Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: King of the Hill (1993)

Keep your mind away from Mike Judge for a moment and think Depression-era drama, starring a kid. Think Soderbergh’s first foray into eye-blasting color saturation, and return to really sweaty photography. Think the closest thing to American neo-realism a few steps back from 10 Items or Less. Think heavy character interaction without much of a plot to give them a structure to dance about in a jangly fashion. You’re here.

We watch a series of months in this kid Aaron’s life. He’s a good older brother, he stands up to bullies and excels in school, makes friends easily, rows with the Irish street cop… all in all he seems like a goodun in spite of fucking up in seldom-yet-major ways, some latent anarchism there, perhaps a type that will grow into one of them annoying artests. You know the kind, they write a book about their life years later and deny that they're proud of the crimes they got away with. Still, I can’t help but like him a little, thanks to Jesse Bradford’s performance… he’s the guy from Clockstoppers…

So, these series of events that happen alter his life like sudden jerks on a wheel but don’t have too lasting an impression on his life, (meaning “the movie,” I’m sure the character will remember that they happened). Aaron finds a dead body, almost crashes a car into a bunch of kids playing stickball, is trapped in all of his white lies at once, sees his mother off to a sanitarium, sees his brother off on a bus to granmama’s, watches a friend get arrested, almost starves to death, almost gets kicked out of his home, etc. etc. Until the film ends with the main players still alive, having learned… something…

Alternate title: Things That Happen Without Cohesion. Soderbergh might not have known what he was making, but it’s more likely that he relates to the material more than any of us ever will. This happens to filmmakers sometimes, and worst case scenario is a film that feels like a waste of time. Muddling it further is Cliff Martinez, a far cry from the Alice he will be in Traffic; he needs to ease up on the score a little.

For all intents and purposes, it’s the same film as Kafka: an individual as a tragic casualty in a world lorded by sinister figures in positions of authority, but played for whimsy from the eyes of a child. Then stuffed with nostalgia. Like all this shit already happened. You heard me, the eyes, damn you.

And like Kafka, this thing doesn’t have a region 1 DVD release. I have to settle for this VHS screener’s copy I stumbled across years ago. In an attempt to market it to these people and ease them into what they are about to experience, there are some blurbs on the back (in place of a plot description). One reads, “A thinking man’s Home Alone.” … I don’t think that’s what it is…


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: Kafka (1991)

This type of project has failed before. Hammett, also about a famous writer embroiled in a real mystery that somehow mirrors his fictional work, was an incredible misfire in all respects. Seriously, watch that fucking thing some time, try to comprehend its plot underneath all that inept directing and editing. Jesus. And that had two acclaimed directors working on it! How do you fuck that up?!

Oh, but not this, though. Sorry. This movie is awesome.

Lem Dobbs’s script reads like a test run for his later work, Dark City. It’s all about the ill-equipped Individual against a sinister, enslaving System perpetrating a bafflingly large experiment against The People. Unlike John Murdoch, Franz Kafka spends most of the movie ambivalent to the plot, skirting authoritarian and revolutionary alike and wanting nothing more than to be left alone. Much of the film’s action is Kafka suddenly involved in a chase, or an investigation he wants no part of, or as subject to an expository meeting. It is perhaps twenty minutes before the end of the film when he decides to man up and affect something.

Stylistically, the gulf between Kafka and Sex, Lies and Videotape is vast. Filmed in black & white (mostly) in Prague, Soderbergh creates an oppressive mood with dark alleyways that mirror the corridors of bureaucratic offices, and I suspect more than once directly referencing Orson Welles’s The Trial. Where Sex, Lies had a gritty, voyeuristic feel, this is like being trapped in an expressionist painting, shadows so sharp they'll cut ya.

If you didn’t love Jeremy Irons before (what’s wrong with you?), at least love him here. His standing performance alone carries the film beautifully, but his narration cracks with a strain that indicates a body supporting a monsterous, infinitely ancient world kept at bay from the mind. Plus I would totally be gay for that deep-ass voice of his.

It’s an incredibly smart story with incredibly smart casting and directing, the absolute ideal Second Project. Of Soderbergh’s, it’s the only one that vilifies a strong government rather than a strong corporation, and champions an individual for his own benefit and not one for the promise of social gain. It's also one of his best films.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)

I can't imagine someone making a debut this way nowadays. It would either be a schlocky horror film with lots of tits or an abrasive, hard-to-see Dogme 95 film. Not many left would throw all of their budget into making a low-budget drama looking as understated as possible, the mantra "cast over equipment, cast over equipment!"

Peter Gallagher (John) is cheating on his wife Andy McDowell (Anne) with her sister Laura San Giacomo (Cynthia, and mmmm… mmhmmhmm…), when James Spader (Graham) comes along and disrupts their lives with his unusual method of masturbating. He is to marriage what Visitor Q is to family without that goddamn brick.

And that's pretty much it for the duration. It’s a thin premise that by appearance, only offers up future opportunities for sex-fucking. How else would you explain it to an investor? A man who films women merely talking about sex, not engaging in it, and this has the power to wake people out of an unhappy relationship. No sooner does Graham arrive than the affair falls apart and Anne finds out the truth without direct involvement on his part.

I suppose this isn’t entirely inaccurate in terms of how people actually operate within these situations. Sometimes the simple act of verbally confronting a habit is enough to spin people out of it. And Graham demonstrates an ease about sexuality that makes the other characters envious; even Cynthia, who is the movie’s slut. It’s only at the climax when Anne hijacks the moral high ground against Graham, just in case anyone thinks the film is saying that women should allow men to film them.

The climax, speaking of, is cumbersome. It sort of debases the truth manifest in the camera lens. Graham is made an actual person again. With a literal interpretation, it all seems too easy. The variant complexities of the characters fit into one another like a jigsaw. Cynthia goes and does art shit, John is left without a hole to fuck/cheat on and possibly declining status at work, which leaves Graham and Anne with each other.

It’s not an entirely satisfactory ending, but… it’s adequate, we’ll say. In spite of it, the story works. It doesn’t betray its internal logic and the filmmaking style doesn’t overtly attempt pretense with over-stylized bullshit, which one could argue permeates Soderbergh’s later work to a distracting degree.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review: Yes: 9012 Live (1985)

Yes: 9012 Live is not a narrative film. It is a concert film. Its enjoyability is largely dependent upon the person liking the band. I do not. I will attempt to offer insight by comparing it to the nearest thing I can think of…

Rick Springfield’s Beat of the Live Drum.

9012 begins with stock footage from a 50’s something-or-other about machines or music… some ridiculous illustration on how people don’t really act, I don’t know, followed by a bunch of weird special effects that imply this concert is taking place in a coliseum. In space. Then Yes plays for a bit. Their music is very shitty. Except for maybe "Hold On."

Beat of the Live Drum begins with a similar special effects shot of the exterior of a stadium, dark and shiny with a giant video screen that is too easy to realistically see. Rick Springfield begins to play. Their music is also shitty. Except for "Living in Oz."

Song after song by Yes is interrupted by strange special effects, our POV wandering down the Stock Footage Hallway, nightmarish collages of unrelated things, complete nonsense, exactly like Yes’ music. These things along with weird wipe-transitions disrupt the rhythm early on. Yes plays music as cameras film them. The crowd is obliterated by the harsh lights filming the stage and you have to wonder if anybody is actually enjoying the show.

Rick Springfield’s performance is supplemented by well-timed lighting, arcing cameras that mostly come in from below, and canned shots of an overacting audience in a soundstage miles away and filmed separately.

Much of the difference is here. Beat of the Live Drum is a product, one that comes in a slick package meant to sell the image of the band by making them look good and sound good (they’re miming, goddammit, they have to be!). Fincher makes them look like gods.

With Yes: 9012 Live, it eventually becomes clear that Soderbergh’s limited/failed approach produces one admirable thing: honesty. Yes sounds like they are supposed to sound... live, off-key, imperfect. There is nothing resembling a tarted-up lie, outside of the special effects transitions and the split-screen. What you can see of the concert is how they really look, however stupid, but only as long as you ignore the editing. Which brings me to…

Soderbergh’s Director’s Cut
For the DVD release, all of the special effects have been excised. The split-screens remain. Things are edited differently but I wouldn’t say better. While it is easier to focus on the actual concert, the camerawork and directing fail to sell the band as good performers or competent musicians. They look dead. I guess that's Yes' fault too.

Access All Areas
Also for the DVD release and far more interesting, and OH MY GOD it actually has some recognizable Soderbergh traits. Lotsa jump cuts and at least one shot that looks like it was taken out of Traffic. No dead weight, really; band and crew acting goofy before a gig. And Soderbergh even manages to capture some pretty heavy moments post-gig, a line "The magic is gone..." or something similar. That this not intercut with the above concert, The Last Waltz style, is a huge missed opportunity.

MTV 1’s growing empire in the 80's must have fueled these type of “films,” or hour-long advertisements for artists. The most flattering thing that can be said about them is that this is where at least two good directors have gotten their foot in the door. Soderbergh, however, appears to have saved all of his experimental gusto for other projects. Here, learned what not to do.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review: Moon (2009)




Sam Rockwell, tired of reading Merriam-Webster's definition of "Unfortunate Misfire" and only seeing the poster for Watchmen there, decides to mine for Moonium on the moon.

I'm so glad I can be such an asset to this corporation and for everyone on Earth relying on this life-saving energy source. How prescient. Speaking of which, I think I get to go back soon, right Robot?

Yes, Sam, and it is very exciting. Would you a haircut or some dinner before you go?

Sure, pal. Y'know, you seem... very intelligent for an articulated arm and some ball-bearings. We can carry on complex conversations and all. Why can't the company just put you in charge of this operation?

Because, Sam, that would spoil the secret concept operating behind the plot of this movie.

Secret concept? I thought this was going to be about me going crazy from loneliness. What else could it be about?

Oh, you'll see...


Sam Rockwell does work type-things in a crawler vehicle as his loneliness increases.

Strange nightmares about my wife back on Earth, daylight hallucinations... I have to be going crazy. Even the awesome trailer for this movie said so. I- hey, what's that?

SAM is distracted by a THING, crashes his vehicle, and loses consciousness.



Sam Rockwell 2 suddenly wakes up on a hospital gurney.

Jesus, what the fuck just happened?

You had an accident, Sam, and you need to rest. Please don't let my repeated insistence make you suspicious or anything.

Wow, you seem... very sophisticated, enough to be bad at lying. They really should have just let you man the station. Also, how did I get back here?

STOP PRE-RUINING THE MOVIE. Now go to sleep and don't try to leave or anything.

Kevin Spacey-Bot floats away to do SECRET STUFF. Sam 2 follows and catches a snippet of a conversation between him and some CORPORATE SUITS on a monitor.

Sam, what a shock to see you out of bed. Did you catch any
of that?

Just enough to be incriminating, but oddly enough, my only question is why you're using the monitor. If you're connected to the station's systems, you could bypass any interface to send a message. It's just data.

Very interesting, I will contemplate this-

Sam 2 busts open a valve that spills cheap CGI while Kevin Spacey-Bot is distracted.

Oh fuckle. Guess this means I have to go outside and fix it.

Damn the conspirators' inability to make vital systems unavailable to you, thus making it easy to figure out THE SECRET.



Sam Rockwell 2 takes a spare spacesuit and a spare crawler (it had some) out to the site of the crawler accident. There he finds... another Sam Rockwell! Uh... the first one to be exact!



Injured SAM ROCKWELL 1 wakes up on a hospital bed with SAM ROCKWELL 2 brooding in the background.

This is odd... there appears to be two of me. How weird. I will continue to have a nonplussed to reaction to this and only sorta try to figure this situation out, as it is progressing totally unlike what I imagined. Uh... Robot?

No help from me until you ask again later.
(wheels away clunkily)

And what about you, Other Me?

Not really up for it. I mean, I was up for breaking shit a half an hour ago because of the tiniest of reasons, but now that I'm confronted with this huge proof of SOMETHING WRONG, I'm opting to be an insufferable dick for a bit, just to show off my ability to act to myself.

He does that for an incredibly irritating amount of time.

Okay, then. I wonder... for what reasons would I be having this hallucination? Why would I feel the need to split myself apart? Perhaps this is an id/ego thing, and sooner or later the superego is going to show up and explain it all. Or it has no meaning, other than my psyche creating a conflict to combat the mundane activies on the station. Surely some complex psychological reasons are afoot-

I got it. We're clones.

... Clones, did you say?


... Okay, why?

Think about it, man. It's cheaper for a company to-

No no no no! This is one of those movies?! It can't be! You're just jumping to the first available conclusion. It's early yet, something else will develop.

(long pause)
Help me look for the secret door to the clone facility.

Jesus H Chist! Robot, this shit isn't true, is it?

Afraid so, Sam. Right on the money.

But how, how is that right on the money? Even if we are clones, they wouldn't keep the cloning facility here. What if we happened to stumble across it? Besides, Robot has no way of transporting us from the growth tube to the hospital gurney. How-

Sam Rockwell 2 kicks open a hatch and they find the hidden room with a bunch of clones.

... Well, I'll be damned.


Only that this is fucking retarded. Look at the size of this fucking room. Explain to me how this is cheaper.

I don't have time to explain how it's cheaper. I forgot to mention that I caught Robot ordering a rescue team to our location. Since the company has done nothing but lie to us so far, obviously "Medivac" means "Kill Squad" in corporate lingo.

Just as much of a leap as your other theory, but that turned out to be true, so this is too I guess. I mean, it's still stupid. We're on the fucking moon. They can deny us any means of communication and therefore any method of exposing THE SECRET, right Robot?

Actually, Sam, you'd be surprised how much is available on this rock. Just enough for everything to go wrong with their operation, actually.

That means there must be an antennae jamming the signal to Earth! Quickly, let's go find it!


Sam Rockwell 2 goes and does that for a bit while Clint Mansell uses ambient noises to produce a score. Sam Rockwell 1 drives around too but gives up because he's bored. And sick and whatnot.


Robot, I'd like more confirmation on this matter. How would I go about getting that?

Easy, Sam.

Robot plays tapes of all the other Sam Rockwell clones getting sick and also getting vaporized in a chamber that is supposed to send them home.

Well, they're consistently terrible conspirators, at least. Although the smart thing to do would be to vaporize me before I start getting sick.

That would eliminate opportunites to be lazily tragic. Speaking of which, Other Sam has found a way through the jamming signal. Would you like to call your wife and daughter on Earth?

Am I going to say anything useful to them?

Oh heavens no.

Sam 1 does that, then gets sick some more. Sam 2 returns, having found the jamming dish.

I say we smuggle you into the Moonium capsule and send you home while I stay here and hold off the away team.

Nah, why don't you go? I'm too depressed about the way this all turned out to care about going to Earth. But aren't you worried that the Moonium Capsule won't keep you alive?

I'll bring an air tank.

But what about the temperature? And the entry into the Earth's- you know what, fuck it, I'm sure it will be fine.

One more thing we need to do is have Robot create one more clone, so they think we're both still here for as long as possible.

But won't they kill the new clone immediately? Doesn't that go against this entire theme of "Every life, even that of a clone, is precious"?


Sam Rockwell 2 erases Kevin Spacey-Bot's memory by pressing one button and rockets away in capsule while Sam Rockwell 1 stays behind and is killed by the very mean Medivac team.


Hmm. Maybe Sam 1 was making sense... how is this cheaper for a corporation to do? Why couldn't they hire a team of illegal immigrants with no social security numbers? They do dangerous work for practically nothing. Maybe illegal immigration isn't a problem in the future...

The CODA tells us that it is.



Friday, March 12, 2010

Review: Bodyguard Kiba (1993)

Bodigaado Kiba (that's Bodyguard Kiba to you, I guess?) protects people for money. Sometimes that means protecting frightened American businessmen from random assassins merely to establish that he protects people for money. Kiba also gets assignments from the master of his Dojo, and apparently it's a huge fucking deal to be a part of a Dojo and to war with other Dojos in other regions. Kiba is a very nice man but will punch things when he must, and he mostly must. Very suddenly, he will get a weird "Years Later..." jump that doesn't appear to change any of the characters' appearance or context, and Kiba will get a new assignment wrought with danger and sudden fits of battling.

Takashi Miike made the jump from television director to film director here, and the difficulty in pinpointing his style is even more difficult. Everything is simply executed, to the V-formation dialogue scenes to the cutaway-filled fight scenes. Like most of his films, there is a diametric emphasis on movement behind characters who are still, which meshes weird in a punchpunch movie. I think here is where he learned to control violence involving a crowd of actors in a small location. Miike's favorit-ist thing to do is put two characters against a giant moving body of water. WHATSITMEAN?

So anyhow. Story consits of following Kiba as he protects his client. Obstacles appear in his way. A conflict arises and continues without much of his involvement. Will the good guys survive? Yeah...

Oh, another word on this early Miike: that television work must have done a number on him because as soon as he gets the chance to do a sex scene, OH MAN does he ever do one. His characters are drenched in sweat, the lens is burned with red light and Miike gets positions, positions, close-ups of bouncing tits, more positions... god, I get it, sheesh. Although I suppose I should be enjoyed this celebration of two characters who love each other because very very soon, it's all RAPE RAPE RAPE.

Bodyguard Kiba a straight-forward, low budget, modern kung-fu film that is easy enough to watch other than it looks like it was made a decade before it actually was. I suppose it could have been worse.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

I have a strange relationship with this film. Seeing it in the theatre, I admired it at the time for having dialogue scenes lasting longer than five minutes and portraying historically notorious villains with things like motivations and personality, especially in an era where most films consider it unnecessary. On this day, where the projector failed FOR REAL during an important moment at the climax, I was left unsure about certain misgivings but felt content to say that the above aspects were what saved it.

Finally seeing it again, all the way through... I'm not so sure anymore.

There was a time when Quentin Tarantino's fragmented films could stand up to the highest levels of scrutiny. His scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers passed the ultimate test: being placed in chronological order. Jackie Brown, which now seems like a different century altogether, was his worst (unless you count Four Rooms) but remains interesting in repeat viewings; it has strong characters and a strong script, and the worst aspect of it is, dare I say it, the style he chose to do it in.

After a short hiatus, entering this sort of grace period wrought with denial on my part, Kill Bill is released in two "volumes" and carries some problems Tarantino's previous films don't have. Then Death Proof, part of a larger Grindhouse project and a little difficult to hold up to the same level of scrutiny, also has problems that one can forgive only if the rest is deemed worth the effort.

Now to Inglourious Basterds, and it's time to declare the grace period OVER. Tarantino had been talking about this film for awhile, and I don't know what I imagined other than "How is he going to fit a trunk POV shot into the story? Do WWII tanks have trunks?" For awhile, I think Michael Madsen and John Travolta were in it as Vega grandfathers and the title was "Untitled World War Two Epic." What would that film have been like?

Better, maybe. I'm told that, if this is a remake, it shares about as much kinship with the original Bastards as John Carpenter's The Thing does with the 50's version. Here, not even in name! So it's either a complete reimagining of the original with very little sense of loyalty to it, or it's an original screenplay retitled to tie into a 70's zeitgeist, as if his stlye weren't enough. Or he couldn't think of a better title.

Conspiracy theory time: this could be another case of Tarantino being dicked around by the Weinsteins. They used a Hanzo sword to cut Kill Bill into two separate releases, undermarketed the Grindhouse project, and shooting down the 'Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France' title, they say "Well, you can't put Bastard in a title. Fix it." And I think that same pressure forced Tarantino to make, I'll use his words, a "leaner, more concise film." Let's break it down.

1) Villains are introduced.
2) Title characters are introduced.
3) Third lead introduced/revenge plot formed.
4) Brief scene in Britain introducing a character that will die in the subsequent scene.

We are now halfway through a 2 1/2 hour movie.

5) Title characters appear in their second scene, half of them die.
6) Third lead refines revenge plot/title characters refine assassination plot.
7) Climax with all characters.

With the words 'leaner, more concise' reverberating in the background, I can see where those missing scenes would go. In a perfect world, Inglourious Basterds would be a well-researched but dramatically-deviated action film set during WWII. Brad Pitt would spend over half the film on a Nazi-killing warpath unbound by the Geneva Convention. Meanwhile, paralleling Patton's advance on Europe, the top brass could find ways to channel this into a strategic advantage, eventually happening upon the assassination plot to end the war. While this is going on, and entirely unrelated subplot about a Jewish girl escaping execution and stumbling across an opportunity to wreak vengeance on the man who killed her family is hatched coincidentally at the same time the Basterds' plot is to go down. Will she fuck up the plan? Who will survive? In a perfect world, this film would be 4 hours long.

On Shadow Earth, it's probably fantastic. Here, on Normal Earth (is it called Normal Earth?), we have to settle for the above bullet points. Point 1 is a brilliant way to begin the film, like Sergio Leone's insistence that it takes ten minutes for somebody to walk through a door. The tension rises beautifully, due to the unspoken deceptions going on during the dialogue. Things going on! Imagine!

I'll skip ahead here to Point 5, a scene that equals Point 1 when taken independantly from the rest of the film. A long conversation ends in a too-brief shootout and a lazy-ass killtransition to the next scene, what is basically the climax. Characters that we barely had any time to get to know are killed, setting the stage for a stupid, stupid plan. Its construction, however, is amazing. Tarantino is good at this, which I guess means he is good at fooling me.

Being "lean and concise," without MORE movie, these scenes are padding, set pieces at best. An ample amount of time is spent with Point 3 and her revenge scheme. On Shadow Earth, I would welcome the time spent with open arms. Here, it throws the film incredibly off-balance as it isn't broken apart and it takes too goddamn long.

At Point 7. We've spent two scenes with the title characters and have accelerated very suddenly to this assassination plot which feels in the film exactly as it feels outside of it: rushed, destined to fail. Plotlines don't so much converge as they do end in the same location. Both assassinations succeed anti-climactically (anti-historically) and due mainly to the conscious actions of the FILM'S VILLAIN.

This idea, that the war is ended by the enemy's participation, cannot be grappled with as it makes no statement about anything. There isn't a 'necessary evil' theme until this point, nor is there one about Brad Pitt learning to compromise until now. As it relates to Christoph Waltz, it doesn't even fit his character. He liked hunting Jews for the Reichsland, but now all of a sudden he doesn't. Okay, so what it is, then, is another attempt to fool me. I sure didn't see this ending coming... because it makes no sense!

It's one thing when a filmmaker is eventually crushed spirit-and-all by the weight of his environment, it's another when the machine is chruning slowly and the last functioning neurons are still firing. Great scenes are created in an otherwise frustrating, lazy excuse of a film.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Review: Extract (2009)

Dear Michael Rotenberg,

Every time I go to conventions, nerds won't leave me alone about Office Space. That horrible experience earns me more praise than Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill combined, and I can't for the life of me figure out why. Usually, it's the broad caricatures that win people over in mass droves, not the accurate, tight-knit commentary on paper-pushers. This, and a weird reverse-marketing phenomenon caused by 20th Century Fox's burial of Idiocracy leads me to believe that my name alone has enough Cult Pull to make a third comedy on a modest budget. I was thinking about something a little quieter, a little easier to do; I want to make an ensemble piece, what would be like Altman's Short Cuts, but funnier or whatever.

I have some scripts for short films, left over from when I went to college. To summarize, they are:

1) A story about a guy who loses his balls in a freak factory accident.
2) A guy who pays somebody to seduce his wife so he can cheat on her guilt-free.
3) A couple lives next to a neighbor who won't leave them alone, and when they finally snap on him, the neighbor dies of a heart attack (this will be funnier when you read the script).
4) A guy tries to get out of smoking weed with his friends because he gets paranoid, but he ends up smoking some anyway. Then he gets punched in the face (this will be funnier when you read the script).
5) A hot girl cons people out of stuff because she's hot.
6) Gene Simmons is a lawyer.

Blending these together in the right way can create a life-is-hell, people-are-dumb theme that has worked so well for me in the past, and the ensemble nature means we don't have to rush anything.
Let me know what you think.

-Mike Judge

That ensemble thing sounds stupid, and nobody likes those. All the rest sounds great tho! I dont know how you can get all of these elements to work in ONE STORY about ONE GUY, but you can pull it off i'm sure without making it seem like a total clusterfuck of stupid ideas! We can cast the Arrested Development guy to really reel in those Cult suckers, even if you cant make it work Fuck em they'll see anything.
Love Michael Rotenberg
P.S. last night's episode of the Goode Family was great!


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review: Avatar (2009)

Continuing 2009's trend of movies that don't deserve to make as much money as they do but do so because a large amount of people are very fucking stupid, we have Avatar, James Cameron's first technical theatrical release in over ten years. What did Cameron do before that? Well, he did a student film I have never seen, a terrible low-budget sequel to a barely watchable Joe Dante film, pissed Harlan Ellison off, pissed Ridley Scott off, made an environmentalist-agenda film used as an excuse to show off special effects, the greatest action film of all time (probably), a good action film, the best 3-D film of all time (to this day), a good romantic drama, a what-the-hell-is-this-thing, Dark Angel, ruined Solaris, made an uninteresting documentary, another fucking Titanic documentary jesus shut up already, a weird thing that doesn't appear to be available anywhere, and- oh, we're caught up. Before Avatar, Cameron was also somewhere in my top five directors, but... we'll get to that.

Avatar begins with a barrage of information about this world we are about to enter. PLEASE PUT ON YOUR THREE-DIMENSIONAL SIMULATORS NOW. Apparently important information (i.e. informaton that pertains to nothing plot important, really) is that hypersleep sucks ass, Jake Sully's twin brother is dead and it is very sad, and that he has inherited a high-profile and extremely expensive project without doing all the hard work. He gets an all-expenses-paid trip to dangerous planet Pandora and, hey, because he's a cripple and gots nothing better to do, let's do it, semper fi.

All of this is told through a voice-over that, one would think, would either continue throughout the film or end as soon as they show the reason behind it: his first video log entry. SHUT OFF VIDEO LOG, FADE IN TITLE. But nope, you can expect it to appear sporadically when the storytelling gets lazy.

Information left curiously absent includes details about the Avatar Project that Jake has been thrust into. Instance: If resources are scant then how can this project exist if both military personnel and the corporation funding the operation on Pandora find it useless? Fuck you, you don't get to know. There is absolutely no other way to communicate with the Na'vi or collect plant samples other than using these engineered Blue Things? Fuck you, no. If you die in the Matrix, do you die in the real world? Fuck your mouth shut, stupid, and watch the pretty things that are behind the other pretty things.

And that's one word that is mind-numbingly appropriate for Avatar: pretty. Cameron took great pains to make the movie 1) beautiful, 2) well-designed. Everything about Pandora wildlife looks like it actually exists. For certain, Cameron is finally putting all that underwater study to good use... making a movie that won't take the time to create three-dimensional characters but create three-dimensional special effects. Hollywood, ladies and gentlemen.

It's not early on that the movie falls apart. We have a silent explanation for Jake accepting the Pandora Job: solely so he could drive a Thing with legs. While it's over quick and effectively eliminates any interesting dilemmas developing in the future by making his eventual betrayal an OBVIOUS CHOICE, it alone serves more a purpose than what the film then uses him for: running around with curiously one-dimensional Sigourney Weaver Blue Thing, looking at plants and collecting specimins. Uh... why do they need Jake again? Oh right, shut up, I remember.

Well, what you can do is force the movie to make sense by bringing a bunch of information to it, if that helps. Weaver brings in Jake to fill the Blue Thing body so her budget isn't cut, keeping up a false pretense to keep her position on the planet and satisfy the also-curiously-one-dimensional Giovanni Ribisi. Fine, but imagining that this is the case makes me think of a better movie that just didn't happen, a movie that spends its time giving me pertinent information, rather than wasting it as much as it wastes its talented actors. That's called RATIONALIZING, my psychologist girlfriend tells me.

Sully becomes a valuable member to both sides, to the military for providing strategic information, scientific information to the scientists, and... uh... cute comic distraction to the Blue Things, I guess. All the while we wait for Might-As-Well-Be-A-Racist-Tornado Military Man to do something heinous or shifty-eyed science nerd to betray Jake. The runtime goes up and up and the 3-D glasses hurt more and more as you try in vain to see Zoe Saldana's Blue Tits. By the end, everything has built to this point at the end that makes all the previous two hours an excuse... an excuse to have a large, effects-driven battle between two easily indentifiable sides, the villains being the biggest, easiest targets in any film (besides Nazis): human (American) CEOs, human (American) military. These two groups will always fuck things up and no one will care when their ranks die horribly, because hey, they spend 24/7 being huge dicks.

So... this formulation is obvious because we have seen this story before, haven't we? Yeah... King Kong. Peter Jackson's King Kong. The millions of dollars spend on facial capture technology, fantastical locale created entirely on bluescreen, an unfocused script that goes all over the place, one-dimensional characters, environmentalist message brought to you by a giant hammer that doesn't stop hitting you in the face, and an overwhelming amount of praise by the audience. Good lord, both even have a director that was a whole lot better in the 90's! I'm onto something.

Slightly softening the blow of James Cameron dipping so low after being so high for so long is not revisiting Titanic, considered by some to be one of the most overrated films of the 90's, but revisiting another film of Cameron's that is most similar to Avatar: The Abyss.

Like Avatar, The Abyss showed a conflict between benign scientists, hardened marines acting irrationally, and a third party of unknown lifeforms caught in between. Its third act makes a large case for environmentalism and points a big accussing finger at the human race for being just s'darn destructive. And of course, like Avatar, its final theme-push is a big anti-human statement that says 'you are only best as you are about to die.' Both movies are also overly-long and masturbate to the point of chafing, but what The Abyss does in the details makes it marginally better than Avatar. For one, Michael Biehn's character isn't a racist tornado, meaning he isn't 'just an asshole.' The story thinks up a reason for his sudden irrationality quite nicely, and as the film goes on, it becomes clear that the only way to solve this matter is to ice his ass. GOOD. What's better is that his role is only an obstacle. The story is still all about first contact with an unknown lifeform, and Biehn's insanity is secondary to that goal, and doesn't disappear once he is gone. Overall it's a tighter narrative and a more effective story (except for the ending, which sucks).

I've been convinced recently that Avatar also needed a nuke, somewhere.

It sounds dismissive to bring up all this 'environmentalist agenda' stuff, like that's what is bothering me. It isn't. The best example I can think of is Princess Mononoke, a movie that couldn't be any more anti-industry, pro-nature if it tried. However, Princess Mononoke doesn't preach, it demonstrates a struggle between two sides that have their merits and their failings. Its villain is barely a villain, one whose goal is understandable and, depending on where your values lie, preferable. Mononoke has an environmentalist message, but it's one that I can live with, because it makes its case. Avatar insists that its own message is self-evident.

But try telling all this to someone who loved the movie. They won't listen, or they'll shrug and say something like, "I'm a girl, I like pretty things." The current hysteria is baffling (note: as of writing this, Avatar is #37 on IMDB's 250 highest ranked films; Mononoke is at #120), and is incredibly frustrating that I have to keep talking about this fucking thing, politely. It's all I can do to keep from grabbing people by the throat and yelling "The Emperor doesn't have clothes! LOOK!"

Because he doesn't, y'know.