And I don't mean the delightfully whimsical, charmingly strange mood you would expect from Lewis Carroll. I mean genuine skin-crawling, Tod Browning's Freaks, avert your eyes kind of stuff.
Monday, February 22, 2010
And I don't mean the delightfully whimsical, charmingly strange mood you would expect from Lewis Carroll. I mean genuine skin-crawling, Tod Browning's Freaks, avert your eyes kind of stuff.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
There is an excellent chance that on March 7th the Academy is going to award one of the most effective anti-war films ever made with the Oscar for Best Picture, and this fact has been greeted with near-universal silence by the media.
It was only five years ago that the release Fahrenheit 9/11 caused the whole of cable news to drop everything and spend months expounding on everything from its influence on public opinion to the validity of its conclusions. Now, having picked up both the top prizes from the Director's Guild and, in a stunning upset over Avatar, the Producer's Guild, The Hurt Locker has to be considered the odds-on favorite to take the big prize, with nary a peep from those same pundits on what, if any, messages the film contains.
This can largely be chalked up to the box office returns. Oscar contenders like Fahrenheit and Brokeback Mountain generated lots of cash before they generated lots of controversy. Although it is currently turning into a big success on video, The Hurt Locker stalled around thirteen million dollars in its theatrical run. For comparison, last year's Slumdog Millionaire earned forty-four million by the time it was nominated for an Oscar. Commentators will debate just about anything if it makes enough money. Back when The Dark Knight was raking in the dough a brief, ridiculous fight broke out over whether Batman was really an exoneration of Bush's counter-terrorism policies (Answer: Nope)
Surely the lack of controversy surrounding the release was also a deliberate strategy on the part of the filmmakers and the studio. Iraq films have been branded box office poison after a series of earnest but ponderous Iraq war films like In the Valley of Elah stiffed with audiences. The Hurt Locker was marketed as a film with all of the excitement of war films with none of the preachiness, and the ecstatic reviews greeting the film focused mainly on Bigelow's filmmaking prowess with the action scenes.
So I suppose it should not have surprised anyone that it didn't spark a wave of discussion upon release, but if it does manage to overcome its meager box office to take the Oscar in three weeks, expect some observes to come to the sudden realization that the Academy has just honored a film that ruthlessly dismantles the idea US involvement can affect change in the Middle East.
At first this declaration seems unsupportable from the film itself, which studiously avoids addressing the politics of the situation. The names of Bush and Obama are never mentioned, nor are Republicans or Democrats or the political views of any of the characters. Most would say that the film is neutral, and like a political Rorschach test, the viewer only sees the political messages they wish to. It's not difficult to imagine both Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann coming away from The Hurt Locker with very positive reactions.
Yet there is more to a film's meaning then merely scanning its component parts for overt political statements, and finding none, declaring the film impartial. The most powerful messages come not when audiences are spoon-fed morals, but when they are presented with a vivid reality from which certain conclusions are inescapable. The Hurt Locker presents a reality in which the mission is an afterthought, the enemy is faceless, and progress is inconceivable.
The argument that the film's lack of explicit political statements represent a lack of a view point is especially unconvincing. The mere fact that Mark Boal, the screenwriter, was able to tell the entire story without once referencing the larger purposes of the conflict speaks volumes in itself. Could there be a World War II film that doesn't reference Hitler or Nazism? Or a Revolutionary War film that omits the overthrowing of English tyranny? The three heroes of Hurt Locker are totally disconnected to any larger purpose for their mission. They head out every morning and attempt to stop bombs from killing anybody. The fact that it is happening in Iraq is irrelevant to their purpose.
The film undermines any connection between the bomb squad and the civilians they are ostensibly there to help. Anybody on the street could be the one that set the bomb and the Iraqi waving his support with one hand could be using his other to activate a detonator. Past the main three characters the connection between the unit and its fellow soldiers is short circuited as well. They are mostly seen fleeing the bomb in question, their job in the area never mentioned, and in one lengthy sequence they are called upon to rescue a team of mercenaries for hire, in Iraq only to pick off high ranking al Queda for the cash reward.
The enemy in these incredibly tense bomb disposal scenes is seen only glimpses, if at all. The enemy isn't terrorism or al Queda so much as the ever-present prospect of an instant violent death. In this aspect, The Hurt Locker the most in common with the Vietnam movies like Platoon that showed warfare as an intractable stalemate, where the anonymous foe is undistinguishable from an innocent bystander, and death often came without warning before you can even pick up your weapon.
The main character in The Hurt Locker, bomb diffusing expert Sergeant James, twice tries to attach some meaning to his mission beyond his obsessive need to outsmart the bombers. The first time he attempts to exact some measure of justice for a young boy he believes was used as a human bomb, and the second he leads them into the night to track down those responsible for a roadside bomb. Both attempts lead only to confusion and danger without purpose. With the mission into the night he finds himself literally running through the dark, listening to the sounds of violence, unable to discern their source or meaning. His attempts to avenge the boy are not only fruitless, but are thrown back in his face when he is forced to question whether the crime in question was committed at all. The conclusion is unmissable: He was better off trying to stay alive than trying to do good.
It is entirely possible that the films weak box office was a result of this challenging approach to the material. To oversimplify things, there are two kinds of war films: The War is Hell film and the War is Heroism films. Most post-Vietnam films fall into the former category. Which is not to say the War is Heroism films necessarily sugar-coat things. Saving Private Ryan did more to de-romanticize combat than any film since All Quiet on the Western Front. Yet for all the horrific violence there was the comfort of knowing that it was serving a grander purpose. For all the ads promising Hurt Locker is a thrill-ride action film, my guess is audiences stayed away when they suspected correctly that this was a film that was not going to tuck them in at the end, kiss them on forehead and tell them everything's going to be alright. There was going to be no uplift at the end with old Matt Damon saluting Tom Hanks' grave.
In a more traditional, rah-rah, war film the obsessive Sergeant James would have been a supporting character with the more sympathetic, level-headed Sergeant Sanborn in the lead trying to do some good while keeping the hot-headed James alive. But The Hurt Locker is James's story. He represents the American mission as fixated on immediate problem solving, oblivious to the big picture. He wants to defuse those bombs not because its the right thing to do, but because he needs to be prove he is smarter than the person that set them. James, like America in Iraq and Vietnam before that, simply cannot accept anything but victory as an option. He is convinced he can think his way out of any situation, and while he is successful on a case to case basis, the bombs keep coming in a seemingly endless supply and his mission extends from year to year.
If Hurt Locker does win the Oscar for Best Picture and manages to break through to be seen by a wide section of the country it is not a stretch to conceive of it having an impact on public opinion. Simply put: It is difficult to imagine anyone watching the film with an open mind and concluding that it is anything but madness to leave the troops there with any expectation good will come of it.
Towards the end of the film Sgt. James encounters an Iraqi with a bomb strapped to him with a series of heavy duty locks. The man begs to have the bomb removed. He says he doesn't want to hurt anybody and pleads to be saved. James attempts to extricate the man far past the point it is safe to do so, but despite his best efforts the situation is hopeless. When he has no choice but to flee he looks the man in the eye and apologizes, saying he did all he could. The president's speechwriters should take note.
Monday, February 8, 2010
Avatar works. Let’s just state that right up front.
James Cameron has succeeded in applying his considerable skills to directing a film that takes nearly three hours to move with great fanfare from A to B and from B to C. Along the way there is little by way of surprises or depth, and even the casual filmgoer will have little trouble predicting plot turns an hour in advance. In the age of Transformers 2, when most blockbusters are ugly, mean-spirited films, bludgeoning the audience with incoherent noise posing as fun, maybe there is something to be said for a film like Avatar, which uses top notch Hollywood craftsmanship to move in nice clean lines from beginning to end. The good guys win, the bad guys die, and when you stagger back into the parking lot afterwards you don’t feel like demanding you money back. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Ordinarily, I’d say sure. For a normal movie I would say Avatar deserves a nice pat on the back and a sincere “attaboy,” and we could all move on to something more worthy of our time and attention, probably whatever Christopher Nolan is up to.
Ah, but as we all know Avatar is not a normal movie. Avatar is officially a block-busting, record-smashing, line-around-the-block, must see, cultural event. And as is the case with such movies, any discussion of the actual merits of the film in question is quickly hijacked by breathless coverage and hyperbole until it's distorted past all connection to reality. But the reality is this: Avatar is just not that good.
When the dust settles from the current hype storm and audiences revisit the film in the cold light of day, Avatar’s myriad flaws are going to come shining through in digital 3D. It is not going to be pretty.
First and foremost among the film’s shortcomings is the thorough lack of imagination involved in the creation of the alien world of Pandora. The marketing for Avatar has gone to great lengths to label James Cameron a visionary genuis with an imagination to rival Walt Disney or Fritz Lang, but the truth of the matter of is that under the shiny, digital surface there is scarcely an original idea in the whole of Avatar.
Compare that to one of the most genuinely original fantasy films of the modern cinema, Pan’s Labyrinth. That film took the familiar tropes of the fantasty world, including a little girl dealing with fantastic creatures right out of Alice in Wonderland, and twisted them in a way that was totally new. I had never seen those creatures before. I had never seen the magical world bleed through to the real world like it did it in that film. And I certainly had never seen a fairy tale story told with such a pervasive sense of danger before. The whole production took the basic elements of fairy tales and synthesized them top to bottom into something unique.
Although set on an alien world, it is difficult to think of any element of Avatar that is truly alien. The jungle is just an Earth jungle with a smattering of neon bugs and tacky glowing plants. The Pandoran creatures are your standard issue space animals, just like our animals but with an extra horn or eye tacked on. Not really an alien but a “space horse” or a “space rhino”.
Those aren't horses. Those are space horses!
Now that's alien.
The one genuinely other-worldly aspect about the Pandorans is their ability to tangibly connect with nature via gooey biological strings that emerge from their cat tails. This is an idea with great potential that goes woefully unexplored in this film. Rather, Cameron uses this as opportunity to portray the Na'vi as even more simplistically noble and pure than you would expect. Most of the time Hollywood stops short of making Indians genuinely magical, but since these are Native Pandorans instead of Native Americans, Cameron feels free to make their spirituality literal, and the result is the most over-the-top romanticizing of an indigenous people since Disney had Pocahontas taking advice from a talking tree.
It is this unexplored connection between alien and nature that Avatar drops the ball most dramatically. The inevitable conflict between natives and military approaches, and we eagerly wait for the moment when the planet itself will rise up to defend itself. We anticipate the epic - grand sweeping scenes as the fates of worlds are decided. This is the kind of feeling the Lord of the Rings delivered so vividly. I could have forgiven a lot of clunky writing if Cameron had delivered this soaring emotion at the climax. What we get feels more like the Pandoran zoo being let loose, combined with some well-executed but routine action scenes. It's quite a let down.
Grandeur: Shown here in a film that is not Avatar
As for the supposed game changing, take-your-breath-away effects I can only shrug and struggle to scrape together some enthusiasm. Maybe I’m just not tech savvy, but I can’t see anything on display that Lord of the Rings didn’t do just as well, if not better, five years ago. For that matter, I thought Pixar’s Up incorporated 3D more effectively into the movie, but then again Up had a story and characters I cared about.
Don’t get me wrong, the effects certainly are good, and there are a handful of shots where Avatar generates a nice gee-whiz effect, particularly the destruction of the grandest tree on Pandora. But when you get down to it 3D is never going to make a bad movie good, or a dull movie exciting, and during the long, flat midsection of Avatar I would have traded all the 3D in the world for a better screenplay. It did no more to enhance the experience than a decent speaker system. It was honestly a distraction as often as it was an advantage.
What 3D promises
If I can get philosophical for a minute, the reason 3D is never going to be an essential element of the filmgoing experience is because it works against the basic nature of movies. Films work best when they break down our barriers and makes us forget that we are watching a movie at all. 3D does the opposite - always popping out of the screen to dazzle us, taking us out of the story. The irony is that Cameron need not have spent a wealth of time and money on new effects because a great story can already immerse us in a movie better than 3D ever will.
What 3D delivers
Now that Avatar is raking in enough cash for Cameron to build himself an army of solid gold terminators, Hollywood is undoubtedly going to assume that the masses are clamoring for more 3D. We are sure to get a glut of it. I suppose this will be the new reality until a film as big as Avatar goes belly-up and studios realize all the 3D in the world won’t save a crappy movie. The best 3D can hope for is to go unnoticed in a good movie and pick up the slack in a bad one.
I could go on for pages and pages sorting through all Avatar's faults. Like how Cameron seems to have borrowed George Lucas’s ear for dialogue - too many lines of dialogue don’t pass the laugh test. Or how his obvious attempts to ladle political allegory on top of the whole thing clunk terribly (one mention of “shock and awe” in particular is a real forehead slapper) Cameron stock military characters would not have been out of place in last Summer’s G.I. Joe movie. For that matter, all of Cameron’s characters are pretty damn thin. With Titanic you figure Cameron would have learned the value of charismatic actors to cover for mediocre writing, but Sam Worthington in the lead role is a total blank.
But there is little pleasure to be had in beating up on Avatar. I wish there were more guys like Cameron out there swinging for the fences, staking everything on their vision. I am not so cynical as to suggest that Cameron tailor's his visions to maximum marketability. For James Cameron this is what a personal film looks like. Here is a guy whose visions go hand in hand with commerce. I just hope his next vision is less about showing the world effects they’ve never seen before and more about crafting a story we’ve never seen before.
Verdict: Box office success can make a film a lot of things - influential, important, widely discussed – but you can’t buy your way into greatness, and great Avatar is not. The test of time is going to do brutal, merciless things to Avatar, and while the film has some undeniably memorable moments, when the dazzle of the effects wears off over the years the creakiness of the storytelling is going to groan louder and louder. Eventually Avatar is going to join Titanic as a shorthand for hokey filmmaking with mass appeal. 6 out of 10.
Friday, February 5, 2010
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
I managed to successfully avoid all of 2009's Razzie honorees. But rather then let my worst offenders of 2009 get off scott-free, I'm calling them out here. These are the films and performances of the past year that sapped my spirit and irreparably damaged my belief in a loving God.
If you want to judge a film's badness by its squandered potential then The Men Who Stare at Goats is a film for the ages. The filmmakers began with an allegedly true story about the Army's attempts to train a legion of psychic warriors. They then filled the cast with ringers like George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Ewan McGregor, and Jeff Bridges. My guess is after that they lit up some celebratory cigars and started clearing space on the mantel for all the awards that were sure to come rolling in for their surefire satirical masterpiece. What could go wrong?
Well, for starters, the film cannot settle on an attitude towards its main characters. Goats holds them up to mockery as a bunch of deluded buffoons one minute only to turn around the next minute and ask you to root for them as good-hearted crusaders. It also goes back on forth on whether the mysticism presented in the film is a bunch of New Age gobbledygook or honest spirtuality held hostage by the big bad military complex. Imagine Dr. Strangelove if every few minutes Kubrick presented the stockpiling of nuclear weapons as not such a bad thing, and you will get a feel for what it's like to watch this film.
Goats meanders incoherently from scene to pointless scene taking their dippy mess of a story and piling on clunky, unearned sentiment (They're freeing the poor, trapped goats! Clooney has cancer!) and clunky, unearned political statements (Torture bad!). God help me, I think the goats are even symbolic for things.
The biggest sin of all is that the film is just plain not funny. The filmmakers think its comic gold to drop a Star Wars reference every time there is a stretch of dead air. They end up dropping a lot of Star Wars references.
"Zac, in this scene I want you to show that your character is nervous yet excited. Or you could just make that face. Like you have in every scene so far."
Whatever Works is as bad as anything Woody has ever done including Hollywood Ending and Scoop. It is so bad it makes you question whether Woody has permanently misplaced his gifts. If history repeats, this is Woody's cue to release an almost-great film like Match Point or Vicky Christina. A film that is just good enough to get us back in line for his next phoned-in flop. Thank you sir, may I have another.
Where to begin with this performance? How about the fact that she seems less convincingly human than the detached man-deity played by Billy Crudup? How about Akerman's laughable scenes as a supposed tough, ass-kicking superhero? I might go with the fact that she shows less emotional range than the guy with the Rorschach mask over his face for 85% of the movie. Akerman also distinguishes herself by participating in the most unintentionally hilarious sex scene since Munich.
Simply put, Akerman gives the most incompetent performance I can remember seeing in a major motion picture. Whenever she was on screen I was distracted by my attempts to figure out how she landed such a plum role in the first place. Are there no other pretty actresses left in Hollywood?
Worst Screenplay: Richard Curtis - Pirate Radio
- They didn't land a perfect ten, but by and large the Academy showed surprisingly good taste with the expanded field of nominees. They even went out of their way to include films such as A Serious Man and District 9 which are smaller and stranger than their usual fare. Well done. My hat's off to you.
- The writer's branch truly outdid themselves this time. Not only did they nominate ten superior screenplays without a bum pick in the bunch, but they managed to stay immune to any pressure to jump on the box office bandwagon and nominate James Cameron' clunky, derivative script for Avatar. Bonus points for having the savvy to remember the brilliant In the Loop.
- Here's to the Academy for resisting the same old stuff, in Best Picture anyway. The Oscar bait films that usually gobble up nominations, quality be damned, all came up short this year. Prestige pics like Invictus, Nine, and The Lovely Bones all dead on arrival outside the acting categories and a few stray technical noms.
- Pixar finally gets its due. After a string of masterpieces, including WALL-E and Ratatouille, all failed to break out of the animation ghetto, Up finally became Pixar's first nominee for Best Picture, only the second animated film ever to do so after Beauty and the Beast in 1991.
- Speaking of overdue, three cheers to Christopher Plummer finally landing his first nomination at the age of eighty for playing Tolstoy in The Last Station. Plummer has been giving quality performances from The Sound of Music in 1965 through to modern classics like The Insider (99) and The New World (05).
- Oh Sweet Suffering Jesus, they nominated The Blind Side. Come on, Academy! Be a little discerning. You're supposed to be professionals. I'm not a total snob. Precious and Avatar may not have made my ten, but I won't deny their nominations represent a significant group of people who consider them among the most deserving films of 2009. The vote for The Blind Side represents the most complacent and superficial of voters. The voters who like voting for nice films about nice people and who never bothered to throw in the screener for The Messenger because it looked "too depressing".
- The complete shut out for Where the Wild Things Are stings. Such an orginal, daring production, it could have rightly shown in up in any number of categories including Best Cinematography, Costumes, Director, and Adapted Screenplay for the beautiful job they did adapting the spare children's classic into a full movie.
- And, while we're at it, jeers to the acting branch for being such a bunch of pushovers. While the writing branch was seeking out worthy nominees in unlikely films, the actors were larding up their categories with some of the most boring choices available. They managed to ignore such exciting work as Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger in Basterds, Paul Schneider and Abbie Cornish in Bright Star, Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles, and nearly anyone from the supporting casts of In the Loop, The Hurt Locker, or An Education. Meanwhile folks like Morgan Freeman or Meryl Streep coast in for some really unexceptional work on name recognition. They even nominated the wrong Matt Damon performance, inexplicably nominating his forgettable role in Invictus while ignoring his killer comic work in The Informant.
- Lee Daniels became the second ever black person nominated for Best Director while Kathryn Bigelow became the fourth ever woman nominated in that category.
- Pixar continued its dominance of the animation category with its seventh nomination for Best Animated film. Every film Pixar has released since the inception of the category has been nominated and it has won the award four times. Up also became the sixth Pixar film nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
- Wallace and Gromit picked up their fifth nomination in the animated short category. Don't bet against them.
- Other nomination totals: Meryl Streep picked up her record-extending 16th acting nomination. The Coens picked up two more nods today bringing their career total to 11 nominations. Randy Newman was nominated for no less than his 18th and 19th awards in the music categories.
- District 9 is the first Best Picture nominee to be part Mockumentary.
- The Hurt Locker would be the first war film to win Best Picture since Platoon in 1986 (If you don't count Gladiator, Braveheart, or Lord of the Rings as war films, which I don't.)
- Avatar and District 9 became only the 4th and 5th sci-fi Best Picture nominees ever, adding there names to a list that includes ET, A Clockwork Orange, and Star Wars. No sci-fi film has ever won Best Picture.
- Every Best Actress nominee is playing a real woman or a character based on a real woman.
- If you look closely you'll notice that Mike Myers, Tim McGraw, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Evangeline Lilly, and The Office's BJ Novak can now all claim to having acted in a Best Picture nominee. Let that sink in.
Monday, February 1, 2010
- The Blind Side
- District 9
- An Education
- The Hurt Locker
- Inglourious Basterds
- The Messenger
- Up in the Air