26 December 2009

the not-completely-late-to-the-party movie review presents: avatar

It's taken me a couple of days to be able to sit down and write this reaction in one shot because, well, it has. I don't know if I should be blaming some of the reviews I've read (Devin and Nick, if I should, I blame you), or my sometimes aggravating ability to see both sides of an argument, or straight-up ambivalance, but for whatever reason, I'm writing this, hopefully you're reading it, and maybe we can have a good little discussion about it later.

Avatar. The movie that's taken Jim Cameron god-only-knows-how-long to finish, cost anywhere from $17 to hundreds of millions of dollars, required the development of a new motion-capture system for film, and might just be the movie that saves cinema (financially) as we know it. It's billed as a movie that everyone needs to go and see (preferably on a 3D IMAX screen – if you have access to one and anywhere from $13-$17 to burn, yes, absolutely, go and see it this way) because it will. Change. Your. Perception. Of. Film. FOREVER.

Let's jump to the end and back here really quickly: Is Avatar the best movie I've seen all year? In the last five years? In my life? In reverse order: No, no, and it depends on how you define “best.” Were I inclined to make a list of the five films I liked best that I've seen in 2009, the list would include (in no particular order) Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Watchmen, Moon, and Observe And Report (I need to see District 9 again to shake out how I really feel about it. The fact that Wikus is basically Michael Scott, and later action-hero Michael Scott, might still be too much for me. Or not. That's why I need to see it again. And I greatly enjoyed Up and Big Fan). I tend to weight writing more significantly than most anything else in the movie (being a “writer” myself), with acting coming in a close second, and everything else kind of getting jammed together after that (unless something really stands out – like the production design in From Hell. One really awesome aspect of a film can make up for some weaker ones, but that's not to say that I actually like From Hell. It's a pretty shitty movie, all things being equal, but that production design is fucking incredible). 

There are, of course, those rare “perfect” movies, where everything's working in harmony and the film winds up being more than the sum of its rather impressive parts (perfect movies for me would include John Carpenter's The Thing, Galaxy Quest, Jackie Brown, Bringing Up Baby, Yojimbo, Bowfinger, Batman Returns, and certainly others that I can't recall at the moment). But, I know those when I see them, and that's usually on a repeat viewing. If you were to ask me if I saw any movies that were anything like “perfect” movies this year, I'd say the closest I got were either Observe and Report or Moon. But, ask me in five years, and I'll be able to give you a real answer that's not operating on a Seth Rogen/Sam Rockwell hangover (as much, anyway).

By my rather ill-defined criteria, Avatar was not the best movie I saw in 2009. Now, to be fair, Avatar was probably the best looking movie I've seen this year, and in quite a few years. The movie's design is a tribute to Cameron's single-mindedness, and the team he put together to help him realize his vision. The film's tech cannot be denied – it's frankly kind of scary how good CG can be when it's placed in the hands of people who know how to use it (as my good friend Mister Tim Davids said, it's difficult to believe that the human base camp isn't one gigantic miniature). The facial expressions of the Na'vi blow away anything that motion capture has offered up in the past (a note that our friends at Marvel may want to consider closely as they prepare for the Avengers film); Zoe Saldana's Neytiri (a character who, by the way, dominates every scene she's in. Abams and Cameron have given us the next great lady action star; Hollywood better not fuck this one up) looks and moves the way I'd expect her to look and move as that character, as does Sigourney Weaver's Dr. Grace Augustine's Na'vi avatar (damn, does she ever do a great job as Cameron's Cassandra, once again). Pandora feels, to me, as fully realized as any world in the history of science fiction film.

The story is pretty weak sauce, can we all just admit that? If there's ever been a retread of a story, Avatar's narrative would be just that. White guy from soulless society finds the true meaning of life among the tribal people that his own people are planning to ruthlessly exploit... This is not a groundbreaking sort of story that no one's ever tried to tell before. Admittedly, a movie as tech-focused as Avatar will, probably, push other aspects of itself off to the side in order to maximize that which makes it significant, and there's certainly nothing wrong with telling a story that's been told before, as long as it's done interestingly and well, but Avatar hits all of the expected beats perfectly. My problem with that was that it felt too easy (a point I'll try and touch on later) for a film of this magnitude; if you're going to set out and try to change movies forever, why not try and tackle every aspect of motion picture storytelling? Ambition in one focused area is all well and good, but ambition in all things is enviable and worthy of appreciation, even when it falls flat on its face. 

Now, I know that no one has ever gone to see a James Cameron film because of the penetrating social insight, or his deep characterization, or any of the things that mark, say, an Ang Lee film (or a Spike Lee film, for that matter). Cameron's a different kind of filmmaker entirely, and that's not a bad thing. He does what he does very well. Would I love it if he recognized his limitations and got himself a writing partner who could say, “Jim, you've created an amazing world here in this script. Now it's time for you to let me populate it with compelling characters and for the two of us to work together to fashion a story worthy of our imaginations”? Hell fucking yes. But, the fact that he doesn't almost makes him more of an artist. He's committed to his vision, no compromises, no outside influences, no nothing. He's kind of like George Lucas in that way, except that Cameron's had more than two good ideas in his life (at least, he's shared more than two good ideas with the world. Okay, three).

You see what I mean when I say that I'm still not sure what I can say about Avatar?

“Unobtanium” is kind of a stupid word, but it seems like just the sort of shorthand dickhead space capitalists would come up with (and, by the way, Giovanni Ribisi is a great spiritual son to Paul Reiser's Carter Burke. Burke was a better character than Selfridge, but to complain would be the same as splitting hairs, and I'll do that plenty more later). None of the scientists in the film call the mineral that, and there's so much about the world of Avatar that's left unsaid (like the great science fiction films – Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, Alien, and so on – the world is so complete that it doesn't need to spend weeks and months and years explaining itself. It just is) that I can't imagine that real scientists would have been unable to fashion a better name that “unobtanium.”

[ASIDE: The following paragraphs... I still have problems with them. They don't fit anywhere in the flow of my text, and I don't precisely know how qualified I am to write any of it, being a white guy, and all. That being said, the following points kept flashing in my mind during the film, and I'd like to think that, by writing them down, I can figure out what they mean. But, if that's the case, I haven't figured them out yet. Anyway, here we go:

Now, I'm well aware that Cameron's never busied himself with much subtext in his movies. If it's there, I'm pretty sure it's there by accident (“greedy, moralless, monolithic companies are bad” is not subtext here any more than it was in Titanic or Aliens – hell, in Aliens, he was just picking up where the first film left off). And, yes, I imagine that, until now, the most significant performer who isn't white in any of his films would be Jenette Goldstein's Private Vasquez in Aliens was not by design. I doubt that factors into anybody's casting decisions, frankly. That's not why we watch his movies; he doesn't have anything to say about the persistent race issues on our planet, and that's fine, that's who he is.

It's weird to me, though, that, with the exception of Michelle Rodriguez and Dileep Rao, every speaking human on Pandora is white, and the most significant ethnic actors are blue. Zoe Saldana, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso... They're all digital, they're all tribal. They're all great performers, who certainly help the movie soar where lesser actors would've brought it down, but if you have complete casting freedom with the mo-cap, the way Cameron and his people did, it seems... well, lazy to slide into stereotype territory with the Na'vi. It was so glaring that it almost blinded me at times.

I also think something needs to be said about how it's the white man – in the body of a blue man – that unites the natives. I'm not the right person to do it, since I don't have cultural/philosophical baggage that would allow me to make a cogent and passionate point about it, but I think it's there (and that's not to say it hasn't been there before. Cameron certainly didn't invent that), I think it's significant, and I think it's worth recognizing.

And, before I forget, there's this weird rape allegory that comes up when Sully captures his first flying lizard creature – the humans call them Banshees - and again with the gigantic second one, the one that he rides to unite the clans of The People against the human interlopers. It's not explored at all, but to me, it very much smacks of rape. I get that the nerve tendrils are a literalization for how the Na'vi are connected to Pandora – if there's one thing sci-fi is great for, it's making a point with the subtlety of a sledgehammer – but, in this case, it actually made me uncomfortable.]

Seriously, though, there's a lot about Avatar to like, and to say that I wasn't caught up in the moviemaking for most of the film's runtime would be a lie. When Sully climbs out of the ship and emerges in the human base of operations, when the Na'vi clans wage all-out war against the private military forces of the Corporation/Company, the moments when Pandora unfolds itself to Sully and us... Much of the film was a spectacular theatrical experience. Avatar used 3D exceptionally well; it didn't force itself upon the audience so much as it drew us in. Like Coraline, it utilized the depth of the screen as well as popping the images out at us. It was, in short, a filmgoing experience unlike any I'd ever had before.

The good, for me, most definitely outweighed the bad (the good, after all, was deliberate, while I think the bad was not. This isn't me saying that I don't think Cameron and his crew are smart enough to pick up on what was “bad;” far from it. I just think that they chose to focus their time and energy on how the film looked, rather than what it might've said). When I walked out of Inglourious Basterds, I remarked that no one makes a movie as well as Quentin Tarantino. Well, James Cameron makes himself one hell of a movie, too. I'm glad I've been able to see a Cameron sci-fi film in theaters; I would've felt cheated if my opportunities had begun and ended with Titanic. And, a Cameron sci-fi film scored by James Horner? I felt spoiled, in parts.

Despite my litany of misgivings with the film, I would not steer anyone away from seeing this film [while it's in the theaters. I suspect this'll be a King Kong-like situation, where I don't have much interest in seeing the film when it's not on a gigantic screen. Which seems to be what Cameron's going for, filling those seats]. Avatar was, in many ways, an experience unlike any I'd ever had before. I'd like to have it again, if I can scrape together the cash to do so.

[SECOND ASIDE: I read in an interview that Sam Worthington would love the opportunity to test for, and play, the part of Captain America. If he can do a better job consistently reining in his Aussie accent, I don't think I'd have any problems with him playing Steve. He's got the physicality for it, and his speechifying late in the film was very promising. Assuming we can't travel back in time six years and get Nathan Fillion.]

03 December 2009

arise, pop culture junkie, arise

Well, hello blog, I didn't see you there. I'm sorry I've been more inattentive than a bad, alcoholic dad who arbitrarily decides he prefers one of his children to another. I've been working pretty hard to get my comic strip off the ground (though I don't know if you could tell that by looking at the artwork), and now that I've kind of got it chugging along (seeing as how it's viewable on blogger, DrunkDuck and Facebook), I think a return to the classic blog is overdue. I'm going to try to write more regularly here, but don't be surprised if I fail miserably in my endeavor with surprising speed.


In an attempt to kick things off with a less ambitious sort of posting, one wherein I spend a little time reacting to bits of media that I feel are worth taking some time to discuss. This is in no particular order of preference, or organized in any way, really. Just as much to help me get my thoughts in order as it is to provide some (hopefully) insightful words about things that are less important than, say, health care reform.

Movies (in the theater)

I haven't gone to see a movie in the theater in nearly two months; the last time, Vanessa and I went to see Zombieland when we were in Utah. Plenty of people have already written more than enough positive things about this television pilot-turned-major motion picture that I would just be restating prior points, so we'll just keep moving on (except to note that I appreciated everyone's respecting of the blackout on the identity of the celebrity cameo. That was a fantastic moment, particularly that it wasn't ruined by spoilers in reviews).

Moving pictures on plastic discs

The director's cut of Watchmen is even better than it was in the theater, Star Trek loses some of its awesomeness when it's not on a 40-foot screen (but is fantastic, nevertheless), Observe and Report is almost funnier at home, and I'm still hooked on How I Met Your Mother. I didn't see that coming, ever. I also didn't know that Will Ferrell's You're Welcome America was ever going to come to DVD. Thank god it did.

 

Music

There's over a month to go before I can even start thinking about assembling my top 5 favorite albums of the year, so everything here is preliminary, but candidates currently in the running include:


Thursday - Common Existence (having consumed their entire back catalog this year - thanks, United Nations - I can safely say that this record is the one of theirs that speaks to me the strongest. It's almost like a work of art, how it blends sounds together, and is so very, very topical. Plus, I'm always in favor of loud and angry. Less so than in the past, but I still enjoy it).


Converge - Axe To Fall (the band that got me into this whole hardcore/abrasive/whatever scene just can't release a bad album. Axe To Fall pretty much kicks the ass of any record that anyone released this year, and 2009 saw the release of new Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, BTBAM and Mastodon. It's not quite as "deep" as the Thursday record, but it kicks it in the face repeatedly).


Booker T. - Potato Hole (I'm going to let my response to the album from earlier in the year speak for itself. Suffice to say, it's only grown on me more and more).


Mastodon - Crack the Skye (Leviathan was mind-boggling because of its ambition and technical precision, Blood Mountain was a step back technically, though it had far greater fidelity to its concept, and Crack the Skye may well be the ultimate Mastodon album, fusing together bizarre ideas from every corner of the band members' brains. And, to continue on a theme, it rocks some pretty serious shit).


Pelican - What We All Come To Need (it's almost like a rule that I have to dislike every other Pelican release. The untitled EP? Fucking amazing. Australasia? Meh. The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw? Oh, I don't know, it only contains the best fucking song they're ever going to write (March to the Sea - extended on the March Into The Sea EP, which is 20 minutes of pure aural bliss). City of Echoes? Better than Australasia, and certainly slick, but it's too even for me. The Fire was ambitious as hell, with emotional peaks and valleys the likes of which few albums have ever matched for me. City of Echoes? I got bored. The new album throws all of that to the curb and frees me to love Pelican once again. I don't know if anyone has tracked such improvement on the guitar from album to album as Trevor and Laurent have. At least not since the heyday of rock).


Michael Giacchino's Star Trek soundtrack (I love Giacchino's music anyway, but this fantastically nerdy tribute to the history of Star Trek was one of the best parts of my favorite movie of the year. It takes a little work, and a familiarity with the audio that's come before - music and sound effects, both - but its secrets are virtually bottomless. I'm not going to make the same mistake I made with Eddie Vedder's Into The Wild soundtrack).


I was bullish on the Animal Collective album when it came out earlier this year, but now I'm not so sure. My interest has rather waned. At least I was big into it at some point, unlike the new Porcupine Tree record, or 21st Century Breakdown, with which I've never been able to connect.


It is worth noting that, were I to break my own rules and open this list up to remasters and rereleases, it's entirely likely that only the Star Trek soundtrack and Axe to Fall would make it onto my list, seeing as how it'd be filled with Beatles remasters and the Ten reissue. Maybe even Paul's Boutique, now that I think about it...


Television
It sure didn't take long for Dollhouse to get canned, did it? It's particularly sad, seeing as how the second season has (thus far) taken the great realizations and energy from the end of season 1 and just kept rolling with it. There were a lot of reviews of the last episode before the hiatus (the one that focused on Sierra, that was directed by Jonathan Frakes) that called it the best episode of the show thus far. It's certainly the best episode of S2, but for my money, "Epitaph One" is still where it's at. But, every episode has been remarkably entertaining and fascinating, which is saying quite a bit for this show that I've grown to adore. I just wish we'd had more time with it, and that Joss hadn't decided to go with Fox again. If he could temper down his imagination somewhat (in terms of budget, that is), I would really love to see what he could do with the creative freedom he'd find with the right cable network (since I don't know what the general experience is with SciFi/SyFy, I'm going to be less than specific here).



Not working nights has actually freed me up to watch some shows during the time they broadcast this year. My Thursday night comedy shows continue to treat me well (I choose them over Fringe, which I really do prefer to watch without commercials), and the freshman show Community has blossomed into the show I'm least likely to miss during the week. I knew from the get-go that it had a strong chance to be good, that it just needed time to find its legs, but I didn't know it'd become fantastically funny. Chevy Chase returned triumphantly to television, Joel McHale became that leading guy everyone kind of knew he was destined to be, and ensemble comedy rules over NBC for two solid hours every week.


I didn't care for the parts of FlashForward that I saw (trying too hard), and really didn't like V one little bit (if I don't like a single character on your show, that's - in the words of Liz Lemon - a dealbreaker). Sorry.


Video games
2009 has been some kind of banner year for awesome. The best Batman game ever made (which might be the equivalent of damning with faint praise, but Arkham Asylum would be a great stealth action game whether or not it had the license to accompany its top-notch design and gameplay), the best Halo game (ODST, or "Halo Without The Flood, and starring several actors from Firefly," did everything right in its story mode, and has already eaten up way too much of my time with Firefight), Brutal Legend (Jack Black being ridiculous and awesome in a world where everything sung about in every heavy metal album actually happened), Dragon Age (despite the fact that I felt like I might've felt while playing WoW at times, BioWare saved their best writing for an original IP. Man, was that ever the right decision), Modern Warfare 2 (not as jaw-droppingly awesome as the first one, it pushed mainstreams video games in a whole new way when the Moscow airport level began), Borderlands (first-person, multiplayer looting? More, please), and a little game called The Beatles: Rock Band (about which I do not need to say a single thing).


And, oh yeah, I guess I don't care about the Wii one little bit anymore (though I do very much want to play Super Mario Galaxy 2 when it releases next year).


That's plenty for today. I'll try to write something that's real, and not simply a list next time.