Saturday, December 26, 2009

I've Never Seen Anything Like It: ItP's Review of Avatar, Part II

Sorry to keep y'all waiting for so long (I feel like it's been a long time. What? Nobody reads this thing? Well, then, it's an exercise in enunciation, and I need that. And if I feel like it's been a long time, then...well...). Anyway.

If I were more hip I'd have made this a three-part series, discussing in turn The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly parts of Avatar. But I'm not more hip, and so I lumped the Bad and the Ugly together in a wonderful concoction of Win and Joy. To read said concoction...look lower down on this blog.

Some of you imaginary readers might think, based on some of my statements in the first part of this review, that I didn't enjoy Avatar or that I scorned it. (Actually, I sorta did scorn it, but more on that later.) The fact of the matter is that I did enjoy Avatar; I enjoyed it very much, in fact. Partly because it is beautiful; partly because it engaged me. Let me elucidate.

Avatar is hands-down the most beautiful film I've ever seen. Much has been made of its aesthetic, technological brilliance; I must add my voice to the clamor. I guess the film to which I can most compare it is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Both Avatar and RotK specifically rely on visuals to communicate; both feature well-rounded subcreations, and a feature of good cinematic subcreation is the reliance on aesthetic to fill in the otherworldliness.

As I sat in the theatre watching Avatar's forests and mountains rush towards me in glorious Technicolor, my mind kept flitting to the vistas of Fangorn Forest and the Misty Mountains that Peter Jackson flung at us in 2003. What set Avatar apart, though, was the attention to detail. Whereas Jackson's subcreation served the plot, Cameron's subcreation was served by the plot.

All the attention which has been paid to Cameron's aesthetic attack is worthy of note, in my opinion: perhaps it goes to show what was more important to Cameron. I've heard from reliable sources that he waited 5 years to make Avatar, just because the 3D technology wasn't ready (and yes, I am too lazy to use the Interweb to go verify that). I propose, without any support for my opinion in the least, that Cameron is more in love with Pandora than with what happened there.

Example: the helicopter-lizards. There isa beautiful section during the training of Jakesully (as Na'vi) in which we get a closeup of a red-glowing lizardish thing which also slightly resembles a seahorse. Then Jakesully comes in to touch it, and it starts flying around, but not with wings--with a helicopter-style motion. Oh, and the wings are glowing, so all you can see of them is this disc of reddish-yellow light. It's super-amazing: and it doesn't affect the plot in the least. They show up a few more times, but have no impact whatsoever on the plot of the film.

So they're gratuitous, and that's the whole story. Cameron is more interested in building a memorable setting than building a memorable story. Not that the story fails, in the least. For despite its regrettably derivative elements, Avatar draws you in. You know what's going to happen; you know that the day will be saved, because...well, you've seen it all before. But you want to see it again, because it works with this unreal setting. Perhaps, even, the predictability of the storyline throws Pandora's surreality into sharper relief: it makes the weird seem even weirder.

Now, I mentioned that I scorned the story, a little. I did: and my previous entry will prove this. But Avatar is an experience, and I was caught up. I've intentionally veered away from talking about the 3D element, but it's vital to understanding what makes this film magical. I can't describe it; it's, again, part of that experience, and as I've mentioned before, Cameron's decision to wait for the 3D technology was very, very wise.

My recommendation? See it, and allow yourself to get caught up in it. It's sort of a miracle that I actually enjoyed it, given my skepticism, but I did enjoy it. As a film, I give it 4/10; as a mind-blowing, HOLY-CRAP-THIS-IS-AWESOME, I-can't-believe-that-just-happened-but-it-did experience, it earns 8/10.

See Avatar, and see it in 3D. You won't regret it.

Long live being of two minds!

An Overabundance of Cliches: ItP's Review of Avatar, Part I

I went to see Avatar last night, on a whim. I saw it in 3D, which was...good. Very good. The movie was made to be seen in 3D, and it showed. But more on that later. For the record, I will be spoiling in this miniseries, aware of that.

I knew little about Avatar's plot when I went to see it, but I had heard it was unimaginative, derivative, and cliche. Unfortunately, all of those descriptors are correct regarding the plot, and not just the plot: characterization, themes, and message all are things I've seen before. Perhaps I should have entitled this entry "So Many Cliches--So Little Time". Either way, there was nothing content-wise I hadn't seen before.

Briefly: apparently this film is quite like Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I haven't seen Atlantis, but I'm told that the similarities are striking--a life-force to which all of the natives are connected, a protagonist who struggles with priorities and ends up going native, etc.

First, the plot: much has been said about how derivative it is, so I won't begin on that. I must point out, however, the repeated deus ex machina, which did enforce the characterization but also got a little bit old. For instance, the shuttle being hit at the exact moment necessary and in the exact fashion required to keep the mining explosive from sliding off the ramp; the amazing way the shuttle listed off away from the sacred tree-area; the super-awesome return of Sully at the EXACT moment that the blue chick was about to be knifed by the scarred guy; and, most blatantly, the divine intervention of Eywa, sending out the hammerhead rhinos and the pterodactyls to kick the crap out of the Evil White Men. The last is such an obvious and literal deus ex machina that Cameron must have known--he must have realized just how blatant the device is, and he must have decided to cut his losses and go with the deus ex machina.

Characterization was better, but still not top-notch. Here's the problem: the characters were good--well-rounded and interesting--but they were stereotypes. Jake Sully is what I call a "chocolate" Marine: his outside is hard and solid, and then there's a soft, gooey center that's so, so sweet. Jake's choices could be the blueprint for the cliche (there's that word again) "going native". He's a tough-guy who realizes that he's been on the wrong side all this time, etc. For another like him, watch Soldier with Kurt Russell--same sort of premise.

Grace Augustine--good performance from Sigourney Weaver, by the way--is scarcely more original. She falls into another stereotype, one she's played all her life: the smart scientist who can also kick a little butt and just happens to be female. The emphasis in her character this time is on her formidable intellect, and also her scientific morality. Again, she's well-developed and interesting; but we've seen her before. To see another like Augustine, check out any National Geographic film about Africa or South America; there's sure to be an Augustine-like character somewhere in there.

The Scarred Dude--who imdb tells me is named Miles Quaritch--is another stereotyped specimen. Stephen Lang, in another one of his amazing performances (the man can't be stopped), plays the Angry/Bloodthirsty Drill Sergeant Type Who Ends Up With Too Much Power But It's Too Late. He brings as much as he can to the role, but once again, he's just so stereotypical it's almost funny. Another incidence of Miles Quaritch's character is Jacob Keyes, in Halo: Combat Evolved, only Keyes is good and Quaritch is bad.

(Tolja I'd be a spoiler.)

So we've been over plot and characterization. All that remains is themes/message, and I will try very hard to be objective here. Because, frankly, the film's themes and message really made me uncomfortable; I found myself "rooting for" the side I thought maybe I shouldn't be "rooting for". Anyway: the main theme of the film is the conflict between natural and artificial, with natural being Good and artificial being Bad--which is, like almost everything else content-related in Avatar, a major cliche. Everything else thematically revolves around this and branches out from it: the idea of divine providence v. human planning, skepticism v. belief, morality and responsibility, etc. And Cameron has no doubts about the message he's trying to send to his viewers: appreciation for nature, simplicity, and traditionalism are good and desirable, while utilitarianism, skepticism, and the bottom dollar are bad things. While this is true, Cameron commits the fallacy of sweeping generalization (here I go, losing my objectivity); basically, his film argues that since some humans are obsessed with materialistic aims, all humans are obsessed with materialistic aims. Avatar's message is not so much "humans, stop being base" as "humans, stop being human". Sully's final redemption is not making humanity human again; it's escapist--he stops being human in order to be saved.

So that's what I didn't like about the film. Plot- and character-wise, Avatar turns up no new ground. Thematically, it's a poorly-constructed hippie acid trip. As regards moral--well, if James Cameron believes what he says in Avatar, he's one depressed guy, because while the technology to produce this film may exist, the avatar technology is still a long way off.

Later today I'll post another entry, detailing what I liked about the film. Believe it or not, there's a lot that I liked. I'll also include in that entry my rating of the film, and whether or not I recommend it.

Long live cliffhangers!

The Calm Before the Storm

Well hi there, imaginarium!

I'm going to blog extensively later today about Avatar, but first I thought I'd give you a warmup post, mostly about something entirely unrelated to cinema: boxing.

Before I begin, let me say that I kind of wish I were a boxing fan. It has such a rich heritage of dedicated fanship (no, I'm not kidding--boxing is one of the oldest sports in the world) that in today's environment of shrinking sponsorships and lamesauce promoting, I wish I could be a fan before it dies out completely. Alas, I have more and better things to waste my time on, like this blog.

Anyhow: here's a link. Pacquiao and Mayweather, Jr., are arguably the best two fighters in the world right now--definitely the most well-known--and while I wasn't planning to watch it live, I was looking forward to reading analysis and breakdown of the fight.

And now, apparently, Pacquiao is getting all angry because he thinks that the Mayweathers are trying to accuse him of HGH. Whatever. Pacquiao should realize that this could be the biggest fight of his life, and he should do whatever it takes to make it happen. Personally, I think he's a better fighter than Mayweather, Jr., and were I a betting man, I'd put my money on Pacquiao.

I'm no one to talk about boxing, because I am a boxing n00b, but there's my uninformed opinion: Pacquiao should suck it up, do what Mayweather, Jr., asks, go in there, and win the fight. End of story.

Long live boxing!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Theologically Subversive Message of Invictus

I went to see Clint Eastwood's latest movie, Invictus, and the more I think about it the more puzzled I am.

What is it?

See it. You should. If you don't want to, here's some rundown: the official site (which really only has trailers. It's not a worthwhile source of information about the film), the imdb entry, and the rottentomatoes page. See what a nice guy I am? I spoon-feed you all the information you need, so you don't have to find it for yourself. I'm so cool.

I've told you to watch the movie, so if you don't want to get it spoiled, go away now. Because I want to talk about the movie, and the first thing I'm going to end up saying is related to a spoliative finish.

While you're leaving, here's the poem that the film centers around. It's called Invictus, believe it or not, and it was written by a dude named Ernest William Henley. Here it is:


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow'd.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I could have linked to the poem, but I wanted to give some of you, my imaginary readership, the chance to leave before I spoiled the ending. Anyway, here's the spoiler: South Africa wins the Rugby World Cup, and Nelson Mandela survives to the end and is triumphant.

Now, my first problem is this: the film is too predictable. I mean, it doesn't even really try to be unpredictable. Even possible threats of violence, like the newspaper dude in the beginning and the airplane pilot about two thirds of the way through, become opportunities for the scriptwriter to stick it to the audience. And the win at the end? I could see it coming a mile away.

Second, Invictus is not self-aware: the movie doesn't know what it itself is. Is it a sports movie? If so, why the puffing of Mandela? Is it a biopic? If so, why is the film so rugby-centered? Is it a cultural statement? If that's the case, why is racism such an obvious plot device instead of being center-stage?

Finally--and most important to this still provincially-minded blogger--Invictus is a statement (whether conscious or not, I can't tell) against the sovereignty of God. See, the "moral" of the film is that you are in complete control of your ultimate destiny--read the poem if you want to know more about this particular mindset. My problem with this is that it's stupid. If we just have to want something enough in order to get it...well, why was Mandela in prison for 27 years or however long he was there? Why did the Springboks suck at rugby? Was it because that was their chosen destiny? Did Mandela say to himself, "I will myself to stay in prison for 27 years"? Did the Bokkes get together at a team meeting and say, "We hereby choose to continue failing for years and years to come"? Of course not! Yet this is what happened to them. For the last time, humanity: YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL! Free-will is involved, of course, but fundamentally, humans can NOT choose their destiny. I won't even say that God is in control, though I believe that; before even that statement may be made, humanity as a whole needs to get it through its collective skull that humans are NOT the masters of their fate--they are NOT the masters of their own souls.

What is Invictus? Sports movie? Puff piece? Biopic? Drama? Romantic comedy? What? See it, and let me know.

Ps. I did like the rugby. Now there's a man's game; no pads, helmets, or skin-tight pants. Just a fight to the finish. And some pretty complicated rules, too.

Long live cinematic confusion!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A New Short Story Of Win. w00t.

Well hi there people!

Some preliminary notes: this is an exercise for my German Lit class; we're supposed to write a personal interpretation/reboot/whatever of Aysel Ozakin's short story Die dunkelhaarigen Kinder von Berlin, which is all about two dark-haired (non-German) children who really don't fit in in Berlin. So I wrote the following.

Now, it's in German, because I wrote it in German, and some of the emotional power relies on the connotations of the German words I chose. But for all of you who don't read German, or who don't want to bother translating it, I include my own translation at the bottom of the page.

Finally, I plan to begin blogging again with more regularity after finals conclude this week.

With no further ado, then:

Die human Kinder

Meine Geschichte ist leider klischee, aber ist es trotzdem die Wahrheit. Die zwei Kinder über wem ich spreche hat mir stark beeinflusst, wann sie in die Nachbarschaft hat gewohnen. Niemand kann sie vergessen; sie war human, und Humanität ist selten, diese Tage.

Die Kinder war beide jung; sie hatten keine Eltern, soviel wir (die Nachbarschaft) wussten. Ein Tag in Januar kamen sie, plötzlich, ruhig; es war eigentlich der Mitten von Februar bevor wir hat sie gesehen. Sie wohnten in einem kleinen Wohnen an die Ecke, der war kalt, dunkel, und sehr billig.

Wir lernten die Namen der Kinder nie; wir bezeichneten sie als “die kalte Kinder”. Ich entsinn mich, wann ich sie traf; es war Mittel-Februar, nach Abendglocke, und durch Zufall sah ich die Kinder sein klein Ecke-Wohnen hinausgehen. Natürlich lief ich sie hinterher, und zum Glück fing ich sie bevor sie zu weit gingen. Ich kann mich noch an seine kleine Gesichte, blaue-gelippt und hohlwangig, mit dünn Watte Halstuch gerahmt, denken. Sie blickten zu mir auf, besorgt, während ich dringend sein Gefahr erklärte. Ich weiss nicht, wenn sie mir verstanden; trotzdem gingen sie wieder im Haus.

Ich sah die kalte Kinder nächst in März; ein Outsider hatte irgendwie die Grenzlinie durchgebrochen und an die Kinders Ecke zerfallen. Er war offensichtlich infiziert; die Symptome war alle da. Aber die Kinder entweder sahen nicht, wussten nicht, oder machten sich nichts aus die Symptome. Sie brachte der Outsider Wasser.

Natürlich, niemand hilft ihnen. Die Krankheit allein war genug, und niemand wilkommt die behördlich Beachtung das kommt wenn man hilft einen Outsider. Aber die kalte Kinder hatten nicht von diese Dinge gehört; sie sahen ein Mann, der Hilfe brauchte, und sie halfen ihm. Das war alle, für sie.

Auch natürlich, erstarb der Outsider. Wasser hilft die Ansteckung nicht; nicht hilft. In einer Stunde war der Outsider tot.

Drei Woche später kam ein weiterer Outsider. Wieder brachte die kalte Kinder ihm Wasser. Wieder hat die Nachbarschaft seltsamerweise zugeschaut. Wieder erstarb der Outsider schnell.

April beginnt die jährlich Filterung; im Normal, unser gesetzestrue Nachbarschaft war ruhig, und die Einsammeln-Vans kamen durch unsre Strassen nicht. Dieses April kamen die Vans, mit Leuchte und Martinshorns. Sie haltet an der Ecke.

Wir haben die kalte Kinder nie wiedergesehen.


The Human Children

My tale is regrettably cliche, but it is nevertheless the truth. The two children about whom I speak left their mark on me, while they lived in our neighborhood. Nobody can forget them; they were human, and humanity is rare, these days.

The children were young; they had no parents, so far as we (the neighborhood) knew. One day in January they came, abruptly, quietly; in fact, it was the middle of February before we saw them. They lived in a little dwelling on the corner; it was cold, dark, and very cheap.

We never learned the names of the children; we referred to them the Cold Children. I still remember when I met them; it was mid-February, after curfew, and by chance I noticed the children leave their little corner-room. Naturally, I chased after them, and luckily caught them before they went too far. I can still remember their little faces, blue-lipped and sunken-cheeked, framed by thin cotton scarves. They looked up at me, puzzled, as I urgently explained the danger they were in. I don't know if they understood me, but they went back inside.

I saw the Cold Children next in March; somehow, an Outsider had penetrated the boundaries, and had collapsed on the children's corner. He was obviously infected; the symptoms were all there. But the children either didn't notice, didn't understand, or didn't care about the symptoms. They brought the Outsider water.

Naturally, nobody helped them. The infection itself was enough, and nobody welcomed the official attention which inevitably came when one helped an Outsider. But the Cold Children knew nothing of these things; they saw a man who needed help, and they helped him. That was all that concerned them.

Also naturally, the Outsider died. Water didn't alleviate any part of the infection; nothing alleviated it. In an hour, the Outsider was dead.

Three weeks later, another Outsider came through. Again, the Cold Children brought him water. Again, the neighborhood looked on, curiously. Again, the Outsider died quickly.

April signaled the beginning of the yearly "filtering"; normally, our law-abiding neighborhood was quiet, and the collection-vans didn't come down our streets. This year, the vans did come, with lights and sirens. They stopped at the corner.

We never saw the Cold Children again.

Long live the Dour!