Reviews of Avatar, Away We Go, Bad Lieutenant, and The Cove, plus 10 one-line reviews.
Please join me while I play catch-up on the year in film.
If I understand the PR and punditry correctly, the goal of James Cameron’s science fiction epic Avatar is immersion — a chrysalis of cinematic completeness, wrapped in the beautiful visuals of a computer-generated world and whisked away on a dreamlike adventure. Using this as a benchmark, Avatar is a mixed bag. For every moment it draws you into its world (and there are many, this is a gorgeous and gigantic technical achievement), there is another moment where its clunky and ham-fisted screenplay pushes you out.
Yes, Avatar is a dizzying spectacle of performance-capture technology and computer-generated imagery that envelopes the audience and brings everyone sitting in the theater into its world, the alien planet Pandora, where a U.S. Marine (Sam Worthington), occupying an avatar of the alien species, is sent on a reconnaissance mission to displace the species. (His loyalties shift as his knowledge grows.) It’s not difficult to admire the ambition and hubris on Cameron’s part that went into imagining this film, which cost in the $300-million range and relies on technology that’s been in the works for something like the better part of two decades. Only time will tell how influential this film’s style and special effects will be, but as you’re positioned in your theater seat, it feels like the door has been opened to a world of new cinematic possibilities.
However, even if its pioneering use of technology makes it the movie-going event of the year, Avatar in its totality is far from the year’s best offerings. While narrative subtlety has never been among Cameron’s strengths, the fundamental failings of the storytelling here — wooden dialogue, bloodless characters, a cliched script that makes no attempt to conceal the scaffolding of its rather sophomoric “Big Ideas” — are particularly egregious. What baffles me is that if you’re going to invest this much time and money into the possibility of cinematic history, why wouldn’t you spend a few more weeks at the drafting table or the writers’ room, tweaking (or radically changing) the script and turning Avatar, which already promises visual uniqueness, into a fresh work of sci-fi? (Even Star Wars, a film that borrows generously from archetypal characters and heroic mythos, found its own breath and pulse.)
The blame and praise fall equally onto the shoulders of Cameron, who serves the film as director, writer, and producer (and in various other capacities, I’m sure). You can tell where his allegiances lie, how he’s stacked the deck, and how he’s buying off the moviegoer. All that is a bit unfair, and even though the film is ultimately effective, it’s only minimally so. Cameron created an addictive new world without bothering to move the one we currently occupy.
I’m not sure director Sam Mendes could have helmed a more different film after his 2008 drama Revolutionary Road than 2009’s Away We Go. The former, a beautifully daring yet flawed adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel, peered into the tortured and destructive marriage of a couple where the 1950s bled into the early 1960s. The latter, from an original screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, peers into the life of — surprise! — a couple genuinely in love. This is perhaps not traditional fare for art, but it works with ease and pleasantry in Away We Go. Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) are in their thirties, happily together and deeply in love, but a little lost as they struggle to discover where “home” is before the birth of their first child. The film is a bit of a road comedy, where they take off and try our new locations and visit kooky friends and family. Krasinski and Rudolph are comfortable and likable, and the film is sweet and warm, with well-written touches of humanity. Though by no means perfect, it is a small, affecting love story that is a welcome respite from Hollywood’s bankrupt romantic comedy machine.
I can imagine a few circumstances under which Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage, would not be a success — for example, if it hadn’t been directed by Werner Herzog or starred Nicolas Cage. As simplistic as that response may be, it does seem to encapsulate this film’s strengths and the bizarre, twisted pleasure taken in seeing post-Katrina New Orleans through Herzog’s lens and watching Cage play an unstable, corrupt police officer who spirals further out of control than you can potentially imagine. Terence McDonagh, Cage’s character, steals drugs from criminals and the confiscated stash in police headquarters, pays regular visits to an escort girlfriend, uses violence and intimidation, and routinely breaks police protocol. It is a shocking and unhinged performance, the sort of role Cage will do out of the blue when he isn’t wallowing in blockbuster trash, and his character’s (I think it’s only his character’s) mania is riveting: he snorts, he shakes, he hunches, he snaps, he smokes, he twitches, he cackles, he pistol-whips, he blocks a person's assisted breathing machine, he randomly pulls out an electric razor and shaves during an interrogation. It is at once a parody every police procedural in existence but also an over-the-top performance that raises the stakes. The screenplay, adapted by William Finkelstein from the 1992 film Bad Lieutenant by Abel Ferrara, offers little beyond the limitations of the genre, but Herzog’s lens captures an array of strange scenery and capitalizes on the bizarre. I have no doubt that this Bad Lieutenant could have been played entirely straight, but the way Herzog and Cage duck and twist into darkly comic realms allows the film to stay one step ahead of the audience. If you don’t end up laughing and asking yourself what the hell is going on, you’re not paying attention.
The Cove commits the cardinal sin of the activist documentary: it conflates the subject with the self when the two are decidedly unequal. Insofar as its subject is concerned, the film is a heart-breaking and horrifying look into the Japanese dolphin industry, the corrupt practices of Japan’s participation in the International Whaling Commission, and the spread of toxic mercury that follows the consumption of dolphin meat. The discussions that emerge through these parts of the film feel essential, although the way it builds its thesis is often hindered by a series of unfinished threads. But when the film becomes less about the dolphins and more about the brave antics and espionage-like tactics required of the filmmakers to capture their footage, The Cove loses its soul. The director, Louie Psihoyos, is the co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society, a non-profit organization that produced the film. The essayistic bend to this slice of agitprop is not the problem; it’s the distance and perspective. Under the direction of someone less interested in glorifying the filmmakers and activists, the film would have been tighter and more focused on
I won’t deny the power of the final images captured by the hidden cameras — men killing dolphins; dolphins struggling for life; the cruel handling of dead dolphin bodies; the bloody water that seems straight out of a horror film. They are unsettling and haunting. They sent chills down my spine and brought tears to my eyes. Yet, when I finally classified the feeling of discomfort that lingered after the end of the movie, it was as a combination of sadness at the images and frustration at cheapness of the filmmakers’ self-aggrandizing. Am I glad a film like this exists? Yes, for the reason that it brings attention to this issue. But am I glad that film is The Cove? The answer to that question is more complicated.
• Earth, a re-cut and family-friendly version of BBC’s groundbreaking documentary Planet Earth, captures a lot that miniseries’ beautiful images, but suffers from an annoying voiceover that dumbs down the quality; certainly not recommended for anyone who can watch the miniseries instead.
• I found The Hangover to be one of the funnier films of the year, an unexpected and full-front assault of vulgarity, but now that 2009 is complete, I can only remember laughing but not what it was exactly that earned that laughter except a bizarre performance by Zach Galifianakis and a surprise cameo by a tiger.
• I Love You, Man: a funny but forgettable film.
• Extract: A not-so-funny but forgettable film.
• The Girlfriend Experience = Steven Soderbergh at his experimental worst.
• The first hour of Notorious is an above-average biopic of the early years in the life of rapper Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, but once the character hits it big, the film’s ambitions narrow rapidly.
• Rumor has it that Christian Bale fought to have the entire focus of Terminator: Salvation shifted from the Marcus Wright, a prototype cyborg character played by Sam Worthington in a a good performance, to vapid resistance hero John Connor, which might easily qualify as one of the worst screenplay decisions of 2009.
• Woody Allen’s Whatever Works doesn’t work.
• Although the goal of Lars Von Trier's Antichrist seems to be conscientious audience repulsion, in reality the most offensive quality to the film is how frighteningly dull, sloppy, and self-absorbed it is (not to mention its heavy-handed aspirations of portraying depression, mania, grief, and humankind’s connection with religion and the natural world).
• Monsters vs. Aliens may not be the worst film of 2009 (many contenders left to go), but it’s among the least enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a movie in quite some time; at every turn this DreamWorks film misfires in its attempt to satirize and honor the science fiction b-movies of the 1950s, and it’s safe to say that the talented writers and dreamers at Pixar have no legitimate threat against them for title of greatest contemporary American animation studio.