31 December 2009

Crap year capped by a great movie

In 1999 the movie The Blair Witch Project came out fuelled by hyped generated largely via the internet courtesy of a clever and creative marketing campaign, turning the low budget “mockumentary” into the most profitable movie ever made in terms of how much it cost to make versus the mega bucks it raked in.

Several people found it scary, but many people criticised that the movie wasn’t as scary as the hype made it out to be. At the time I was working at a cinema and I too was caught up in the hype, and even though I was generally impressed with the film and found it scary to a certain degree, I wouldn’t rank it as the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

However, a decade later, upon seeing Paranormal Activity, I came to realise perhaps why I wasn’t as scared out of my mind as I should’ve been. Blair Witch was set in a wide open forest, and although it had its fair share of scares, like the scenes in the tent, it was somewhat diminished by its outdoor setting, and a lot of what was supposed to scare you was mainly the psychological state of the characters and how they reacted to strange things that began to occur.

We see them filming stuff that was left behind for them to find that freak them out, and we see them running away from something menacing. Although those things are scary to a certain degree, a lot of people sometimes tend to overrate the psychological scares, praising it as way scarier than actually seeing the real thing. Although that is true, you have to at least see something, which Blair Witch doesn’t offer really. The opposite end of the spectrum, seeing the blood and the phantoms in all their glory, is also not scary, and that’s why I appreciate that Paranormal Activity situates itself in the sweet, chewy centre, showing something while showing nothing at all.

I’m kind of surprised that nobody thought of this idea earlier, and that it took someone exactly ten years after Blair Witch to come up with it. A guy called Micah lives in a nice house with his girlfriend Kate, who has a history of being visited upon by beings from the spirit realm, and Micah takes it upon himself to discover how true her claims are by having a video camera film them while they sleep, to see if anything happens.

And therein lies the genius of the setup: spooky things happen in the enclosed environment of a house, a much scarier proposition than in a big forest, which makes this movie much creepier than The Blair Witch Project. So there are no discovering of rocks outside a tent or finding someone’s ear or weird symbols hanging all over the place. We see doors moving, sheets moving and… I don’t want to spoil it by saying any more than that in case you haven’t seen it.

And don’t be fooled into thinking you can catch it on DVD because it’s all video camera footage anyway. Paradoxically, the best place to watch this movie is on the big screen in a cinema filled with willing participates as that just adds to the atmosphere and it’s fun to hear the people around you freaking out as everyone sits watching the screen in absolute bladder bursting suspense as to what’s going to happen next to this poor couple. I literally felt the hairs on my neck stand up with each scare and giggled along with the audience each time a new scene started showing the couple sleeping in bed moments before something happens.

This didn’t feel like a movie as much as it felt like an experience, something that gets you truly excited about going to the movies and getting truly caught up in what’s happening on the screen and leaving the cinema feeling that you’ve watched something really special. For a long time I was becoming jaded with the films that has been coming out, especially this past decade where I can’t think of any movie that has really stood out for me in the way that a film like The Matrix stood out for me (again) ten years ago in 1999 with its innovation and great ideas.

On the same day I watched Paranormal Activity I also saw the movie Invictus, and although I enjoyed watching it considering how relevant it is to me as a South African, the whole time I felt like I was watching Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon instead of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar. That kind of thing takes you out of the experience.

In contrast, Paranormal Activity had no stars, which is why I could so immerse myself in the fictional tale. If I had my way, I would want all films to star excellent actors who are unknowns instead of film stars who I can’t help recognise as film stars, thus taking me out of the experience. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but not often.

Of the films that attracted my attention this year, Paranormal Activity is the best, followed a close second by District 9. But within the genre film category, Paranormal Activity might very well be my favourite film of this decade, right on the eve of the next decade, which I hope will bring us more films that truly captures the imagination with its innovation and sheer passion.

31 August 2009

My (unbiased, I promise) verdict on District 9

I was well aware of the hype and buzz surrounding District 9 going in, and what that usually does is fill me with dread. Because more often than not, the movie does not live up to the hype and typically leaves me going, “uh... huh…?” when the credits roll. The Dark Knight was a case in point last year, possibly for me the most overrated movie of all time.

And I was expecting that with District 9. That’s until, of course, I found myself at the end of movie wondering why I wasn’t having that feeling, after which I then escaped out of the cinema’s emergency exit for the purposes of research on my current project. (But that’s a story for another day) It wasn’t as if I was sitting there happy about the film or anything, I just didn’t feel disappointed like I usually do after I’ve watched films that are hyped this much. I thought, could this be a repeat of what happened recently when another much-hyped movie, Slumdog Millionaire, surprised me by being as good as what people said it was?

Then again, I just came from watching GI Joe with exactly that same neutral feeling, but before it ended I had already decided that GI Joe couldn’t really have been better (it could have been worse) than it was because for those kind of big, franchise, tentpole, US summer-type movies, nothing really original can come from it because those movies are made by committee and focus groups and 100 screenwriters so the best you can do is just make the most visually kick-ass movie you can that doesn’t annoy you with too many glaring inconsistencies or pseudo-smart convoluted plotting, all of which GI Joe manages to pull off. For all its visual creativity, however, I didn’t much care for GI Joe.

But then I kinda let District 9 play back in my mind a few times just to make sure if it was all hype or if it was actually good, and when I didn’t find very many reasons for what was wrong with it, I came to the conclusion that this must have been a darn good movie.

Not that I was biased about District 9 either. To be honest, I actually cringed the first few minutes listening to the South African accents because I was so used to expecting such hyped-up movies to come with American accents. To me it initially felt strange and awkward, but as the movie went on I started getting used to it. What helped with that was the many funny moments in the film which softened me up a bit. Also, concerning bias, even though I watched a movie like Jerusalema twice, I really wanted to like it, but found it really didn’t do much for me. I felt an all too familiar feeling that the whole rags to riches gangster film has been done before, and that movie didn’t bring anything new besides the stealing-of-buildings part, which was a gimmick that just came and went.

District 9 on the other hand was quite unique. You can argue that the concept of aliens interacting with normal human society was borrowed from the movie (and tv series) Alien Nation. But whereas Alien Nation’s angle was post-Apartheid integration, District 9’s angle is Apartheid separation. But the way it breaks new ground I think is what happens to the main character Wikus. If you see it as an Apartheid allegory, then what happens to Wikus is something that could never have happened during Apartheid, which is an angle that no other similarly-themed movie that I can think of has taken before and which makes that last shot of the movie all the more moving.

But the other unique aspect of the movie is the sharp contrast of the high-tech visuals within the harsh slum conditions, which no other sci-fi movie has done and which no other Hollywood movie would ever even have considered because in America and Europe there just aren’t any slums as bad as we have, and what reason would there be to set a high-tech sci-fi movie in a slum? That idea alone is worth making the movie.

If there was one tiny flaw in the movie (**SPOILER ALERT**) then it was the thin slice of cheddar stuck between Wikus and Christopher’s (the main alien) relationship when they parted ways.

But that’s just nit-picking. District 9 is a phenomenal achievement and deserves all the praise it’s getting. I look forward to seeing it showered with accolades when awards season rolls around early next year.

30 July 2009

The significance of District 9 on the South African movie landscape.

I think this is shaping up to be an exciting year for South African stories expressed via film. Later this year we’ll see the release of probably the most important film to come out of South Africa based on events surrounding the 1995 Rugby World Cup (won by the Springboks) titled either The Human Factor or Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Matt Damon as Springbok captain Francois Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as THE LEGEND Nelson Mandela. (Would love to see the scene where Freeman hands over the trophy to Damon)

But before that one we’ll see the release of a movie that is definitely something we’ve never before experienced in South African film history: a film without fake American accents, set and shot entirely in South Africa, with no overseas stars and undoubtedly the biggest budget ($30 million) of any previous film and yet it is amongst the genre films coming out this year that is receiving the kind of buzz comparable to the release of a Hollywood movie made by James Cameron or Stephen Spielberg.

That movie is called District 9 and it has been setting the internet abuzz with anticipation due largely to the involvement of Peter Jackson, but also due to a very intriguing trailer that has gone viral since its release a few months ago. And now after seeing the movie, websites such as Ain’t It Cool News and Chud are singing its praises, even going so far as to say that the special effects are better than that of another hotly anticipated sci-fi movie coming out called Avatar by the King-Of-The-World™ himself James Cameron.

Well, that has to be seen to believed, but in the mean time it’s great that for the first time in a long while I’ve been this excited by a movie, and local one nogal! The movie tells the story of aliens (the live-long-and-prosper kind) landing in downtown Johannesburg and are met with resentment and hostility by the locals, forcing government to round them all up into makeshift camps, a scenario which is eerily similar to the incidents of xenophobia we’ve experienced recently, something which I guess was a lucky accident for the filmmakers as it will make the film all the more relevant. Well, for us South Africans anyway.

For Americans and others it will be just another kick-ass sci-fi movie, and perhaps much more if early reports of just how great this film is are to be believed. Apparently the director and co-screenwriter of the movie, Neill Blomkamp, made a short film involving the same scenario, and upon which District 9 is based, called Alive In Joburg, and it leaves me wondering exactly where does one get to see films like these as they are hardly ever publicised and never EVER shown on TV where they should be, and I’m such a sucker for a sci-fi premise set in the real world.

So I wish this film all the success of a bona-fide Hollywood sleeper hit ($40 million opening weekend States side??) and I’ll definitely be the first in line on opening weekend. Try and stop me you local haterzzz! (yes, you KNOW who you are, don’t pretend!)

09 July 2009

Why was he the King Of Pop?

With Michael Jackson’s very emotional memorial service this past Tuesday now behind us and with his fans gradually beginning to come to terms with his passing, I’ve been considering a lot about what perhaps could have been the reasons behind the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson, and I have come up with some theories that I’ve been mulling over ever since I learned of his death.

The legend that is Michael Jackson and the unprecedented support that has been showed towards him throughout his life and in his untimely death is, in my opinion, the result of various factors coming together to create a so called ‘perfect storm’. All the right ingredients were present at exactly the right time and they were all mixed together to create the legend of Michael Jackson, which is probably why this may never occur again within our lifetime.

The ingredients, which you’ll probably find separately in other people, go roughly as follows:

  • A great singing ability
  • a great dancing ability
  • the tragedy of a cruel father that put undue pressure on him to perform and thus sacrifice his childhood which resulted in his love for children and was also probably the cause of his supposed asexuality, which thus had an influence on how he was perceived by the public
  • not fitting in with his peers and feeling like an outcast, which could have given him extra motivation to use his unusual abilities to gain respect and love from the public
  • being in the precise moment to have met other talented collaborators like Quincy Jones who helped crafted a groundbreaking commercial crossover album that would propel him to superstardom across all races
  • being the black underdog in the white orientated landscape of pop music and culture
  • his eagerness to always be different and innovative
  • having the personality that despite all his hardships never made him bitter and rebellious and always maintaining his shy and soft-spoken nature, which made him seem vulnerable and caused people to be protective of him.

I think if you were to take just one or two of these factors out of the equation Michael Jackson wouldn’t have been as big as he is today, because a lot of these factors exist separately in various other people but all these strands somehow conspired to converge all at once into the person known as Michael Jackson.

That’s my two cents on the matter, and if anyone has any thoughts and opinions about this I’d love to know what you think.

01 July 2009

Cape Town Book Fair and the search for graphic novels

People sure love their books

I know I was supposed to post this a while back, but better late than AWOL.

Last month I attended my first ever book fair, the Cape Town Book Fair. Yes, it may seem strange for an author who has released a book to have not been to a book fair yet, but there’s a lot of things that’s strange about me and how I got to create a graphic novel, so let’s just say that the normal rules don’t apply to me and leave it at that for now.

South African superstar author John van der Ruit signing his latest 'Spud' sequel
As a graphic novelist, the one thing that struck me about the book fair, aside from there being a whole lot of books, was the obvious absence of graphic novels. And that was disappointing considering the rise of popularity of the format globally. The only significant graphic novel presence was the Readers Den booth, which is a comics shop in Cape Town.

When I spoke to the guy in charge of the booth about why he thought there was such scant graphic novel representation, he gave me the typical response about South Africa always being behind the times, but then he also filled me in about how the book fair organisers had supposedly planned some kind of focus on graphic novels but were unable to secure significant sponsorship from the book industry.

Something I stumbled upon that I found quite interesting was a booth that featured, amongst other stuff, graphic novels based on classic novels such as Jane Eyre, Frankenstein and a few Charles Dickens books plus some graphic novel adaptations of William Shakespeare plays as well, all by a publisher called Classic Comics. I can’t exactly remember who the booth belonged to, but the graphic novels were merely amongst the many other publications they distributed in South Africa, so it wasn’t their main area of focus. But it was nonetheless quite exciting to see such revered work being translated into the ‘disposable’ format of comics.

I have to admit, for most of my time at the fair an all too familiar feeling came over me: that I was an outsider, a stranger in this world of literary types. There still seems to be this notion that real books is all about words only, and that if it contains pictures then it must be for kids. I feel a bit disappointed by a large majority of South Africans that in this world of the internet and global connectivity that they still have this outdated and elitist view of graphic novels, as if it cannot approach anything close to real literature.

The only graphic novel/comic presence at the fair was the Readers Den comics shop

When you consider what literature fundamentally is, which is the expression of stories, ideas, emotions and humanity via the words of an author, why do we continue to assume that pictures (the same pictures when framed in an art gallery is revered) cannot express those same stories, ideas, emotions and humanity when integrated with word balloons?

So I guess the journey to enlightenment continues. Who knows, maybe next year. We can only pray.

26 June 2009

It is a sad day that Michael Jackson is no more

It is sad because to me Michael Jackson was not just the super famous pop star with mind-blowing singing and dancing skills that had me and the world mesmerised as a child, he was also a true artist in the sense that he was a creator, pioneer and storyteller.

For him it wasn’t just about music, it was about an experience, which means that the one thing I’ll always bemoan is that my circumstances never allowed me to go to his live show when he was in South Africa in 1997. I always made myself feel better by saying that I’ll catch him on his next visit when his promoting his next album, which I assumed would happen with his 2001 album Invincible. But that never materialised.

Then he disappeared off the scene and got caught up in child molestation accusations, which seemed to drag on forever and threatened to end his music career. But when he was acquitted, I was satisfied because it meant that he could focus on his career again, then I started hearing news that he’s working on new material with artists such as Ne-Yo, and then I got excited because I thought the man’s creative juices is flowing again and he’ll soon be delivering that one-of-kind, entertainment experience that only he can. And what was even more upsetting was to learn exactly how hard he was busy preparing for that comeback and how he and his crew seemed genuinely excited about what they were preparing for. I have no doubt it would have been nothing short of magnificent.

Because truth be told, he was the only one around in the current music industry that could pull off true spectacle and something that never failed to make you sit up and take notice, because you know this is Michael Jackson and his genius brain is going to get to work in giving you something special that nobody else can quite pull off. You know he’s going to rope in the biggest and best talents in the business, and they’re going to get to work to produce spectacular stuff.

Because Michael Jackson is a storyteller, and as a storyteller he doesn’t just create music, he creates an adventure, and that is what I was keenly awaiting from Michael Jackson, because there’s simply no one else that can produce spectacle and excitement on the scale that he can pull off, even if it was something like the song and video for You Rock My World.

When they say that Michael Jackson’s passing is the end of an era, it truly is because the music world has changed so much since his heyday. Much of his legend and aura was brought about by the fact that he sold so many albums and spent so much time on the pop charts and will forever have the biggest selling album of all time, Thriller.

Today we don’t get wowed anymore by album sales, because albums don’t sell anymore, and nobody has really been so great that they’ve blown up the charts with three or more consecutive albums. It seems that Michael Jackson is the latest victim of the curse of legend, where it seems that if you’ve become a once-in-a-lifetime legend, you’re destined to die before your time, just as was the case with Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley and Princess Diana, and leave the world looking around thinking what just happened and why don’t we have more of them to fill the void.

I was looking forward to at least 10 more years of MJ magic because creativity never really dies. In a way, Michael Jackson inspired me as an artist because he created both spectacle and substance; both the pyrotechnics and the moments that gave you pause and inspired you. And that’s pretty much what I try to do as well, to deliver the message all wrapped up in a pretty package. The artists of today either do the one or the other. He did both. And that is a huge gap in the showbiz industry that will most likely never be filled in my lifetime.

Rest in peace, Mr Michael Joseph Jackson - 29 August 1958 – 25 June 2009.

14 June 2009

Why was I wired for art?

This is one of those rant/vent kind of posts so if you don’t like that sort of thing then steer clear.
Cristiano Ronaldo

I have beaten myself up about that question many times before, but in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo netting a ₤80 million transfer in the midst of a crap economy and me driving past a man on the freeway waving a red flag to caution traffic, I found myself again asking the same old question.

Why art? Why not football, or office work or agriculture or waving red flags to caution traffic?

Because when I looked at that guy waving the red flag, I asked myself, is that guy happy with what he is doing? Maybe not, but there’s also the possibility that man is delirious with joy, that he finds happiness and joy not by being in any specific profession, but by just having a job. His happy just to be working, whatever job it may be. That may seem like a pearl of wisdom kind of statement, but I’m just not getting it.

Bro with red flag

I can’t just be doing any kind of job. I’ve done that before and I felt a kind of misery that was a few shades away from suicide. I vowed not to do something I’m not completely into, which is why I quit that job and launched myself completely into my graphic novel passion project, hoping that this may be the beginning of something new, a rebirth, a revitalisation!

But alas, now I’m realising maybe that’s all a myth, those mantras of ‘live for what you believe’ or ‘follow your bliss’ or any one of those gurufic platitudes. Except maybe if you’re Mark Zuckerberg and you’re on the verge of creating a social networking phenomenon, or if you’re Cristiano Ronaldo. Because it seems that stuff only really matters if it has to do with something that people care about, like Facebook or football.

But if it comes to something like art, nobody cares much for that, not your regular, everyday folks anyway. Doesn’t do anything for them, they’ll kinda pat you on the back for doing it but they’re indifferent to it, rather focussing on the more relevant stuff that everyone else around them is focussing on.

Unless of course they suddenly hear of a sensation that came out of nowhere that everybody is talking about (Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, The Dark Knight, Paris Hilton, etc), then of course they’ll pay attention. Why? Not necessarily because it’s the best thing since bubble wrap, but because everyone else is paying attention. Only THEN do they stop and listen, not perhaps try and investigate the truth within themselves about whether something is good or not and championing something that’s worthwhile instead of jumping on the bandwagon.

But I digress, because this has all to do about what’s relevant, and whether you’re fortunate enough to dig and be passionate about working in an industry that is relevant in the world today, something that truly matters to people and which consumers have absolutely no choice but to pay for because it’s a tangible object or it’s a service and you can’t steal it off the internet, or else they would have.

It makes me wonder what my life would be like if I was big on something other than art. *sigh!*

Soon, a post on my first Cape Town Book Fair (my first book fair EVER, actually!)