterly figures, whilst the Na’vi are warm and spiritual and have a direct physical relationship with the creatures of their planet.  We are asked to see all this through the eyes of Jake, who is beginning his journey from jarhead to acolyte rejecting the corporate & militaristic humans for the spirituality and community offered by the Na’vi.  Not that difficult a decision really….

 ‘Avatar’ works best when Cameron allows the planet of Pandora to take centre stage.  Yes fans will no doubt have been delighted to see the flying mountains of Roger Dean’s 1970’s album covers come to life and although the landscape is described as hostile to humans, the Na’vi appear to live in perfect balance with their environment.  To us, as Sully explores the jungle with his new-found love, Neytiri, it seems a magical environment with so much attention paid to detail. No longer are these things a case of sticking a few rubber plants there and a guy in a rubber suit here – Pandora is so unreal, it looks real….or should that be the other way round?

 

 So, the story progresses as most of us would expect – Sully becomes increasingly more and more compromised until, as Quaritch puts it, he ‘crosses the line’.  However thanks to Michelle Rodriguez’ renegade pilot and a few other enlightened pals, he is able to escape to help the Na’vi fight back against the despoiling human hordes who just seemingly just want to concrete over the whole planet and open endless fast food outlets…or branches of  the Edinburgh Woolen Mill…or Harry Ramsden’s…or  whatever…… 

Most of the final 40 minutes or so of the film are taken up with a wham-bam but overlong  battle sequence where good finally triumphs over evil – for now, at least.  By the movie’s end, Jake abandons his crippled human host and becomes a full-time Na’vi – Cameron at his misanthropic best   So, it seems that there’s peace in the valley, at least until ‘Avatar 2’ starts shooting.

 I negotiated the icy pavements and irregular buses of the early evening and arrived home to find a word-processed document stuffed through my door concerning the ‘Kingsway’ cinema on the High Street – ironic, n’est-ce pas?.  Seems like some people in this road are taking exception to a planning proposal being put in to transform the Kingsway into a ‘ 300-seat restaurant and 400 capacity banqueting suite’, mainly because of the attendant parking problems this would cause in roads such as this that are within walking distance of the venue.

 It’s a valid point, as parking in this road alone has become steadily more of a problem in the 20 years that I have lived here.  Even so, I can well imagine that the people who have put their name to this letter have been put up to it by one of the restauranteurs in adjoining Poplar Road. Those guys couldn’t really give a stuff about parking problems hereabouts but are far more concerned about the potential threat to their takings from another large (and presumably Asian) eating house in the locality.

 One of them – a swivel-hipped Fancy Dan (think Lionel Blair…) with a penchant for ruffled shirts, who gives his female clientele plenty of attention and a single red rose with their hugely inflated bill; you know the type -doorstepped me last year to try and drum up support against an application to open up another restaurant just a few doors up from his place.  I would perhaps have been more sympathetic were his prices for basic fare like onion bhajis and samosas not almost twice the going rate locally.  I only ate in that place once and though the food was OK, you got the feeling you were paying for all the fancy blinds and wooden floors, but that’s a whole new topic; don’t get me started…..anyway, I told him that I felt that competition would be good as it would encourage more realistic prices.  This was clearly not what he wanted to hear.

 So, perhaps the ‘Kingsway’s’ destiny is to be a venue for wedding receptions and the like, but that at least would be preferable to knocking the place down and concreting it over like Cameron’s bad guys in ‘Avatar’ .

As for the film, if you haven’t already, then see it and marvel at the technology that can make such things look real…..from De Mille & Griffith through Lean and Ford to Cameron & Spielberg; it’s a constant factor throughout the history of Hollywood.  And it’ll get you out of the house…..

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