Friday, September 10, 2010


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.