Friday, September 10, 2010

Avatar

Avatar is possibly the biggest film ever. It's long, it's expensive, it pushes the boundaries of what's visually possible, it's a technological tour de force and single handedly justified the push for 3D visuals in absolutely everything. It also made a simply preposterous amount of money.

It's also not that great.

This isn't to say it's bad, necessarily. It's highly polished, tightly plotted - it's to its credit that it's almost three hours long and also rarely boring - and comes with those visuals. The visuals are a celebration of the power of CGI, creating landscapes and geography that is completely impossible but nonetheless breathtaking. From floating mountains to detailed phosphorescent landscapes, the film is a fountain of visual imagination. The closest one can get to criticizing the view is that they are quite reminiscent of more than a few JRPGs - I'm sure I visited every location in FFXII - but they're so vividly realized that it doesn't matter.

Unfortunately, the visuals contain the only imagination. The story itself is a clich├ęd environmental allegory. The story's center is Jake Sully - Sam Worthington, who cannot maintain an American accent and show emotion at the same time - a former Marine who can't use his legs. With the death of his twin brother, he's directed to become part of the Avatar program, where he controls a big blue dude to interact with the Na'Vi, the indigenous population which has a connection with nature - literally, with some sort of hair USB cable - and is a not very subtle lift of magical Native Americans who show up in these kind of things. He's directed by trigger happy space marine Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and weaselly corporate guy Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) to get intelligence about the place the Na'vi live, so they can blow it up and mine some stupidly named "unobtanium". Unfortunately, he falls in love, with the Na'vi culture but mostly with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and decides that he's got to protect them forever. Also present are Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the gruff scientist with a heart of gold, and Michelle Rodriguez, playing a Michelle Rodriguez role. Guess what happens to her!

The characters are a grab bag of old ideas we've seen before a million times. The plot develops predictably, every plot development is predictable from the moment the film starts, and not one surprise happens in the three hour running time. The sole unique factor for the big battles is the switch between avatar and human, and how it affects the characters' reactions. The big bad just wants oi...I mean "unobtanium" - was there seriously no better names? - and that concern overrides. There are some less than subtle digs about colonialism and US foreign policy, the army guy just wants to blow stuff up and looks for flimsy excuses to do so, and in spite of the vibrant visuals the film is stock black and white - there is good, there is bad, and nothing in between.

It's a case where it's possibly the best film of the type possible - sorry, Fern Gully, you've been eclipsed - and it is so pretty it's tempting to just ignore the number of flaws in the picture. It's such a technological tour de force that it's easy to ignore that it has nothing unique or interesting to say. It's all visual, and while they're good visuals, there's more to film than that.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Business of Fancydancing

For some reason, I suspect Sherman Alexie didn't see himself making many movies. This is possibly correct, since The Business of Fancydancing is his only film. I say this because it plays like Alexie had to say as many things as he could, filling the film with daisy chains of ideas and commentary.

The film is about Seymour (Evan Adams), a celebrity poet and public speaker, who is also aboriginal, and also gay. It's about his struggles to be himself, his cultural identity, his sexual identity, his struggles with his past, his discomfort with the reserve. Back on the reserve is Aristotle (Gene Tagaban), who had potential but is done in by substance abuse, and Mouse (Swil Kanim) who is really good at fiddling but killed by substance abuse. So it's about their struggles too, the problem of reserve life, their identity...

That's a lot of ideas for 106 minutes. Plus there are moments of traditional dance and heavy use of rather good music. So it could be argued that the film is overstuffed.

Which isn't to say it's bad, of course. Alexie has a lot to say, and he tries a number of different experiments in order to say it. The film, in spite of it's clearly minuscule budget - a wild bar is very obviously a high school gymnasium, and all the trick lighting and hints towards the abstract cannot hide this - dabbles in different styles and different ways of storytelling. Yes, this is another symptom of Alexie wanting to get every idea he can compressed into one film, but it helps the end result immensely, bringing to life what amounts to a very internal journey for the characters.

There's a glimmer of brilliance in there, but at the end I hoped that Alexie would just settle down. He has some talent, and he can coax some effective performances out of his actors. He's also got a great deal of things to say, he just stumbles over himself trying to say them all at once. Many brief vignettes and passages rushed through could be the basis for an entire other film, and the struggles with identity can be explored in a much more thorough manner apart from the other stuff that happens.

I found that just saying everything, all at once, diminished the power of the many individual statements made throughout. In his struggle to say everything he wanted, it seems as though Alexie couldn't quite form coherent sentences about the rest of it. Too bad, it is, after all, a mostly good movie.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Better Luck Tomorrow

Let's talk about squandered potential. It's sort of relevant to today's movie, Better Luck Tomorrow, plot-wise, but it's much more relevant when it comes to that film's director and co-writer Justin Lin. Here's a movie that showcases lots of potential, from a director with a interesting and uniquely Asian American point of view. That's a good point of view! We should see more movies from that point of view.

The film is about a group of kids of Asian descent - mostly Korean from what I can tell - who are all associates in their school. The main character is Ben (Parry Shen) a slightly shy, slightly oblivious, but mostly intelligent young man who, along with aggressive and slightly annoying friend Virgil (Jason Tobin) and Virgil's cousin Han (Sung Kang) are roped into an elaborate test cheating and ultimately drug dealing scheme by Daric (Roger Fan). In the periphery, Ben wants to pick up Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung), who happens to be dating the obscenely rich Steve (John Cho). Eventually these plot threads collide violently and the entire thing ends with a bit of superficially happy ambiguity, similar to the look of slight regret right at the end of the Graduate.

In spite of Ben being the main character, focus, and narrator, the real driving focus of the film is Daric, and his obsessive need to be respected and belong. He drives the events, from writing an article about Ben being a "token Asian" on the basketball team to introducing the group to all the schemes. The main group is clearly marginalized within the school system, though this is not always explicit, and Daric does everything he can to get the approval, or at least begrudging respect, of the people around him.

That thread of needing to prove something to the people around them is something common to the characters. They struggle for good grades and Ivy League scholarships to prove their value, either to themselves, their peers, or their parents - which are never seen on screen. They enter into criminal activities to prove that they aren't just the good smart kids, but have a violent streak, an aggressive streak, or to simply get the approval of their peers. Virgil, for example, flashes a gun around constantly in order to seem tougher than he is, though when actual violence appears he cannot handle it.

I won't claim to know the struggles of Asian people in a western society - I'm as white as the driven snow - but of course Lin does, and he makes a film that could only have been made by someone experiencing this kind of life. Lin clearly has a lot to say about growing up, and growing up in the shadow of great expectations and subtle discrimination.

So, naturally, I'm rather disappointed that Lin has abandoned meaningful and interesting films and has become the series director for Fast and the Furious. Much of Better Luck Tomorrow makes me curious about what he's going to do next, but his filmography in subsequent years has been by the book action films and, well, the Fast and the Furious. Maybe that spark of creativity is still there, but I wonder if Lin has been done in by his expectations of himself.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Das Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment is quite famous in the annals of psychology, in spite of being fairly poorly run and executed. Making one group prisoners and the others guards, it all quickly got out of hand, with rampant mistreatment of prisoners by the guards ensuing. It was inept, poorly handled, and unethical. So, imagine if it got even worse! That's the motive behind Das Experiment, a German film inspired by the events.

Here, we have taxi driver and sometimes journalist Tarek (Mauritz Bleibtreu) as one of the prisoners, attempting to get things completely out of hand in order to get a better story. He gains the attention of guard Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), who is in the process of going quite literally mad with power. Their antagonism is one of the drivers of the story, though eventually Berus just goes completely nuts, kills a guy, kidnaps most of the scientists, and gets all the guards to go along with him because they think this is all part of the experiment. It gets out of hand.

Also, Maren Eggert is Dora, she wanders around in her underwear. Her characters has no purpose whatsoever.

For the most part, the movie is a pretty interesting tale of psychological warfare. The Berus/Tarek conflict is a strong base for the film to build on, contrasting Berus' pathological need for control nicely with Tarek's need to get a good story. It's an interesting attempt to get to the psychological implications of the experiment, and by telling the story through the perspective of someone trying to ratchet up the intensity, it has a compelling anti-hero at its core.

In the need to keep continually raising the stakes, it also wanders in the river of implausibility. It's not so much implausible because of the treatment prisoners receive, nor is it implausible that some guards would develop sadistic tendencies. No, what's implausible is that the guards would turn on the bosses themselves. See, in the experiment, the people in charge of payment are the scientists. Locking up the scientists and assaulting them? Not going to happen, for the same reason the wardens at real prisons aren't locked up and assaulted: If you do that you're going to get fired and go home without pay.

The last act is meant to ratchet up the tension, but it just becomes completely unbelievable. Is it seriously going to get to the point where the guards even turn on the scientists in charge? Even if the lead guard is in it to beat guys up and overcompensate for smelling bad, the others will remember that he's not the boss, the scientists are, and beating up the scientists is a bad idea.

Also, real prison guards tend to not kill the prisoners. That's a pretty basic part of prison guarding, don't kill anyone.

It's not like the ineptitude of the inspiration needs to be enhanced anyway, and it could become just as compelling a film even without the outlandish last act. The need to ratchet up the tension does not serve the story, because it is unnecessary. Why do we need more than the regular batch of inhumanity? It's good enough to make the real story compelling, and at least it doesn't tread deeply into the realm of implausibility.

Friday, August 27, 2010

District 9

Science fiction is often used to give a little distance between the viewer and a hot button topic. Sometimes it doesn't work, such as in Star Trek VI, which was such a heavy handed allegory about the collapse of the USSR it rang false throughout. Sometimes it does, such as the best film about immigration and racism I've seen all year, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1136608/">District 9.

So, here we're in South Africa, where a big alien ship has stalled, and the passengers have been moved to a slum called District 9. They're treated poorly, and then people complain that they commit crimes and are unruly, not realizing that having them in a slum situation likely doesn't help matters. Since they are planned to be relocated to a new district, clueless bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely, in a star making turn) is charged with serving eviction notices and generally getting them to cooperate. It goes quite badly, and leads him to become more like them than he anticipated.

So the entire thing has a bit of an obvious allegory going on, and that's pretty unavoidable given the content. It doesn't help itself by making a lot of the human characters obviously evil, which is usually a death knell for subtlety. The late film hero moments can feel kind of awkward for this reason, as Wikus does sort of kill lots of people.

So why does it work? Well, Copely sells the weedy bureaucrat who is forced to go against what he used to just accept. He's never a perfect character - even late film he does some extremely cowardly and dick-ish things, rare for a hero - but he's strangely likable, even when he's right there with the evil company doing bad things. He's a nice guy, the kind of guy you probably wouldn't want for a boss but who you'd go for coffee with and buy a couch from. He's a recognizable happy center.

It also works because it's such a good action movie that it doesn't give you time to recognize how simple it is being drawn. The themes are obvious, and ever present, but nobody ever dwells upon them. It is a big, impressive action spectacle that relies on the themes to give a purpose for the action.

Still, being a big action movie leads to the people killed, and one wonders if they couldn't learn, like Wikus before them, that the aliens are actually nice guys. If we learn more about people - or space people - by hanging out with them, I wonder if some of the cannon fodder could have gotten along with the aliens if given the chance. I can understand some characters being just completely bad, but most of the soldiers are just soldiers, it feels somewhat uncomfortable just blowing them up.

Sometimes it can be too clever. Flipping between documentary style and more typical film making is an interesting choice - and the documentary talking head interviews are a great way to do exposition without being really annoying about it - but it seems a bit indecisive, as though it doesn't know what it wants to be.

It's far from a perfect movie, and there are also some points where the script doesn't consider if a twist quite makes sense in context. Still, it's possible to be imperfect and still quite good, and as a statement of purpose, District 9 is evidence that director Neill Blomkamp is one to watch.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Ghost Writer

On release, it was impossible to talk about The Ghost Writer. Everything was filtered through a lens of director Roman Polanski's transgressions, interest in which was revived quite close to the film's release. To discuss the film was to discuss Polanski, and more than one critic read more into the experience than what was intended. It was a potential last film, it could be historic, after all.

To be fair, the film is about a man in exile due to crimes which happened several years before, not unlike Polanski. However, former prime-minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is not meant to be Polanski by any means, instead being a slightly smarmier Tony Blair. The ghost writer of the title is Ewan McGregor, brought in to replace the old ghost writer after he kills himself under lightly mysterious circumstances, eventually leading to the uncovering of an elaborate conspiracy surrounding the otherwise quite mundane Lang.

It's actually a clever tactic, making the former Prime Minister as boring as possible. The assignment, in the beginning, is straightforward. The new ghost is brought in to punch up Lang's autobiography because it is, frankly, terrible. It's presented as just a dull job, and constant shots of McGregor sleeping reinforce this. It's funny, because it makes the twists seem all the more interesting, since on the surface we're not looking at a spectacular or interesting man, just another PM. Ho-hum, right?

Polanski, for all his faults, knows how to make a thriller, and I seriously doubt it's even possible for him to make a bad one. So the Ghost Writer isn't a bad thriller. There are twists, it's a slow reveal, and one is often intrigued by just how deep things go. It's something Polanski has done before to great effect, and here it is clearly the work of a master of pacing and atmosphere.

Unfortunately, that master is just going through the motions on this one. To quote one of the characters, the words are all there, they're just in the wrong order. The story is actually good, but the leaps required to hit the right beats don't hold up very well. A key twist relies on a poorly designed website - never, ever a reliable source - and some characters just don't seem to exist, if that makes sense. They're there, they have dialog, but they're not really blessed with personality or interest. Also, while the final shot is beautiful, the questions it prompts are not quite the ones which it intends to.

That said, it's exactly what you expect, a competent thriller made by a guy who could make one in his sleep. This is no bad thing, and even flawed and imperfect there is a good movie here, one which is constantly interesting and compelling. Just not the greatest movie, and maybe that explains why just as much attention was paid to the director's troubles as the film itself.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Clash of the Titans

I've seen the original Clash of the Titans, though it's quite telling that I don't remember very much about it. There was some charming stop motion, a kraken, and assorted Greek things. Given that the film was such a memorable event, it stands to reason that the new Clash of the Titans is something equally memorable and distinct.

Given that it's 2010 rather than 1981, a few changes have been made to the formula. For one, stop motion is out like Ricky Martin and Lance Bass, replaced by shiny, shiny CGI - and I do mean shiny, the armor of the Gods is so glittery it's reminiscent of a prom photo circa 1987. The camera swoops and shakes, the script is slightly darker and more extreme, and the film owes an obvious debt to Lord of the Rings, especially in how it takes in sweeping landscapes.

The story largely does remain the same. Sam Worthington is Perseus, the generically handsome demi-god, who grows up with a family so wholesome you know they won't make it very far into the film. After they're completely expectedly killed, he decides he doesn't like gods very much, and is charged with slaying the Kraken, which is to be released by Hades, played by a combination of Ralph Fiennes and CG glitter - not sure why Hades has glitter, but there you go - as part of an elaborate plot to weaken Zeus, played by Liam Neeson and even MORE glitter. He goes on an epic quest involving giant scorpions, a disapproving Mads Mikkelsen, a sexy Gemma Arterton, lots of landscape shots, and a need to behead Medusa, as often happens in these greek myth movies.

Surprisingly, for all the mythology and big CGI battles, the film is surprisingly boring. One culprit might be the general overuse of CGI in all movies. While the original was charming in its silly stop motion animation, CGI can take the wonder and imagination out of a picture. There's no question of how they did the various stunts, we know, they had a bunch of computers render big beasties. When anyone with a PS3 and God of War 3 can see equivalent visuals, the magic is kind of sapped.

The script is also pretty dull, in the end. When you're working with material as well known as Greek mythology, the last thing to do is just go through the expected motions - oh boy, I wonder where the shiny shield is in Medusa's cave? - and Clash of the Titans doesn't stray very far from the beats followed by the original. Since the original wasn't that interesting to start with, it keeps it from being too compelling.

Putting Mr. Excitement himself Sam Worthington at the middle of the film is another stroke of dullness. I know, the guy was the star of Avatar, but he's still an actor most remarkable for how unremarkable he is. He's just some guy, and while that works in some contexts - like Avatar - when he's supposed to be a demi-god it kind of deflates the title.

At least Worthington has a bit of restraint in his performance, something nobody else in the film does. The acting here is bizarre, with over emoting, and BIG. ACTING. MOMENTS. which would make William Shatner hide in shame. It's bizarre, nobody in the film acts like a real person, the king of the bad acting being Luke Treadaway, who plays Prokopion. He's amazing, it's an acting train wreck, and he flails around wide-eyed. You just have to ask what is wrong with this character, and while that might be partially intentional it's blissfully distracting.

Still, it says a lot when the lunacy of one minor performance can trump the entire rest of the film. The CG battles won't stick with me, though I do remember one being confusingly edited. The story, I've seen it before, done better, and I'm not referring to the 1981 original - I am, however, referring to a Saturday morning cartoon series of which I can't remember the name. I'm not sure wh