Clocking in at nearly three hours, 'Avatar' has one heck of a running time and is one heck of an experience. But is it a good one?
The initial impression for me is that 'Avatar' is a huge magpie borrowing ideas from numerous other films -- the space futurism of Star Wars, the human driven warrior robots of Alien, the good vs evil battle of Narnia, the going native notion of Last Of The Mohicans. And as such, whilst it's pilfering may show taste, it nonetheless also shows a rather depressing lack of imagination on the part of writer & director James Cameron.
'Avatar' is set on another planet in the year 2154, but apparently this 'alien world' is little more than a distortion of the amazon rain forest inhabited by a noble race of blue skinned bipeds at one with their environment. Such human basics as tribalism, the need for food, sleep, mating and even tribal initiation are alive and well. I find it highly unimaginative and vaguely depressing that so much science fiction visualises alien life as merely people with flat noses. For me 'Alien' is one of the few mainstream movie franchises to envisage a creature at least plausibly different from humanity. Existing purely as a lethal, highly intelligent parasite, the alien is both terrifying and utterly inhuman. Whereas the 'aliens' depicted in Avatar are merely blue coloured jungle dwellers.
The first half of the film is highly predictable -- 'marine guy sent in as a spy goes native' sums it up pretty well. By midpoint I was settling for a 4 out of 10.
But then things picked up. Not because of any great leap in narrative, rather due to a phenomenal leap in special effects. For me the first 'Narnia' film was deathly dull up until the awesome White Queen battle sequence towards the end. And so it is for 'Avatar' -- only much much more.
The pitting of the noble jungle dwellers armed with bows & arrows against the awesome might of US gunships 22nd century style is a battle that should have lasted ten seconds. Instead we see incredible acts of heroism, of jungle creatures sacrificing themselves for the land they love, of weapons being turned on their users. We have a tremendous bad guy in the form of a middle-aged general who simply refuses to give up and who actually managed a spontaneous round of applause on his eventual demise.
Cameron throws in some clumsy messages about the power of nature conquering the greed of humanity and even features the line 'let's fight terror with terror', but ultimately this is a big budget small brained sci-fi action flick and purely on that level it works a treat.
Being a 12A certificate probably hobbled 'Avatar' somewhat. The gore quotient was necessarily low and the ending fairly predictable, but in pure CGI terms (we saw the 3D version), 'Avatar' is a stunning piece of cinema and one of the best films I've seen this year (and believe me I've seen a lot).
Now if a future director can marry these incredible effects to a truly imaginative concept, we may yet see one of the best films ever made. (8 out of 10).
The unthinkable has happened. Despite 11 weeks of prime-time exposure and the usual media circus, the 2009 X-Factor winner has been denied the traditional Christmas number one by a nineties rap-metal track that missed the top 20 first time around.
Though hardly an earth shattering event in itself, this result makes several points:
Firstly, whilst some 6.5 million people voted for the X-Factor winner Joe McElderry, only 450k (about 8%) actually bought his single. This at a time when singles are cheaper than in the 70s and require only a couple of mouse clicks to buy. The obvious conclusion is that X-Factor, like Big Brother & Celebrity, is merely a popularity contest, with any music element being purely an afterthought.
Secondly, the RATM campaign was the result of a Facebook group set up by a middle-aged couple -- no financial outlay, no media exposure nothing. They simply wanted to piss off Simon Cowell and his appallingly bland behemoth. And boy did they succeed.
Thirdly, if 'people power' can overturn the might of X-Factor, surely it can equally overturn the banks, the supermarkets and other suitable targets when necessary.
As regards X-Factor itself, a significant number of people are thoroughly pissed off with Cowell's smugness, his 'ratings at all costs' ethos and his insatiable greed (he's apparently demanding £2 million per SHOW for the next series). Not to mention the fact that X-Factor becomes ever more conservative, bland and tedious with each series.
Two things REALLY annoyed me this time -- Cowell's cynical support for Jedward (at the cost of Lucie, the only remotely talented finalist), having slagged them mercilessly in the opening stages -- that and the absolute yawnfest of song choices. The whole thing is like grandad karaoke, but the bizarre thing is that rather than parents and grannies sitting transfixed while the teenagers sneer, it's the younger generation who seem to be lapping it up.
As one poster on the Guardian site said this morning:
''What's happened to our country when old farts like me are buying tunes to rebel against the youngsters!''
And he's right. Joe's song 'The Climb', which is a cover of a Miley Cyrus track (Miley is the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus who gave us 'Achy Breaky Heart' possibly the most annoying song of the 90s) is the modern equivalent of the 50s ballads that pop/rock music rebelled against in the 60s.
Fair enough Paul McCartney endorsed the show by appearing on it this time, but he later backtracked by endorsing the RATM campaign. As did old farts the NME and sour grapes former X-Factor winner Steve Brookstein.
But why does it appear to have been us middle-aged music fans who voted for RATM? Has young people's music taste become so conservative that they'd welcome back Pat Boone and Max Bygraves? Why are they whinging about 'poor Joe' who is merely another cog in the X-Factor machine, destined for the bargain bins in six months time? Why do they get excited about Whitney and Mariah, the epitome of bloated corporate diva cynicism? I can't answer that -- all I can say is that music-wise at least, many kids have become incredibly conservative -- the charts are stuffed with R&B, inspid ballads and generic pop -- sure there's a thriving underground scene but looking at the top 40 or music TV you'd never guess. The days of punk, indie, britpop, and rave have been replaced by music that young people's parents are literally rebelling against for it's blandness.
So will this result be anything more than a footnote in chart history? Well despite all the wailings about 'poor Joe', about Sony being the ultimate winners and about the irony of the line 'fuck you I won't do what you tell me', I have absolutely no doubt that the X-Factor PR people are in turmoil this week. Denial of the Christmas number one knocks away a mainstay of X-Factor -- given past form they certainly can't guarantee a pop career of any longevity and now they can't guarantee the Christmas number one either. A major rethink is needed.
Future shows need to be less about the judges (who merely preen and state the obvious) and more about the contestants -- and that means at least some interesting, edgy finalists, like Rhydian, Diana Vickers & Ruth Lorenzo, who while they didn't win, at least brought some quirkiness and diversity. And how about some music that isn't teeth-rotting ballads?
Just a few suggestions Mr Cowell, so that maybe next year your Christmas dinner won't be ruined by the sound of middle-aged rebels.
1. The obscene amounts of money demanded and paid to the judges, with the lion's share going obviously to Cowell himself, a man completely devoid of talent who is on record as saying his sole interest is making money, whilst the contestants aren't paid a penny.
2. The pretence that the show is some sort of talent search, actually contributing something to the music industry. The contestants (with rare exceptions such as last year's Diana Vickers and Ruth Lorenzo) are uniformly homogenised ballad singers moulded into little Whitneys and Bubles. Every spark of originality is extinguished.
3. The cynical manipulation of contestants for the sake of ratings. A perfect example is Cowell's deliberate jettisoning of the moderately talented Lucie Jones for short-term novelty act Jedward, of whom he had been completely critical and dismissive throughout. A few days later he was quoted as saying 'they don't realise how bad they are.' Is the show about talent or about ratings / money?
4. The short-termism of a product which has to rush it's contestants onto the road within weeks as they fade from the public memory like snow off a ditch. How many X-Factor contestants have genuinely built a solid career? Will Young, Leona Lewis certainly, Gareth Gates debateably and early days for Alexandra Burke and JLS.
It's easy to say 'if you don't like it, don't watch it' but as a lover of music old and new, it's impossible to escape, whether it's headline news or the ubiquitous Christmas number one. People need to stand up and point to the elephant in the room -- the X-Factor is all about Cowell's wallet, the judges' egos and advertising revenues. It makes a mockery of the music industry, creates virtually no artists with any longevity and glorifies blandness, whilst stifling originality and ridiculing countless aspiring singers in front of huge audiences.
The difference between X-Factor and shows such as 'Maria' and 'I'd Do Anything' is that the ALW shows feature people who actually are talented in their field -- the vast majority have had theatre experience and carve worthwhile stage careers for themselves once the shows have ended. This can't be said of X-Factor.
Cowell's strength is in providing a throwaway show perfectly tailored to the five minute celebrity culture and that's absolutely fine. Like shows such as Opportunity Knocks and New Faces back in the day, it's no-brainer Saturday night entertainment, but as with those shows, it doesn't provide anything that enhances the music industry in any way.
I'll quote Sting, who's views on this subject I completely agree with:
Rock star Sting has called the X Factor "televised karaoke" and said judges like Simon Cowell have "no recognisable talent apart from self-promotion".
The singer, 58, told London's Evening Standard that the Saturday night show was "a soap opera which has nothing to do with music".
He added: "I am sorry but none of those kids are going to go anywhere, and I say that sadly."
Sting said the singers who participate in the X Factor, created by Cowell in 2004, were "humiliated when they get sent off".
He added: "How appalling for a young person to feel that rejection. It is a soap opera which has nothing to do with music.
"In fact, it has put music back decades. Television is very cynical."
The singer, whose Fields Of Gold is a staple of talent show auditions, went on to say that X Factor encouraged contestants to "conform to stereotypes".
He added: "They are either Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston or Boyzone and are not encouraged to create any real unique signature or fingerprint.
"That cannot come from TV. The X Factor is a preposterous show and you have judges who have no recognisable talent apart from self-promotion, advising them what to wear and how to look. It is appalling.
"The real shop floor for musical talent is pubs and clubs, that is where the original work is.
"The music industry has been hugely important to England, bringing in millions. If anyone thinks the X Factor is going to do that, they are wrong."
A spokesperson for the X Factor declined to comment on Sting's interview, saying he was entitled to his opinion.
No they don't look like this any more. But what do they sound like?
Well it's been over 20 years since I saw Simple Minds live and never managed to see OMD before, so this should be heaven right? Erm well the venue wasn't a great start.
The Odyssey -- I really don't like this venue. Unfavourably compared to an aircraft hangar, it has zero atmosphere and was accurately described by OMD's Andy McCluskey last night as 'the biggest refrigerator in the world.'
We got great seats -- row 10, but there's just something completely impersonal about this place. Whereas the likes of the Waterfront studio (Ultravox), the Mandela (Little Boots) and the Spring & Airbrake (Numan) have a real atmosphere, the Odyssey just lacks --- something.
OMD opened with the still perplexing 'Dazzle Ships' and Andy McCluskey literally bounded onstage looking barely half his 50 years. He did warn us about his terrible dancing, and you really couldn't argue. A stork having an epeleptic fit is the most apt description, but you had to like the guy -- he worked damned hard to get the crowd on their feet.
He largely failed but you couldn't fault the set list -- pretty much all the hits -- Messages, Electricity, Souvenir, Joan Of Arc, Maid Of Orleans, Locomotion, Sailing on the Seven Seas -- thankfully no Tesla Girls. Quiet man Paul Humphries performed a nice Forever Live & Die and Andy got totally laid back for Talking Loud & Clear, sitting on the edge of the stage and shaking hands with the front row -- 'if you're not going to stand up I'm going to sit down.' Bags of energy and an inclusion which I was personally delighted with -- 'Statues' from the 'Organisation' album. They finished off with a rousing 'Enola Gay' and I thought 'wow this is great value for money -- an hour of OMD and the main act haven't even come on yet'.
Half an hour later and on came the band -- Charlie, Mel, a young guy on bass and an exotic looking female backing singer. 'Theme For Great Cities' started and Jim arrived to segue into 'Sanctify Yourself' one of my least favourite Minds tracks.
I last saw Jim over 20 years ago so hardly surprising that he's changed a bit, but I was unprepared for the pudgy shabbily dressed guy that arrived. Dressed in a black coat and jeans, he looked like he'd just walked in off the street. Bit of a contrast to Andy and Paul it has to be said.
Setlist wise I really couldn't complain -- I'm very much a fan of early Simple minds -- after 'Sparkle In The Rain' I largely found their output disappointing, but we were treated to no less than six tracks from the sublime 'New Gold Dream' and four from the overlooked gem 'Sons & Fascination/Sister Feelings Call.' A big surprise was a great reworking of the 1979 debut single 'Life in a Day' which few in the audience recognised.
But for all the great titles, there was just something missing and I'm still not sure what. The venue seems to suck the life out of bands and despite the band being tight, Jim interacting and us having great seats, it all fell a bit flat for me.
Aside from the size of the place, the security staff were a constant distraction -- constantly marching up and down like the gestapo and hassling people for having the temerity to leave their seats and dance.
So much so that I didn't stay for the encores. As I exited the building I heard the opening bars of 'Neon Lights' and wondered if Kraftwerk would have been any better.