Archive for December 2009


December 27, 2009

James Cameron’s Avatar is very old wine in a dazzling new bottle. It’s almost completely hokey, but it’s also a major work, a first-class piece of big mainstream filmmaking. Cameron’s ideas may be dusty, and his dialogue may be functional at best and embarrassing at worst, but almost no other contemporary directors have his intuitive understanding of structure and fable. Yes, Avatar is made up of stories that have been told again and again, but there are stories and then there are Stories — tales that survive over the centuries, charged by Joseph Campbell’s power of myth.

Here we have Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine chosen to walk among the alien natives of the moon Pandora. Jake’s consciousness is inserted into an “avatar” combining the DNA of a native — a Na’vi — and his dead twin brother, who’d been studying the Na’vi for years. Jake has two agendas, science and profit: the former, personified by Sigourney Weaver as a hard-bitten scientist, wants Jake to negotiate peacefully with the Na’vi; the latter, led by hissable corporate drone Giovanni Ribisi and nail-tough colonel Stephen Lang, wants a high-energy mineral and doesn’t mind killing the Na’vi to get it. Jake, of course, goes native and falls in love with the Na’vi life, not to mention with warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

Cameron uses this pulpy old stuff as a launching pad for peerless world-building; coming out of the hibernation of occasional deep-sea documentaries, Cameron beats George Lucas and Peter Jackson at their own game. This director has been away from feature films for twelve years, so I’d forgotten how effortlessly taut his filmmaking is (Avatar runs north of two and a half hours but flies by), how he approaches big, operatic emotions with a refreshing lack of irony, how he stages action scenes with a mixture of tension and exhilaration. (Everyone else who’s attempted large-scale megabudget spectacles in 2009 should take a look at Avatar and be shamed out of public appearances for a year.) For all his technological breakthroughs, Cameron’s great talent is for opening the storybook and inviting us in.

I’ll go ahead and say it: Late in the film, there is an extended battle scene between the Na’vi and the American military with all their concussive firepower, and it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve seen in a movie since I first started reviewing them in 1986. Cameron captures war in all its exultation and horror. Sam Worthington is an amiable blank as the hero — he’s pretty much the audience’s avatar — but Zoe Saldana, who deserves a Best Supporting Actress nomination, puts across a galaxy of moods: joy, agony, rage, passion. If Cameron had done nothing else in Avatar, he put one more great heroine on the screen.

Avatar is being shown in a variety of formats: 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D. I saw it in RealD 3D. I’m told the best way to experience it is in IMAX 3D. I’m also told it looks just as gorgeous, and is just as enveloping, in 2D. (Cameron knows what he’s doing: there are many shots and even sequences that don’t seem to use 3D much at all. He knows when to give your eyes a rest and when to punch up the 3D for maximum impact.) I’ve said before that the true test of a movie is whether it would draw you in even if it were playing on a 15-inch black-and-white TV screen. I know that I’ve happened across Cameron’s Titanic a few times on television and have been kidnapped into it for longer than I should have been. Avatar will probably work the same way.

Snow part 3

December 26, 2009

Hoping to get out to the moving pictures this weekend on my Tauntaun to see James Cameron’s Avatar, A James Cameron Film by James Cameron. Until then, why not check out my review of Margaret Cho: Beautiful? You know you want to.

Still snowed in

December 23, 2009

And still have not experienced the experience that is The Avatar Experience. Here, have a review of Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control.


December 22, 2009

Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s Maid-Droid mooshes a few things together. Half of it is the poignant story of an old man whose “maid-droid,” his loving servant since his childhood, sits motionlessly in a closet because her batteries ran out years ago. Half of it is about a rogue droid terrorizing the city by raping women. Somehow, Tomomatsu manages to fit slapstick, pathos, horror, sci-fi, romance, cynicism, and a good dollop of softcore porn into the film’s short running time.

The maid-droid, named Maria (Akiho Yoshizawa), has watched her master grow over the decades into a sad elderly man who yearns to see her alive again. She may still be sentient; he hears her voice in his head, which could be a delusion or a spiritual connection. He has never married and has had only one fleeting sexual partner; he loves Maria and wants only her, even though she’s a prototype and, unlike later models, unequipped to have intercourse with him. Even when given the choice to transfer Maria’s memory into a newer model that can have sex with him, he declines. That wouldn’t be the same; it wouldn’t truly be Maria.

This is all good, saddening stuff. Then the movie shifts into its second plot, wherein a female detective tries to track down a droid made up of cast-off robo-dogs that’s been raping women. The detective’s story is preceded by a longish section involving a scruffy guy shopping for a sex droid. On a talk show with two sarcastic women who denounce the use of sex droids by men, the scruffy guy goes ballistic and insists that women only want cruel rich men, that they don’t want nice guys. As if to refute his own point, he slaps and kicks the two women into submission.

Tomomatsu has some things to say about what the genders are looking for romantically and sexually. Why are there no male sex droids? Because, as in real life with “Real Girls” and blow-up dolls, there isn’t nearly as much of a demand for faux-male companionship as there is for faux-female things to masturbate into. (Then again, women only need a vibrator or a dildo, suggesting that when they’re feeling horny they just want dick; men seem to want to delude themselves into having the whole fake package.) The sex in Maid-Droid is mostly farcical, though there’s a fairly erotic scene in which Maria shows her master she can still pleasure him.

The movie certainly isn’t as brainless as it looks, and the connective tissue between the two stories boils down to three little words. I appreciated Tomomatsu’s effort to smuggle some thought and heart into what could’ve been merely live-action hentai. I was touched by Maria’s story, amused by the detective story, satisfied by their parallel conclusions. It’ll replace Blade Runner or Metropolis in nobody’s heart, of course, but it’s a good hour or so of diversion, again more artfully handled than it had to be. If you share many Japanese men’s taste for eager-to-please young women in maid outfits, so much the better, I suppose.

Snowed in

December 21, 2009

Because we got six million feet of snow here, I have yet to make it out to see Kingoftheworld’s Avatar. In the meantime, enjoy my review of John Waters: This Filthy World.

The Lovely Bones

December 17, 2009

Will Peter Jackson ever come down to earth? On the evidence of his new film The Lovely Bones, adapted from Alice Sebold’s bestseller, I very much doubt it. After his Lord of the Rings films and King Kong, Jackson now seems to want to live inside the world of his computer-effects company WETA, where anything is possible. But if any story didn’t call for show-stopping eye candy, it’s Sebold’s. The Lovely Bones is narrated by Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, from Atonement), a fourteen-year-old murdered by a fastidious madman (Stanley Tucci, in a rare bad performance). Susie is bound for Heaven, but she can’t make it there quite yet; she has to let go of her old life, let go of the family that mourns her and the perv who killed her.

This material was once slated for Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) to direct, and I would’ve loved to have seen what an artist with Ramsay’s matter-of-fact command of lyricism would’ve done with it. Instead we get Jackson, who in the 21 years since his freewheeling debut Bad Taste has apparently morphed into a bloviating schlockmeister. (I blame his Oscar wins; Oscar has killed the taste and sense of many another filmmaker.) In Jackson’s hands, The Lovely Bones — admittedly gorgeous to behold (Andrew Lesnie did the cinematography) — becomes a slightly sick blend of the banality of evil and the rhapsody of fantasy. Susie wanders through some sort of limbo, or inbetween-land, where the landscape and climate change from moment to moment, and that’s a fair assessment of the overall film, which never strikes or sustains a consistent mood.

You know Jackson’s not working seriously when he coaches poor Stanley Tucci to play Susie’s murderer as a textbook creep whom anyone could see through. Susie’s parents (Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg) go through their grief at a remove from us; nothing and nobody truly moves us. Susan Sarandon drops in for a few scenes as Susie’s free-spirited grandma — too free-spirited, considering she’s lost a grandchild — but Sarandon brings some life even to the clichéd montage of Grandma trying to clean house but instead wrecking it. Indeed, The Lovely Bones contains more awful scenes than any film by a gifted director in recent memory, especially the one in which Wahlberg, suspecting Tucci, follows him into a nearby cornfield with a baseball bat.

Susie’s sister (Rose McIver) also suspects Tucci, and one day she sneaks into his house looking for evidence. As she snoops around, and Tucci arrives home, Jackson draws out the suspense tiresomely, and Susie herself disappears from the movie for a long stretch. We feel manipulated by the jolly New Zealander, who even stages a love scene between Susie (temporarily possessing the body of a psychic goth girl — don’t even ask) and her school crush while a safe containing her body is being dumped. The Lovely Bones says that it’s okay if girls get raped and murdered (no rape is mentioned in the film, unlike the book) as long as there’s a golden dusky Heaven awaiting them, along with the ghosts of other murdered children, while sappy New Age music plays. Jackson gets lost in heavenly visual possibilities and lets everything else go to hell.

Crazy Heart

December 16, 2009

Suddenly, everyone has noticed how great Jeff Bridges is, though he’s been great for about four decades now. It took an Oscar-chasing role tailored for Bridges to win him this belated respect; the movie itself, Crazy Heart, is hardly worthy of him (and of T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, who wrote some fine songs). Bridges is Bad Blake, a broken-down country singer coughing and grumbling his way through a tour of rural bars and bowling alleys. We’ve seen the type before, in Payday (Rip Torn) and Tender Mercies (Robert Duvall, who also appears here as a bartender) among others. Bridges could play Bad in his sleep, but he doesn’t; he brings every ounce of his charm, intelligence, and vulnerability to a thinly written character.

Writer-director Scott Cooper has fashioned Crazy Heart as a valentine to Bridges and everything he does best, but it’s not much of a movie; it’s practically free of conflict or drama. Sometimes Cooper turns clichés on their heads: Bad’s protege Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who has gone on to become a superstar, still loves ol’ Bad and wants to help him get his career back on track. I guess we’ve seen the reverse — Tommy as an ungrateful jerk who shuns his former mentor — too many times (as in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which even had Hedwig touring through various Bilgewater’s restaurants — and it was funnier then). Here, though, Tommy comes off as a deus ex machina, a moneybags who can do for Bad what Bad can’t or won’t do for himself.

Bad takes a few uneasy shuffles onto the road to redemption when he meets music reporter Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and falls for her. As written, there’s little reason for him to do so; Gyllenhaal’s own intelligence and warmth help put it over, but just barely. Bad also hits it off with Jean’s little boy, and he tastes the domestic comfort he missed when he abandoned his own son almost thirty years ago. But then something happens that seems swiped from Nobody’s Fool, in which Paul Newman got in trouble for forgetting his grandson out in the cold for a few minutes. Nothing particularly terrible comes of this plot development, yet Bad has to suffer and atone for it anyway.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the type of blues-tinged country music Bad favors is awash in misery, awful luck, tragic endings. Crazy Heart might be consciously going against that grain. But it lacks the power of something like The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke’s self-destructive streak wasn’t just a streak — it was his identity. There never seems to be much at stake for Bad, and the film’s leisurely style and pace allow us to fill in what’s missing. Everyone loves Bad and wants him to do well; Bad hates himself because his whole life was about the music until the music stopped paying his bills. People keep telling him what a legend he is; Tommy is after him to write some new songs. From what we can see, Bad is just a garden-variety screw-up without the depth to make his struggles iconic or compelling. Bridges sure plays the hell out of it, though. The role has been handed to him on a plate, a bastard who doesn’t actually do much to be a bastard. If you’re a fan, you’ve seen him this good or better many times before. Increasingly, Oscars are doled out not for a particular deserving job of work but as a “sorry we didn’t recognize you before” clap on the back; see Martin Scorsese’s undeserved director win for The Departed, when he should’ve won several times before. It looks likely that Bridges will be honored for Crazy Heart, and I’m fine with this terrific actor finally owning an Oscar. But for this?

The Annual Box-Office Lament

December 15, 2009

We live in a country where:

  • Paul Blart: Mall Cop made more than Inglourious Basterds
  • Ghosts of Girlfriends Past made more than Funny People
  • Pink Panther 2 made more than The Informant
  • Dance Flick made more than Observe and Report
  • Imagine That made more than Ponyo
  • Fired Up made more than The Box
  • I Love You Beth Cooper made more than The Hurt Locker
  • 12 Rounds made more than Sunshine Cleaning
  • All About Steve made more in its first three days than A Serious Man has made in 73 days
  • The Boondock Saints II has made more in 45 days than Moon has in 161 days
  • The top-ten list so far consists of six sequels, two kids’ films, and a reboot of a 43-year-old franchise. Only three (Up, The Hangover and Monsters Vs. Aliens) are “original concepts” not based on or sequelizing any pre-existing media
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made more money than anything.

Now, Avatar might rewrite this somewhat; it might turn out to be as awesome as advance critics are saying it is, and it might even challenge Transformers Part Deux for the throne. Still, the year-end box-office tally bespeaks, as always, wretched taste on the part of the masses and cowardice and idiocy on the part of studios that greenlight and aggressively market puerile crap to the exclusion of anything remotely adult.


December 14, 2009

Recently written and posted reviews of not-so-recent movies:

A Serious Man • Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009

The Truck • Marguerite Duras, 1977

“I haven’t done anything.”

50 Best Films of the Decade: An Explanation

December 12, 2009

Benjamin, one of the few who actually comment here, had this to say about my list:

The great thing about this list is that it is marvelously untouched by pop culture. Would Ebert or A.O. Scott put The Devil’s Rejects in their list? Doubtful. At the same time, I have to wonder why movies such as Cache and There Will Be Blood didn’t make it over Block Party and May and Southland Tales. Even so, the wonderful thing about top lists is that nobody’s list is going to be the same; especially with such a massive gamut as a decade.

I think the “marvelously untouched by pop culture” may be tongue-in-cheek, since my list has stuff like Shoot ‘Em Up and Crank on there. What to do with a list that has room for The Devil’s Rejects and not, say, There Will Be Blood? It is, I think, a woefully inadequate list, but it’s mine.

I’ve acknowledged the near-absence of foreign films. I regret this. I live in an area that doesn’t get the few foreign-language films that manage to make it to America anymore. Sure there’s Netflix, but I tend to use it more for filling in gaps in my classic-film “I suck for not having reviewed this yet” list as well as indulging in guilty pleasures. If it’s any consolation, I just finished programming a six-month horror series at the local library, and all but one of the films were foreign.

Cache isn’t on the list because I haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet. I know, I know, I should. I would probably dig it the most, daddy-o. There Will Be Blood … outstanding achievement, but my deal with this list was to take the top five of each year. There Will Be Blood probably came in at number six. These are the 2007 films, in alphabetical order, that rang my bell louder:

Across the Universe
No Country for Old Men
Shoot ‘Em Up
Southland Tales

…Yup. Shoot ‘Em Up, Rob? Really? This is what you prefer to Paul Thomas Anderson’s crowning glory? I will exhume Pauline Kael: “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Besides, Shoot ‘Em Up — if the title itself didn’t tip you off — is a comment on trash. I will now quote I-K, who left this comment on the review in response to the people who found the movie brainless: “What is wrong with you people? It’s a pisstake. Isn’t it obvious?” Yes, and it’s a glorious pisstake that uses the medium hilariously and bountifully.

I realize I’m mounting a defense that Benjamin hasn’t really called for. Still, when one draws up something as purportedly definitive as a best-of-the-decade list, one has to be willing to stand behind it. Block Party is there because it’s a shot of pure joy, something in rare supply at the movies these days. May and Southland Tales are there because they took me someplace I hadn’t been before. That’s one of the few things I ask of a movie. Show me something I haven’t seen before, make me feel or think something I haven’t before.