Thursday, December 31, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

I had very little interest in seeing this film, based largely on commercials that made it appear as a B-movie blockbuster wannabe epic and the sort of buzz that usually leaves me cold. And it is true that the script is cast of B-movie noirish science-fiction yore, the plot contrived and convoluted and the underlying message obfuscated by the visceral dynamism and 3D gadgetry. And yet one cannot overlook that visceral dynamism, because this film offers a veritable orgy of images, colors and sounds that is truly stunning to experience.

The plot, for those who have not already seen the film, revolves around a twin brother who, in the year 2154, is sent to complete a mission on the planet Pandora (how much did the internet radio company pay for that plug) for his dead brother. From here we are cast into space and another world that, as with most science fiction, doesn't stray too far from our own – except in its colorful majesty. Here the natives (Na’vi,) who appear as blue versions of our own Native Americans populations, live uncomfortably with the corporate interlopers sent to extract the precious “unobtanium.” The protagonist Jake Sully (Australian actor Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic ex-Marine, who arrives at Pandora to psychically control the movements of his Na’vi-like avatar while confined to a coffin-like container. The program, originally designed for botany research, is overseen by an Alien-reduxed Sigourney Weaver, the most seasoned actor in a relatively modest cast. The opportunity to again walk is never fully explored in the film, but it is clear that Jake has found a renaissance in his blue avatar, leading him quickly to love with the lissome warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who saves him from death on his first trip to the "other side."

At first, Jake appears comfortable lying to his newfound “tribe,” as he continues to offer information and secrets to the corporate boss, played by Giovanni Ribisi (a miscast in my opinion), and the more nefarious Colonel Quaritech (Stephen Lang). Yet predictably, he is ultimately confronted with a choice between the greed and militarism of his own people and the ecumenical, near-Buddhist beliefs of his adopted tribe. The remainder of the film unfolds as one would expect with a series of battles, love lost and regained and a conclusion that fits smugly within the Hollywood formula. In the buildup to the dénouement, we move into the realm of serious, and arguably unnecessary, violence and a revenge narrative that seems misplaced in a film built around the sacred nature of all life and its inexorable interconnectivity.

The real beauty of the film is the combination of live-action and motion-capture animation. The exotic life forms, the stunning colors, the exquisite 3D, that literally jumps out of the screen toward you, all make the film much more than just a movie -- it is a holistic sensory ride. This is heightened by the fact that the year 2154 is "a time of great sorrow," as Earth is in ecological trouble. And this is but one of the many ideological messages Cameron delves into within his magical world. The clearest message is about looming ecological devastation and our need to reconnect with the natural world. At this level, the film appears to succeed, though one wonders if the same people who believe they know more than Nobel Prize winning scientists about global warming will really listen to the soft rantings of “liberal” Hollywood; within a fictitious film. Cameron also delve into the world of politics with a couple of relatively tame (and equally lame) shots at Bush and the Iraq War ("shock and awe" and some incantation of "you're either with us or against us") and a critique of nefarious corporations (and maybe Blackwater specifically) for their profits-over-people bottom line rationality that seem well-timed to the moment. Finally, he begs more serious questions about the legacy of our slaughter of the Native Americans here and maybe native populations all across the globe that, combined with the ecological and capitalist critiques, appear to paint a picture of a civilization that has destroyed too much in its struggle for profit and “advancement,” imperiling its own future in the process.

Whatever your feelings on the political message, this is a film to see for its technical mastery and bold step forward into that blurring line between fiction and reality – an instantiation of the post-modern movement toward the desert of the real. (A-)

Hypocrisy 101

Sometimes Republican hypocrisy is cute, sometimes it is funny and sometimes it is downright despicable. The latest terrorist attempt has allowed their favorite topic to resurface: fear. Yet the interesting side note of this attack is that they appear to be attacking Obama for doing exactly what the Bush gang did with the infamous shoe bomber, namely trying him in a court of law ( We know Republicans don't like courts, particularly as so many of them have been finding themselves or their corporate benefactors in them lately for various forms of malfeasance, but what is the alternative? In this case, the fears seem completely and totally unwarranted as the facts of the case are clear. A Nigerian man boarded a plane with explosives, attempted to blow said plane up and was caught. How will the court system fail us here? He even admitted his intent and a long electronic trail details his evolution (or devolution) toward this choice. But that won't stop Dick Cheny ( et al from turning the facts to their advantage. We wonder why anti-intellectualism is so popular in America today. Could it be to allow the masses to buy stories without ever considering the validity of the arguments posed. Luckily fear facilitates the process, as it tends to make us less "rational." The Republicans hope fear will "lift us up where we belong." Let's hope the country has another ditty in mind, one based on a memory that goes back more than a year to all the missteps of those offering their misguided clarion calls today.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New York, New York

So when one thinks of unhappy places to live, New Jersey and Connecticut come directly to mind. Maybe also Louisiana post-Katrina or the ominous deep South ala Mississippi. And of course, if you think about happy places to be Hawaii and Florida would obviously be near the top of the list. Where would New York fit though? The place of dreams where millions come to chase their dreams, make millions of dollars or get lost in the cultural and financial capital of the entire world? One would think this would have to be near the top of the happiest state list, would they? Instead New York is the unhappiest place in the country: How could that be? Well maybe part of the explanation comes from above. Many of those people who come to chase their dreams fail. Many don't ever make those millions -- and even those who do are often disillusioned by the fact that while money does bring comfort, it alone does not bring happiness. Maybe those who come to forget their past, forget their present and future as well. At the top of the list, though, may be the fact that New York doesn't seem to live up to its promise any longer. Most New Yorkers I know spend their time either bragging about how great everything is here (often unconvincingly) or engaging in our favorite pasttime -- complaining about just about anything we can think of, from our apartments, to the weather, to cabbie who seem to have more friends than us (given their constant, ongoing conversations throughout their shift in some exotic language we wish we knew), to a subway system that is under perpetual construction, to traffic, to our jobs, to the new restaurant or club or movie or play that just didn't live up to the hype, to the waitress who is too slow, the buses that drive too fast, to the neighbors who are up too late or complaining we are, to the air conditioning, the heat, the water, the prices, the mayor, the governor, the president, etc., etc., etc. Really it seems to have a lot to do with the "grass is greener" mentality. The married friends I have are bored, the single ones are constantly complaining about the latest relationship gone awry or the guy or gal that never called, texted or facebooked them (or that it took too long), my friends that make truck loads full of money are complaining about never having any free time or dating girls that see them as an ATM machine, those of us toward the lower end of the spectrum constantly worry about money even if we do like our jobs.