02 January 2010

Rewinding 2009: Part II

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.


Stephen 02 January, 2010  

I agree with much of what you say - about the things that 'draw you in' and 'push you away'.

'Cameron created an addictive new world without bothering to move the one we currently occupy'

Very well written.

I had a similar reaction to you which is at my blog if you're interested.

Sam Juliano,  02 January, 2010  

Well, T.S. I can certainly agree with you on most of your splendidly-written capsules here, the major disagreement I have is with AVATAR, a film where the "clunky" screenplay as you refer to it as, really is besides the point, and is basically a symbolic device for the most enrapturing visual design we've seen in many a moon. I think Cameron knew exactly what he was doing, and this thinly-disguised love story with all the technological trimmings is frankly an emotionally overwhelming film, and for me one of the two best films of the year with Jane Campion's BRIGHT STAR.
Here is part of my own take:
The narrative device is hardly original but it serves as a potent underpinning to the awesome spectacle that plays out here, culminating in a final hour of action-packed intensity that has the thrills of an endless roller coaster, filled with all the genre conventions, like hanging from the end of a cliff, falling in a canyon into a cascading river, or an all-out CGI battle, a la Return of the King. But Cameron and his technical staff have succeeded with some nifty digital deception that has raised the bar for such technology. Hence Avatar pulsates, almost breathing a life of its own in it’s conversion from movie to immersive experience. A dominant percentage of the film’s locations are quite apparently CGI too, inducing one to wonder if they should called this an “animated film with live-action” or a “live-action film with some animated aspects and sequences.” Such is this seamless immersion of what is real and what is not to create an illuminative world of arresting images, swirling, incandescent colors and an awe-inspiring beauty that elevates one’s consciousness to a state of spirituality rarely aspired to, much less achieved in any film. There is an arresting naturalism that almost leaps off the screen which is populated by sumptuous images of day-glo vegetation and the exotic creatures controlled by the Na’Vi. The lengthy stretches of the movie that are sensory and wordless are as rapturous (very much in tone poem mode) as anything every seen on the screen, and this kind of visual cinema, where narrative is more of a hinderance than a benefit, is Avatar’s most extraordinary quality and it’s true selling point. It’s true that Cameron keeps insisting that the film needs to tie together plot strands, but this was unecessary, if not particularly harmful. In this sense, it’s to be noted here that some critics have taken issue with the pedestrian nature of a dialogue, a point I reject in the name of cinematic purity. Avatar is neither a satiric comedy nor a trenchant stage drama. Characters and words tell the story, but they are pawns to purvey cinematic expression. Those who are awed by and feel the film’s magic won’t feel the simplistic dialogue which seems to combine New Age expression and macho agression, is either abnormal or detrimental. That said, it’s abundantly clear that Cameron’s storytelling prowess widely trumps his talents as a writer of prose.

Sam Juliano,  02 January, 2010  

But it all comes down to the wonderment and astounding visual tapestries, accentuated by the metamorphosis of a character who sees the inherent beauty in a culture ravaged by war, internal strife and foreign invasion. This creates in the viewer an emotion so powerful that it defies description. It’s almost like you found some clues to the meaning of life. But short of those lofty aspersions, the film raises questions of mortality and existence (much in the style of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain- a giant willow tree holding the meaning of life for all living things echoes the Tree of Life in Aronofsky’s film) and with a ruminative flow that recalls Terrence Malick) that turn a futuristic planetary action thriller into a far more profound philosophical experience. The blend of mysticism and environmentalism evident in Avatar also suggests Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, whose influence might also be discerned in the scenes of awe and wonderment set in the centerpiece forest sequences....

In any case, I do respect your position here, as you quality it so splendidly, but we are far apart on this one.

Agreed on THE COVE, WHATEVER WORKS, AWAY WE GO and BAD LIEUTENANT, the last of which I liked quite a bit, even though it will miss my ten-best list, which is almost settled on. It seems that it will look something like this, with the annual No. 10 tie:

1 Bright Star
2 Avatar
3 35 Shots of Rum (France)
4 Up
5 A Single Man
6 Police Adjective (Romania)
7 Everlasting Moments (Sweden)
8 Summer Hours (France)
9 A Serious Man
10 District 9 and Star Trek (tie)

Just missed:

Anti-Christ (Denmark)
Of Time and the City (UK)
Rembrandt's J'Accuse (UK)
The Son (Japan)
The Hurt Locker
Flame and Citron (Denmark)
Tokyo Sonata (Japan)
Somers Town (UK)
La Danse
Seraphine (France)
House of the Devil
In the Loop (UK)

Stephen 03 January, 2010  

Sam, your passionate defence of Avatar wherever there is an uprising pf doubt or disbelief is impressive. You evangelise brilliantly

I had a problem too with the clunky screenplay.

It's not a scientific one size fits all appraisal (screenplay clunky = film fundamentally flawed). Sometimes a poor script or plot progression derails a film and sometimes it doesn't.

The visuals are uniquely 'enrapturing' but for me they were slightly undermined by some of the generic storytelling.

My top of the year:

1 Antichrist
2 Ponyo
3 Avatar

T.S. 04 January, 2010  

Stephen and Sam, thanks for this great discussion. And Stephen, you're right, Sam's defense of Avatar is indeed among the best I've read. What I love about following Sam and having him follow me is that — for the most part — our tastes align, but there are occasional rifts where he's a passionate defender of a film I either "just enjoyed" or disliked or vice versa. This year it's Sam's love of Avatar and District 9, and no doubt he and I will have another conversation about films I enjoyed and I know he didn't, films like Where the Wild Things Are and Inglourious Basterds.

Make no mistake, although my review is at times quite critical of the screenplay, I would in the end recommend the film — if for no other reason than it begs to be seen on the grounds of pure cinema alone. And I liked watching it, particularly the first 90 minutes or so, though I never felt it reach deep inside me and stir my mind or heart. The last third is action-packed but also the most problematic for me, and still, when the lights stirred awake in the theater, I was glad to have seen it.

It's a tricky film because it seems to have divided the critical establishment, and its success is being measure purely in money. Right now I wonder what sort of post-theater life it will have: will it prove to be a success on DVD, without the big screen and without 3-D? Will 3-D films need to be re-released in the future to be appreciated again, or will our at-home technology develop to allow for such pleasures? Will it prevail at the Oscars? I wouldn't be surprised on the latter, although right now I'm not gunning for it to do well beyond the effects category and one of the sound categories.

If I didn't have 50+ films to get through before I can feel confident putting together a top ten list, I'd go see it again, just to give it another shot. Current favorites of the year include An Education, Food, Inc., The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Public Enemies, Summer Hours, Up, Up in the Air, and Where the Wild Things Are, but I imagine that list will bend and twist and transform as I see more and more films. I still need to see SIX of Sam's top eleven and EIGHT of his runners-up.

And Stephen, I've added your blog to my reader. I'm looking forward to reading more. I already read some of your take on Inglourious Basterds but I had to halt myself before I can write my own review. Look for it later this week.

Stephen 04 January, 2010  

Thank you. I'm glad you found my blog of interest.

I too would recommend people see Avatar despite its problems.

Sam Juliano,  04 January, 2010  

Thanks for the tremendous response here T.S., and I do look forward to your final roundup! Thanks to Stephen as well for this excellent discourse.

It's true T.S., that we have amazingly similar taste.

T.S. I made one final revision to my list, tossing out the two thoroughly enjoyable genre films tied for my #10 (STAR TREK and DISTRICT 9, which are now among the runners-up) and replacing them with TOKYO SONATA and OF TIME AND THE CITY, which I feel can't be kept off. Just a little last-minute shuffling before I post.

film izle 17 January, 2010  

I agree with much of what you say - about the things that 'draw you in' and 'push you away'.

  © 2008-2010 Screen Savour. Licensed under Creative Commons.

  Template © ourblogtemplates.com

Back to TOP