Saturday, December 26, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


2009’s Avatar is one of those movies whose reputation is giant before the trailer even came out. It’s been 12 years since Titanic and, beyond the time delay, James Cameron, Avatar’s director, hasn’t made anything but documentaries since his blockbuster, best picture winning last feature. This mixed with the biggest bill in the history of cinema have made for a huge amount of anticipation. So, I hate to be a party pooper, but I definitely don’t think it lives up. Avatar tells a huge tale, but largely it’s about a big, sinister corporation who’s discovered a valuable material (lamely called unobtainiam, as in unobtainable, sheesh) on a distant planet and is exploiting that material much to the chagrin of the natives, who they deal with like over-hormoned jocks by having ex-military guard the extraction sites. An even bigger problem is the biggest deposit is under a tree that the natives consider very sacred. So they hatch an idea to have people virtually inhabit the bodies of a local so they can do things like diplomacy but also to gather intel.
One of the people who was going to join in this experiment died suddenly before it was supposed to start and the company decided this guy’s marine twin brother would be a perfect replacement. So the marine does join in but soon is conflicted in his mission because he falls for the native people and for the princess. Then, you guessed it, the company wants to take drastic, destructive measures to get rid of the natives and get on with business and our boy eventually sides with the natives, as do a small group of defectors from the company.
To me, this movie was one of the most formulaic picks I’ve seen in a long time. Just one teaspoon more formulaic and I would’ve thought Cameron was being sarcastic and making a spoof. Literally every scene and element of this movie seemed directly borrowed from another movie. And not like Tarantino or Scorcese, who explicitly use references to past films like jazz musicians play standards in their own unique way. No, this was more like cutting and pasting. And when I say every element, I mean every element. For example, even the music felt like it was directly taken from another movie. The avatars are being hailed as the product of a vast imagination, but in Hinduism the envoys between the heavens and the earth are beings called avatars that have blue skin. Here we have this way for humans to interact with this alien civilization (envoys between the heavens and the earth) by becoming a blue skinned avatar. I’m just saying.
What this means is there’s no real drama, no real suspense, in this movie. From the fist moment to the last you know exactly what’s going to happen and how things are going to turn out. This is true even moment to moment, with the outcome of every scene being so terribly obvious from the very start of that scene that it’s not even funny. If you’ve seen just about any movie about a bad guy who’s coming down/trying to wipe out an innocent, pure good guy, then you’ve seen this movie. I mean, Disney’s been doing animated features for decades with the same storylines and plot developments. That said, there were some scenes that were fun to watch and some of the action sequences were pretty amazing to see in 3D. Plus, I’m a total sucker for stories about evil western white people getting thwarted in their attempts to exploit or damage pure, spiritual (even if stereotypical) “natives.” I know it’s majorly played but I love watching indigenous cultures kick some capitalist ass.
Long story short, the visuals are neat (though no better than many other movies), some of the scenes are fun, but overall it was a pretty big snore in my book.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Whatever Works (2009)

That's the irony of going with a title like Whatever Works when you have been scraping the barrel for the last decade.

I'm a Woody Allen apologist - but lately (and by lately I mean literally the last 10 years) it has become harder and harder to stomach the same old song and dance by the once-beloved director. It's not that he's just re-hashing the same old story arc, that has been his bread-and-butter from the beginning. It's that the older he gets, the less in touch with cinema and humor itself that is the problem. That is the most depressing part.

So when I heard that Woody was working on a movie with Larry David using a script that was written in his prime, I was cautiously excited.

Whatever Works is the old standby - a brilliant and socially awkward man ends up falling for a ditzy blond whose mother wants her to marry a younger man... blah blah blah pleh.

Not only is this movie shockingly (or not) similar to the standard Woody Allen movie, but Larry David's character is painfully unfunny and overall feels like a huge waste of potential from a comedy team that could have produced a lot better. It's autopilot in the worst of ways - no box office success, no critical acclaim, no funny. Why bother?

The Class is a snapshot, a "day in the life" movie stretched out to a year long glimpse into the racially, ethnically and socially diverse classroom in urban Paris.
The most interesting part about this film is that it is based on a book of real life experiences, and the author plays himself in the film. Although semi-autobiographical, it in no way glosses over the struggles, frustration and poor choices that he makes as he tries to reach, and teach, these kids.
I did enjoy the shooting style. It was filmed with three cameras shooting constantly, one on the teacher, one on the speaking student and another to catch impromptu shots. This allows for a very free-flowing dialogue that could not be scripted, especially with the real students playing themselves and having no prior acting experience.
The camera creates a very small, cramped feeling. You almost feel like you are squeezed into one of those tiny desks in the corner, watching the story unfold.
I say "story" loosely, I kept waiting for the movie to tighten up and focus on a few characters who will triumph over all odds and pass the big test at the end. This never happens. Although it meant for a very slow first 2/3 of the movie, I still appreciated the glimpse into a school and society that I would have never known otherwise.

ME: I can see why Cannes liked it, and I appreciated most aspects of it, but if you are looking for a traditional 3-act story with an uplifting ending.... you'll be dissapointed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Class

2006’s The Class tells the story of one school year in Francois’s French class at an urban Paris school. It’s clear from the outset this school is a little rough and the students are almost uniformly misbehaved and behind where they ought to be for their age. As the year goes on the students grow, learning more about themselves and their teacher as they go along. And a necessary part of this complex yearly traditional evolution is their teacher also stretching, growing and evolving. This movie was a sensation when it came out. It was France’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar and it won 2006’s Palm d’Or. To this day it has over a 90% rank on Rotten Tomatoes. The problem I had was that I felt like I’d seen this story before, too many times and, in fact, had seen better versions of it. As an American movie watcher, the story of a group of hard knock students finding themselves thanks to a more-dedicated-than-the-rest teacher is old news…big time. Without even going into the countless episodes of television and TV specials (I’m looking at you after school specials from the 70’s and 80’s), there are tons of great movies of this sort already out there, from Dangerous Minds to Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver to Dead Poet’s Society to Goodbye Mr. Chips and the list goes on and on. It’s not that someone can’t come up with a new flick in this formula that can engage me, it’s just that it would have to be damn good to do so and this just wasn’t that damn good. It’s not awful though. The man playing Francois IS Francois the actual teacher who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. That made it seem pretty darn genuine, as did the casting of teenage non-actors to play the kids in the classroom. My biggest complaint is that the movie focuses way to much on interactions between the teacher and certain students. They don’t develop or give closure to almost anything. They will build up a story line, like so-and-so should be expelled, but his abusive father may do awful things to him (including shipping him off to Africa) if we expel him, but then the movie doesn’t even discuss the matter at all after a certain scene. It’s like, oh, we’re done talking about that, back to the classroom. Maybe this is because this is how school is for teachers, but for me, the viewer, I thought it just felt like I didn’t get connected to almost anything or anyone that happened in the movie. Everything’s just way too underdeveloped. I ended the movie not even knowing where this school was, what time of year it was, what sort of school it was, what grade anyone’s in and all this is not even to mention not knowing almost anything about any of the characters at all. So, if you want to be like one of those faculty observers from high school who used to come sit in class for a week or so simply watching, then this is your movie. This movie is about sitting in on five or so classes from a year of school and just watching. This made it somewhat interesting but not nearly interesting enough for me.
Saturday Afternoon

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Days of Glory (Indigènes)

We've been dissecting WWII for over 50 years now in film, and it seems like we have barely scratched the surface. Some surfaces are so scratched though that we're starting to wear down on the effectiveness of the material - in essense, we're kicking the dead horse.

While French film Indigènes attempts to bring us a side of the war that we haven't seen before, that of the French African involvement, they've only managed to bore most of their audience and waste a few million euros in the process.

Technically speaking the movie is sound - we've got tight, clean editing - solid framing throughout. Special effects are appropriate and everyone seems to have a handle on their respective job on the set. Except the screenwriters.

Little to no story - that's really the problem here. We'll borrow a bit from Private Ryan, do a few brotherly bonding scenes, spill some guts and cry some tears... but it's all too broad to be a good film. We don't really care about the main characters... not because we shouldn't, but because we aren't focused in on one or two soldiers and sucked into the narrative. There are a few good scenes scattered throughout the picture where we get a glimpse of how good the story could have been, but most of it gets reduced to boring transitions and a loose arc about the indignity of being a French colonist. Ok. Sure.

- MEH (that's right, I had to create a new one)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


This 2007 Algerian film by Rachid Bouchareb, at the very least, is a view of World War II that you likely haven’t seen. Countless films on the subject are out there and from several different angles, but the vast majority of them are told through the mouths of Westerners or at most the Japanese. This one, however, is told through African soldiers fighting for the French. The French side of the story alone isn’t portrayed very often, but the voice of soldiers from the African colonies is almost nonexistent. Not only are most of the soldiers and primary characters minorities and non-Europeans, but they’re also nearly all Muslim. They leave their dessert homes and travel by land and sea to fight the Nazi’s in Europe, and spend much of the time wondering about what exactly their role is. Are they meant to merely be the guinea pigs, sent in first to tire and distract the enemy until the ‘real’ army can arrive? Are they truly considered equals? If not, then what? Many of the themes are similar to the movie Glory. Some of the soldiers seem just fine with their role and place in the hierarchy, but a handful eventually decide to take a stand and be heroes. While this may be noble, the sad truth of the matter is that they soon learn that no one in the West really cares, no matter how heroic they are, even if it’s in the name of liberating and saving the West. How many Americans truly know about the Tuskegee Airmen or the Native American code breakers from WWII? Not many. And why? Because no one really seems to want to see minorities as saving white people. It’s pathetic and watching these characters come to understand this and then to come to a determination of how to proceed makes for an interesting watch. It’s also interesting for this director to make a movie about Muslims fighting for the West in a time when these very same Near Eastern, Middle Eastern and North African Muslims are so often portrayed as against the West. Part of me thinks this is to remind us that many Muslims have always been and are now are thankless allies. Part of me also thinks Bouchareb’s trying to show that there really was a time not too long ago when the West and these groups of Muslims were largely united. They were on our side. After all, respect begets respect and right now there’s very little respect flowing in either direction between the West and most of these Near Eastern, Middle Eastern and North African countries. The performances are great (so great in fact that the entire primary cast was given the Cannes Festival's best actor award as a single unit) and the cinematography and production design were fantastic. The story got a little weak at times and some of the bits could’ve been cut entirely. But overall it was a really decent watch and certainly a perspective on the war I’ve never seen before.