James Cameron’s Avatar

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An amazingly well-done movie that suffers from a failure to take Socrates’ advice.

Review: I had previously written a somewhat negative review of this film after seeing it in 3D IMAX along with a sizable crowd. I did enjoy it, however. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to compare it to similar blockbusters and breakthroughs in filmmaking technique, as well as seeing it for the second time on a much smaller screen, I’ve come to a more complete and fairer conclusion. I’m still disappointed with it, but it’s not the two-star movie which I had initially recognized.  This is a remarkable work of art, but it could have been so much more.

‘Avatar’ is about the collision of two philosophies of life.  One, represented by the humans’ mining operation on Pandora, is the use of natural resources to feed an artificial, distant and mechanical kind of living, since Earth’s organic resources have apparently been wiped out (though it would have been more effective if they had shown us this wasted Earth).  The other, represented by the typically idyllic but sometimes savage and irrational Na’Vi aliens, is the integration of all forms of life into a kind of harmony guided by a superior, personal lifeform.

The story reveals very little faith in humanity, in direct contrast to Cameron’s previous ‘Terminator’ films, which presented the conclusion that humanity’s self-destructive tendencies were nevertheless canceled out by their potential for selflessness. The Na’Vi, to my disappointment, are not truly alien.  There is no study of ‘the Other’, which is unfortunate, as it is a way of encountering God.  Instead, the Na’Vi are superhuman.  They’re everything Cameron apparently wants us to be.  Athletic, beautiful, generally altruistic, feminine, but also in touch with a fierce animal side.  It’s a strange contradiction with Cameron’s brilliantly creative mind, since the Na’Vi are, quite simply, not ambitious.  They don’t show an appreciation for the idea of social evolution.  Cameron praises their refusal of the humans’ offers of technology, medicine, and education, yet these are all things that Cameron has personally invested himself and his resources in for the betterment of humanity. There is no betterment of the Na’Vi, only a keeping of the status quo, simple maintenance.  Ironically, this is kind of like a machine.  Eywa, the feminine deity of the Na’Vi religion, is a giant bio-mechanism in the form of a planet which shows admirable personality but not the desire for growth.  Machines, as of yet, don’t consciously reach out with curiosity to become better machines.  We do.  In doing so, we often resist control.  Eywa appears benevolent, but unlike a good human mother (like, say, Sarah Connor), ‘she’ merely keeps the cycle going, and there is no release of the Na’Vi into an independent adulthood.  It’s a nice, even beautiful cycle, but just like doing a Queen’s laundry in the Louvre, it’s going to become tedious eventually.

This is part of the inherent flaw of religions based solely on a deity’s will and/or a cyclical universe.  In Calvinist Christianity, since God has complete control over literally everything, there is no sanctioned stoking of independent desire and therefore, no social evolution, no betterment of humanity.  The best that Calvinism can ultimately offer is a cyclical heaven in which persons act like programs to fulfill a function.  In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universe is a cycle that repeats indefinitely, and the best escape offered in either, to my knowledge, is annihilation.

For all of James Cameron & Co’s amazing designs and well-told story beats, there is essentially no consideration of the complexities inherent in the opposing philosophies of the film.  The human bad guys are flat and unsympathetic.  The Na’Vi have a couple shades of complexity, but none of their flaws hamper them or are really considered flaws by the protagonist.  It’s true that ‘Avatar’ heavily relies on the concepts of the Noble Savage and nods to imperialistic atrocities, and what’s worse, they are again not explored in any depth.  This continual failure throughout the film’s long runtime to really explore the issues smacks of propaganda.  Perhaps in a rush to tell a successful morally simplistic tale like the original ’77 ‘Star Wars’, Cameron made the critical mistake of which morals to simplify.  ‘Star Wars’ was the noble rogues versus the oppressive, fascist state, a story as old as and older than Robin Hood.  It’s been mulled over, examined, rethought, and is pretty much universally acknowledged as being morally sound.  ‘Avatar’ pits unrealistically evil humans versus unrealistically good and superhuman aliens, a story as old as and maybe older than the 2000s, and an unwelcome addition, in my book.  Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. In a similar way, the unexamined idea is not worth having.

For all my complaints, it’s obvious that ‘Avatar’ was a labor of love for James Cameron and his massive team of artists, and they did make a pretty above average movie.  In fact, they made a very good one.  It’s a full 4-star movie, but it’s terribly terrible philosophy.

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Moon

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary: Remarkable philosophical sci-fi from a great new director.

Positively cool.

Review: Newbie director Duncan ‘Zowie’ Jones — David Bowie’s son — has officially blown my mind.  The hard sci-fi awesomeness of the original ‘Solaris’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ has returned in the form of ‘Moon’, Jones’ debut film, starring Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, a man working on the titular orb that I’m sure we’re all familiar with.  Kevin Spacey supplies the voice of Gerty, the apparently friendly computer that runs the base and is Sam’s only companionship.  The details of the plot are directly tied to the surreality of the experience, so I’m afraid I can’t spoil it, though eventually it will suffer from ‘Planet of the Apes’ disease and have its great twists assimilated into common knowledge.

But ‘Moon’ really isn’t a movie about twists and turns. It’s really not a movie about science concepts, either, even though one familiar to modern audiences does appear.  It’s more about loneliness.  It’s about the tendency of human beings to divorce themselves from painful self-knowledge.  Sam Bell could never have taken his harrowing journey towards overcoming his demons had he been working amidst a community.  He, like the early Christian ascetics, found, unwittingly in this case, that in isolation there is a chance to explore the regions of heaven and hell within the human spirit.  This is not a permanent pursuit; even Sam Bell must eventually return to Earth.  The great danger for Sam Bell, as it was and is for all ascetics, is to become trapped in one’s hermitage, unable to overcome hell and trapped in a cycle of defeat.  The nirvana of Buddhism is nothingness; the nirvana of the Christian monk is everything and everyone, when viewed through the right eyes.  We are our worldview.

The music by Clint Mansell is a strong counterpoint to the music of Kubrick’s ‘2001’.  Clint Mansell creates a score of the moment, a piano-driven, eerie, unsettling atmosphere that centers on the individual.  The ‘2001’ soundtrack, with its many classical pieces from different sources, represents the whole of mankind and its evolution through encounters with the alien.  Clint Mansell’s ‘Moon’ is always introspective.  This provides an excellent contrast of the themes of each film.  ‘Moon’ is about the one small step for a man; ‘2001’ is about one giant leap for mankind.  In another sense, Clint Mansell’s score is ambient and uses electronic sounds to subtle effect, showing some similarity to Vangelis’ score for Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’.  Both films have something to do with the relationship between identity and technology.

All in all, ‘Moon’ is spectacular filmmaking.  It’s greatly moving and greatly creative.  Here’s hoping for more from Duncan Jones.

Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary: A solid but misdirected and mismarketed adventure that’s quite a lot of fun.

The movie's much more colorful and exciting than the marketing.

Review: ‘Prince of Persia’ is something of a cinematic oddity. It’s staunchly old-fashioned, but filmed and marketed in the modern gritty style of the ‘Clash of the Titans’ remake and ‘Quantum of Solace’. In truth, this is a script and a concept that deserved a Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, Verbinski, or even a Del Toro at the helm. That’s not to say that director Mike Newell gets it completely wrong, but there is a noticeable disconnect between his approach and what the film should have been.

That said, it still succeeds remarkably well.  The tone it strikes is just right.  The cast obviously understands the material and hams it up accordingly.  Say what you will about the dubious decision to cast almost all Caucasian actors in a movie about ancient Persia, but it’s perfectly in line with the old adventure films that it tips its hat to.  This is a Republic serial, a B-movie, an ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘Star Wars’.  It deals with horrific imagery and family unfriendly deaths in a similar manner to ‘Raiders’, remarkably not letting them detract from the broad appeal and sheer fun of it all.  It overdoes a few things, but so did ‘Temple of Doom’.  I think it’ll catch on.

The big weak points, to my taste, are the cinematography, which moves way too fast, and the score, which aside from referencing Maurice Jarre does nothing special or particularly memorable, which is a shame because it was composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, whose music for the ‘Narnia’ films was so memorable it became downright annoying.

The story is traditional.  It doesn’t try to create a unique twist on genre or expectation, because it already has enough of a task transforming the elements of the video games upon which the film is based into a solid cinematic narrative.  It would’ve been nice if it had enough freshness to breathe new life into its chosen genre, but sadly, it doesn’t succeed in this manner, while producer Bruckheimer’s ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ did. The marketing and the reputation of video game movies to suck didn’t do it any favors.

I enjoyed it.  Flat out.

Cult Classic: Reservoir Dogs

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A realistic, gut-punch of a movie.

Reservoir Dogs

Review: ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is filmmaking wizard Quentin Tarantino’s first (completed) film. It’s a compelling and shocking re-imagining of the typical cops & robbers heist film. It’s the kind of story where everything goes wrong. This time around, we are set up to empathize with the bad guys, a team of hired men assigned by their ring leader, Joe, to steal some diamonds.  They all go by color-coded monikers, and keep their true names to themselves.  When the robbery hits the fan, the survivors immediately suspect that they’ve been set up by the police, and it’s only a matter of time until they discover the traitor.

‘Dogs’ wields an aggressively realistic tone.  The dialog, already well-written, is enhanced by frantic, vulgar, and sometimes funny ad-libbing from the ensemble cast.  The violence, in contrast to the extended, pattering dialog, is short, brutal, and too the point, except for one scene: an infamous torture scene that’s ridiculously hard to sit through.  Tarantino faced (and faces still) great criticism of this scene, but he defends it by acknowledging that the typically horrified reaction of the viewer is exactly what he hoped for.  As good as the film is on the large part, I really can’t justify the sheer brutality of the scene (although, it must be noted, it’s mostly psychological in nature), but the upside is that it leads to a fantastic and cathartic reveal of the traitor.

Like most of Tarantino’s filmography, there appears to be a philosophical bent to the film’s action and conclusions.  This is a window into the world of the cinematic villains that we usually want dead or jailed.  It’s an exercise in empathy.  It’s an acknowledgment of universal humanity and, as Ronnie James Dio would suggest, that we all have “Heaven and Hell” in us.  There’s some major, usually unspoken debate in Christianity as to the moral value of humanity: Are we basically evil, or basically good?  The answer, of course, is both.

‘Reservoir Dogs’ is smart, shocking, uncomfortable, funny, and sobering art.  It has my recommendation to guys and dolls with a strong stomach.

Classic Review: Ghostbusters

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  Hilarious, scary, accessible fun.

Ghostbusters!

Pictured: Who you are going to call, minus one.

Review: Oh my God, this is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen in my life!  Okay, maybe not, but it’s definitely up there.  This is what we call a “comedy”, ladies and gents, which I make a point of pointing out since we seem to have forgotten what exactly that is.  You see, a long time ago people went to movies to experience the phenomenon dubbed “laughter” typically accompanied by “fun” and an overall sense of narrative satisfaction — and sometimes they even brought the kids!  Okay, maybe I’m going over the top, but the point is they don’t make movies like this anymore.  ‘Ghostbusters’ is like a flash in the pan.  There’s only a few comedies I can put on its level, all of which shall be reviewed!

I’m not going to tell you the story, darn it! If you don’t know it, shame on you! Go see this movie now!

This movie works because it actually doesn’t try to wring out as many jokes from its premise as it can, which is a common mistake for films of its type.  Instead, it relies almost wholly on creating fun characters with great chemistry who naturally produce comedy.  It’s like magic!  And, crucial too is the application of real suspense and nightmarish special effects.  This isn’t a total farce, this is a credible fantasy film.  If I don’t think some of the ghosts are scary, then I can’t laugh at them either.  It’s a paradox.

What ‘Ghostbusters’ represents to me is the perfect balance of horror and comedy.  I don’t mean slasher or zombie horror, I mean like ‘Poltergeist’ horror.  There are plenty of films that mix the two, to be sure, but none so pure a balance as ‘Ghostbusters’.  I least that I’ve seen.  Feel free to suggest a rival.  Anywho, ‘Ghostbusters’ was a big part of my childhood and was kind of the gateway drug into darker, scarier movies that I couldn’t stomach before — when I was 9, I mean.  I saw ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ before ‘Ghostbusters’, but it scared the mellow yellow out of me, and seeing a film both fun and freaky like GB opened my eyes to the awesomeness of Indy.  My life was fun that way.

This is also a movie that helped form my opinion of the horror genre in general.  I’ve mostly been opposed to it until recently.  I don’t like many horror movies.  I tend to find them unentertaining at best and sickening and gutwrenching at worst, the latter of which, actually, many of them aim for.  I prefer the concept of a film that uses eerie, otherworldly imagery to help us deal with childhood phobias and confront evil in our adult lives.  A great scary picture can have the greatest potential as a morality play or message movie.  There’s something about the nature of it that can make it seem less anvilicious.

‘Ghostbusters’ is the definitive family action/horror/comedy film.  I like it.

Classic Review: Bullitt

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  A film so laid-back and slice-of-life it borders on surreal, while also boasting great action and suspense.

Review: Ah, the ’60s. The golden age of James Bond and the incubation chamber of the modern cop/spy/vigilante thriller movie. In 1968, we got ‘Bullitt’, in which Steve McQueen plays the titular character, an overly dedicated cop suspiciously similar, in some respects, to the future ‘Dirty Harry’. He plays his scenes with minimal to zero dialog but still exudes cool and draws sympathy from the audience. We never get to find out where Lt. Frank Bullitt came from, what he hopes for, what is the extent of his relationship with his girlfriend, what’s he really feeling about the whole mystery he’s pulled into. He’s an everyman.

Right from the opening titles, I was hooked.  The editing was especially strong and just watching names I won’t remember assume their positions on screen for a few moments was entertaining. The action moves at a steady and patient pace.  The cinematography keeps us interested even if there is nothing overtly important going on.  Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy, unforgettable score lets us feel the pulse of the film’s setting in San Francisco, lets us know the world we see on screen is alive and well.

Lt. Bullitt as the proto-Dirty Harry naturally comes into conflict with his superiors and with the politicians.  He stretches the rules and defies the tendency of the PD to kiss ass for support.  He doesn’t care about politics.  He cares about justice.  He never gives us a speech spelling himself out.  His best defense of his position, his grand apology, is when a politician played by Robert Vaughn insists that everyone must eventually compromise, and he simply says, “Bullshit.”  It’s the single best use of the word I’ve seen in a film.  His great weakness, however, is in the performance of his duty.  He’s surrounded by so much death, working in homocide, that he’s become distant and callous.  His ridiculously gorgeous and intelligent girlfriend calls him out on this.  He insists that he must keep going.  What Bullitt teaches us is that justice and truth are worth fighting for, but even the most noble can be scarred by the horrors of crime and deceit.

The chase sequences are incredible.  This was back in the day, man, when people actually drove cars in stunt scenes and let the audience see what the hell was going on.  The big car chase is sublime.  The various foot chases are similarly engaging.

This is a must see for fans of the ‘Bourne’ movies, ‘Dirty Harry’ movies, frak it, any action film fan needs to see this film.  This is a piece of art, ladies and gentlemen, this is a piece of perfect.

Classic Review: Pulp Fiction

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  An awful trip into the dark side of life that’s too much for the morally conscientious, but also a terrifically clever and redemptive narrative that shows that light shines brightest in the darkest places.

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is almost too cliche for words, but it kind of fits here.  Groovy.

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is almost too cliche for words, but it kind of fits here. Groovy.

Review:  You know what? I’m tired of something.  I’m tired of folks focusing too much on the dark side of life.  I’m tired of self-imposed moral guardians not having the wit to see the good in the world around them.  Gag me with a spoon.  But there is evil in the world.  You bet your sweet bippy.  Sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with it.  Art when used properly is a roundhouse kick to the face of those sneaky bastards who think they can catch you off guard.  In other words, it’s a way of exorcising our demons, exposing the villain within.  Strange genius Quentin Tarantino, whether he admits or not, has a definite talent for that sort of thing.  Exhibit A.  “Pulp Fiction”.

This is a movie about the criminal underworld.  It’s about the things we keep secret.  About family.  About sexuality.  About conversations about God and pigs in an old diner.  Yet, for all the myriad qualities, those influenced by the film seem to have taken to the incidentals of the setting rather than the brilliance of the substance.  So, Tarantino’s cinematic offspring have drug use, bloody violence, bad sexual jokes and the overuse of the F-word.  Those things are present in ‘Pulp Fiction’, but they’re a part of something much more intelligent.  It’s not just shocking.  It’s better than that.  It’s honest.  It’s not a movie you’d want your grandmother to see, and if you think you would, either you’re messed up or I don’t want to meet your grandmother.

There’s a classic proverb that says, ‘Great artists steal’.  Tarantino doesn’t just steal tropes or scenes or characters like any old filmmaker would do, instead he soaks up the very essence of a cultural mindset and wrings it out onto the page and the screen.  The result is always both uncomfortable and extremely engaging.  Wholesomeness and perversion exist side by side.  There’s good sex and bad sex, God and gangsters, redemption and revenge.  Perhaps a reason why the self-imposed protectors of the moral status quo can’t get a movie like ‘Pulp Fiction’ is that they just don’t want to see people naked — metaphorically, I mean.  The film is extremely redemptive and the good guys win.  The nastiness of their on-screen world is our very own nastiness.  As unnecessary as seeing it could be, maybe those of us who live in this dark world need to be reminded of our own uncomfortable secrets, and that by sifting through them we can find our own redemption.