erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2009 posts

Saturday January 02, 2010

Review: “Nine” (2009)


I’m no marketer, so who am I to tell the Weinstein Co. how they should—or should've—marketed “Nine,” the Rob Marshall musical based upon the Broadway musical based upon Federico Fellini’s 1963 classic “8 1/2.” But given the film’s weak opening box office, here’s a thought. Instead of the tagline, “This Holiday Season: Be Italian,” why not plaster the poster with one of those sexy shots of Penelope Cruz and use these lines of hers from the movie?:

I’ll be here.
Waiting for you.
With my legs open.

When I sat down in the theater I knew I’d be seeing a lot of sexy women wearing sexy things and saying sexy lines but that was the jaw-dropper for me. I think I coughed in surprise when she said it. I may have whimpered. Her lines, her presence, complicate the life of film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), but my thought, and probably the thought of every guy in the audience: I should have such problems.

“Nine” looks great but suffers from two problems: 1) Most of the songs are so-so, and 2) the drama is internal and circular. It’s tough enough for movies to dramatize the creative process. How do you dramatize the non-creative process?

Guido Contini is a director whose earlier films redefined Italy for much of the moviegoing world in the early 1960s but whose latest films flopped. Now it’s 1965 and he’s a week away from starting film no. 9, titled “Italia,” but he has no idea what the story will be. He fakes his way through a press conference, he fakes his way through talks with his producer, he ignores calls from his muse and star, Claudia (Nicole Kidman). His costume designer, Lilli (Judi Dench), tells him, as he lays prostrate on her desk, that directing isn’t that tough. “You just have to say yes or no, what else do you do? ‘Maestro, should this be red?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Green?’ ‘No.’ ‘Yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no.’” She tosses her hands in the air. “Directing.” Unfortunately Guido has no answers, no yes/ no. Eventually he flees Rome down the coast of Italy in his light blue Alfa Romeo. My thought, and probably the thought of everyone in the audience: I should flee in such style.

Guido flees into the arms of his mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz). He thinks she’ll clear his head but she clutters it. Worse, the production company follows him down. Worse, his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), follows him down. She sees Carla, sparks fly, Carla is banished, Carla tries to kill herself. What’s a man with so many women to do?

As responsibilities and women tug at him in all directions, Guido’s life, certainly his creative life, swirls uselessly away. Nothing gets the attention it needs. He’s not stable husband to Luisa nor steady paramour to Carla; he has no work for Lilli or Claudia. Each woman has her own musical number but most of these are hardly show-stoppers and most don’t move the story further along but simply reiterate what we already know. The one show-stopper, the song you hum coming out of the theater and wish you could sing with the full-throated passion the singer does, is “Be Italian,” sung by Saraghina (Fergie), the whore from Guido’s youth who would show the neighborhood boys this and that for coins. She’s his first lust, the woman who started him on this journey of loving women too much and not enough, and she tells him, she sings to him:

Be Italian, be Italian
Take a chance and try to steal a fiery kiss!
Be Italian, be Italian
When you hold me don’t just hold me
But hold this! (clutches her breasts)

He’s stopped listening to this advice. He takes no chances and steals no kisses. Acclaimed and idolized, he’s the pursued now rather than the pursuer. Even a reporter from Vogue magazine, Stephanie (Kate Hudson), tries to get him into bed. Is the film suggesting a correlation between women and creativity? That when it becomes unnecessary to pursue the former, one is unable to pursue the latter? Fame has made Guido weak in the art of the pursuit.

Fergie, the one true singer in the bunch, belts it out, while the two main women in Guido’s life lock horns memorably. Cruz is pants-wettingly sexy while Cotillard is pained and effective. Her second number, “Take it All,” is staged as a burlesque, a sad striptease in which she gives up everything (the clothes are a metaphor) for this man who gives nothing back. Meanwhile, Dench, in her musical number, “Folies Bergeres,” flashes cleavage and seems completely French (in conversation she’s completely British). She seems to be having a great old time with the role.

The others? Hudson works fine, but the role is meaningless. Sophia Loren, playing Guido’s mother, has nothing to do. Kidman is an afterthought.

And Day-Lewis? It’s critically sacrilegious to write this but he may be wrong for the role. It’s not much fun watching him run circles in his head without having the decency to turn something into butter. Or, as Brando suggested, to get it.

The movie’s definitely missing oomph. Like Guido, it ignores the wisdom of Saraghina. Its British star is surrounded by actresses from France, Spain, Australia and America, leaving no one important to be Italian.

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Posted at 06:53 AM on Jan 02, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Wednesday December 30, 2009

Review: “The Blind Side” (2009)


Nothing about “The Blind Side” pleased me more than its opening shot: grainy footage from a 1985 “Monday Night Football” game in which Lawrence Taylor sacked Joe Theismann, fractured his leg and ended his 11-year career. I was pleased because that’s how Michael Lewis’ book begins. “From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five,” Lewis writes in his opening sentence; and in those five-closer-to-four seconds Lewis sets the scene, pulls back, writes about fear as a factor in the NFL, writes about the fear that Lawrence Taylor created and the fearlessness with which Joe Theismann played, and then circles back to the incident:

Theismann has played in 163 straight games, a record for the Washington Redskins. He’s led his team to two Super Bowls, and won one. He’s thirty-six years old. He’s certain he still has a few good years left in him. He’s wrong. He has less than half a second.

It’s the most famous injury in football history because the reverse-angle instant replay shows the bottom half of Theismann’s leg, between his knee and ankle, bending and snapping beneath Taylor’s weight, exposing the bone. The player who blocks the Lawrence Taylors of the world, by the way, is the offensive left tackle. He’s the guy who protects the quarterback’s blind side. And since free agency came to the NFL in the early 1990s, the second-highest-paid position in the NFL, after quarterback, is not running back nor wide receiver nor even middle linebacker (Lawrence Taylor’s position), but offensive left tackle. You pay most for the most-important position. You pay second-most for insurance for the most-important position.

Great offensive left tackles are highly paid because they require a set of physical characteristics that almost contradict each other. These guys have to be bigger than big and quicker than quick, and, let’s face it, the bigger-than-big usually aren’t quicker-than-quick.

And all of this leads to the story of Michael Oher—the story we came to see.

So I was pleased seeing the “Monday Night Football” footage, and hearing Sandra Bullock’s faux southern accent reading Lewis’ lines. But then writer-director John Lee Hancock, or Alcon Entertainment, or Warner Bros. Pictures, decided not to show the reverse-angle instant replay. They shied away from that harsh reality. It was a sign of things to come.

Michael Oher, one of 13 children born to a crack-addicted mother, grew up on the west side of Memphis in the projects known as Hurt Village. He drifted from apartment to apartment, school to school, barely getting by, when, at 14 or 15, a friend’s father, Big Tony, made an appeal to a rich, white, Christian private school, Briarcrest, to take both his boy, and his boy’s friend, Big Mike. Big Mike didn’t exactly fit in at Briarcrest—and not just because of his size or the color of his skin. He had a 0.6 GPA, he spoke to no one, he wore the same clothes day after day. Soon, though, he was being helped along, in particular by the Tuohy family, and in particularly by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock). Eventually he came to live with them. Eventually they adopted him. And eventually he became a football star, one of those bigger-than-big, quicker-than-quick athletes who make great offensive left tackles. He starred at Briarcrest, then at Ole Miss, the Tuohys’ alma mater, and just this year he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens with the 23rd pick of the first round. He’s now a millionaire.

It’s a feel-good story. So why is Michael Lewis’ book so good and John Lee Hancock’s movie so feely?

Sometimes it’s small differences. Here’s Lewis on a crucial moment in the story:

That day Leigh Anne went out and bought a futon and a dresser. The day the futon arrived, she showed it to Michael and said, “That’s your bed.” And he said, “That’s my bed?” And she said, “That’s your bed.” And he just stared at it a bit and said, “This is the first time I ever had my own bed.”

That’s nice. Poignant without being pitiful. Here’s Hancock’s version:

Michael (running his hand over the futon): This is mine?
Leigh Anne: Yes, sir.
Michael: I never had one before.
Leigh Anne: What—a room to yourself?
Michael: A bed.

The way that Aaron portrays Oher doesn’t help. Reading Lewis’ book, I imagined Michael as a blank, possibly a stoic, not outwardly pathetic, but that’s the way Aaron portrays him. There’s a “woe is me” quality. His eyes are sad, constantly sad, staring-at-the-ground sad. It’s Sad 101.

Basically Hancock takes what is already a sentimental story and sentimentalizes it. In the book it takes the Tuohys months to give Michael a home; in the movie it takes a day. In the movie, Michael is scary to the kids on the playground because he doesn’t smile when he talks to them; in the book, in reality, the kids were actually fascinated with this gentle giant, but were scared because, when they spoke to him, he didn’t talk back; he just stared.

Hancock personifies the dangers of Hurt Village in one gangster and the prejudices of the white community in the ladies-who-lunch, when both the dangers and the prejudices are more diffuse. I understand why Hancock does it. I also understand why it rings hollow—particularly when Leigh Anne shuts this gangster up by mentioning her gun and membership in the NRA.

Bullock’s the star, so much of the story has to be invested in her character at the expense of other characters. As a result, one of my favorite scenes in the book is gone. It’s the scene where the high school football coach’s assistant, Tim Long, who was an offensive lineman in the NFL, finally tells Coach Freeze that, with Michael playing, they don’t need all the fancy plays Freeze likes running. They can win with just one play: “We can run Gap,” he says. Meaning the quarterback hands off to the running back, who runs behind Michael Oher, who clears the field. Two weeks later Freeze adopts it. Lewis writes:

Seven plays into the game the score was 14-0 and they had done nothing but give the ball to their stumpy five three running back...and told him to follow Michael Oher’s right butt cheek. ... By the end of the first half, Briarcrest had scored 40 points.

Wouldn’t that have made a great scene? Instead Leigh Anne tells Michael, who’s not doing so well in practice, to protect the quarterback like he’s family, like he’s her. Then she chastises the coach, the fictional Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon), for not knowing his players better. “Michael scored in the 98th percentile in protective instincts,” she says. Protective instincts? They test on that?

When the movie was first released, right-wing cultural bloggers—surely the whiniest people on the planet—complained about a quick George W. Bush gag and recommended like-minded folks stay away. They haven’t, of course. “The Blind Side” had a production budget of $29 million, expected to make two or three times that, and will soon make over $200 million domestically. It shows no signs of stopping. It’s got legs like Sandra Bullock.

What’s not to like for these folks? It’s a story about a southern Christian family who demonstrate real Christian values, and whose gestures of good will come back to them two-fold. The Tuohy family changes Michael’s life; he changes theirs. If anything, Hancock mutes the Democratic angle. The “Charge of the Light Brigade” scene is a good scene in the movie, but, again, it reads truer in the book. Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw), taking over momentarily from Michael’s tutor, Miss Sue (Kathy Bates), who’s a Democrat, teaches Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem to Michael:

Their’s not to make reply
Their’s not to reason why
Their’s but to do and die
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

Sean and Michael talk about what this means. They talk about loyalty and courage. And in the book, from the next room, Miss Sue suddenly shouts out, “Michael Oher, if there’s a war broke out, you head straight to Canada! You hear me?” Now don’t tell me Kathy Bates wouldn’t have nailed that line. Instead: nothing. Maybe because it didn’t fit in with the scene as they imagined it. Maybe because they didn’t want to upset folks. Maybe because. But there’s tons of stuff like that. What gives texture to the book is removed from the movie.

I hope a few of the people who love this movie seek out and read the book. I know it’s not revolutionary to say but the book’s better—for the reasons listed above. Maybe for this reason most of all: John Lee Hancock, backed by millions of dollars, major actors and a major studio, isn’t as good a storyteller as Michael Lewis is, backed by a keyboard.

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Posted at 10:28 AM on Dec 30, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Saturday December 26, 2009

Review: “Me and Orson Welles” (2009)


Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” has one of the best supporting performances of the year wrapped in a fun if slightly tinny story with a weak lead.

I don’t say this out of spite. I root for Zac Efron. He’s near the center of our culture (at the moment) and I root for our culture. I want it be worth it. Nearly 50 years ago a bunch of girls put the Beatles at the center of our culture and that turned out pretty well.

So I was rooting for Efron to be better than I thought he was. He plays Richard Samuels, a high school student in 1937 who is enamored of acting, the theater, singing and art. He wants to create. We see him for a moment at school, studying the 16th century, before the movie lets him loose in Manhattan, and he quickly meets an aspiring writer, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia). She’s even more enamored of art than he is—she has that solipsistic quality peculiar to artists: forever lost in her own mind—and she’s trying to get a short story into the already hallowed pages of The New Yorker. Outside, she talks of a writing teacher who would critique her work by waggling his hand back and forth and saying, “Possibilities,” and, just before the two part, she, forever thinking like a writer, says, “Wouldn’t this be a great scene for a story? Two people meeting like this and no more?” Richard waggles his hand back and forth. “Possibilities,” he says.

It’s a nice scene, but it lays open the Efron problem. Richard doesn’t have that artistic/solipsistic quality. Gretta is deeply into what she wants. What is he after?

Later that afternoon Richard comes across a group of actors spilling out into the streets, joking, preening, and one of them, Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), attempting a drumroll. Richard offers his drum expertise and pulls it off, even as the director of these actors, 21-year-old Orson Welles (Christian McKay), emerges from the building. Spotting the new blood, he asks him to sing, then asks him if he can play the ukulele, then hires him on the spot to play Lucius in their production, the Mercury Theater’s production, of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” In the quiet after Orson leaves by ambulance (as is his wont, because it gets him where he wants to go faster), Richard asks what became of the previous Lucius:

“He had a personality problem with Orson.”
“Meaning he had a personality.”

The film wants Richard to be an observer to the unfolding events—the chaotic manner in which a theatrical masterpiece is created—but he doesn’t have the nothing quality of a mere observer. Inside the theater, with his position small and tentative, he moves like someone who’s used to being center-stage. He follows Orson but not sycophantically. He spends time with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who works in the office while calculating to meet David O. Selznik, and he flirts with her, sure, but he doesn’t seem to set his sites on her until the other actors in the troupe, adults all, act jealous that he has entré with the woman they’ve dubbed “The Ice Queen.” He takes things for granted but not in the way the young take things for granted. It feels off.

There are some nice moments. We worry how he’ll do with this role he’s lucked into, and during first rehearsals he says his line (“Here is the man who would speak with you”), exits incorrectly, then correctly, then breathlessly asks a guy backstage how he did. “I cried,” the guy dryly responds without looking up from his magazine.

But the nice moments don’t add up to a whole. His family worries about the hours he’s keeping but nothing comes of it. He falls asleep at school but nothing comes of it. He takes Sonja out to dinner, runs into Gretta again, follows Orson to a radio broadcast. Eventually he sleeps with Sonja at Orson’s place. At first he seems nonchalant, then nervous, then petrified. He’s obviously never slept with a girl before, and Efron pulls it off, but this knowledge clatters among everything else we know, and don’t know, about Richard. His parts don’t add up to a whole, either. “Tell me who you are,” Sonja asks at one point. Yes, please.

We also don’t get a sense of what a breakthrough this “Caesar” is for the Mercury Theater and Orson Welles. Does anyone even mention that it’s set in Mussolini’s Italy? That the death of Cinna the Poet comes at the hands of the Secret Police rather than a mob?

The night before “Caesar” opens, with the show still in chaos, Orson beds Sonja, Richard reacts badly (like a cuckold), and Orson fires him: “I hope you enjoyed your Broadway career, Junior, cause it’s over.” Richard is stunned to find out he doesn’t matter, then stunned to find out he does. Welles has to woo him back for this small part. It works. Opening night’s a big hit. But in the excitement afterwards, Richard feels himself cut off from the rest of the cast. It’s up to Joseph Cotten (a perfectly cast James Tupper) to relay the bad news that he’s been fired after all. “It’s Orson,” Cotten says. “He can’t be wrong.”

McKay, by the way, should get a best supporting actor nomination. He not only offhandedly sounds like Welles, he displays the energy and fierce intelligence that Welles displayed onscreen. When his eyes light up with an amused, thick-as-thieves look, I thought: Harry Lime lives. Then there's opening night. Welles is backstage listening to the waves of applause, and says, to no one in particular, “How the hell do I top this?” A second later you see his mind begin to work on that question. We already know the answer but you get the feeling he doesn’t—yet. That’s how good McKay is.

“Me and Orson Welles” is, as I’ve said, a fun movie, but at times it has an artificial, tinny quality that I associate with latter-day Woody Allen. It’s if the characters are less characters than puppets to be moved around the stage to make the point the author wants to make. Events feel externally rather than internally driven.

Yet it’s not without its poignancy. At the end, Richard runs into Gretta again, and she thanks him—not enough—for helping get her story published in The New Yorker. The two, flush with their momentary successes, talk creativity and art. “It feels like it’s all ahead of us,” she says, and it was, then, 70 years ago. But we know their successes, if they have successes, will be small and short-lived, even as we know Welles’ successes, while gigantic, will lead to Paul Masson commercials in the '70s and “Transformers” voiceovers in the '80s. In Gretta's earlier story, the word “possibilities” is, both to her and her writing teacher, pejorative. By the end, seeing these people in a moment before everything plays out, one feels the sadness of choices made; and one appreciates the beauty of possibilities.

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Posted at 08:16 AM on Dec 26, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Wednesday December 23, 2009

Review: “Avatar” (2009)


James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the purest adventure story I’ve seen at the movies in a long time.

It’s also the most subversive blockbuster released during this long, ugly decade. Hell, it’s not even subversive. It states its apostasy out loud. “We will show the sky people they cannot take whatever they want!,” Jake, the avatar, shouts before the final battle. “This is our land!”

Psst: We’re the sky people.

The movie begins as a tale of twins. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a U.S. Marine who loses his legs in an unnamed war, and he has a twin brother, Tommy, a Ph.D. scientist scheduled to work on a moon light years away named Pandora. The human scientists on Pandora use avatars, which match the scientist’s DNA with alien DNA, to study the native Na’vi people, who are nine feet tall and blue-skinned. Then Tommy dies, rendering his avatar useless. Unless of course someone can match his DNA. Hey!

When Jake arrives on Pandora, there’s a balance of power among the human population there, and each has its own agenda. The scientific community, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), wants to learn about the Na’vi; the business community, led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), wants to exploit the unobtainium under Na’vi land; and the military community, led by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), wants to kick some ass. But they all need each other. Science needs the funding business provides. Business needs the knowledge, and the diplomacy, science provides. And if it weren’t for business and scientific interests, the military would have no opponent—at least on Pandora.

Jake’s a man without a community. The scientists don’t want him because he’s a jarhead, and the jarheads dismiss him as “Meals on Wheels.” But Col. Quaritch sees a use. “A Marine in an avatar body,” he says. “That’s a potent mix.” He asks for reports. If Jake does his duty (again), he’ll get him his legs back. Meaning the technology was always there, they just didn’t think him worth the expense. Nice.

“One life ends, another begins,” Jake says of his brother and himself, but he could be talking about himself and his avatar. He has a new twin now, and, during the course of the movie, his avatar is taken through the hero cycle. He’s wobbly the moment he wakes up, but soon he’s luxuriating in the thrill of what Jake’s real body can no longer do. Standing. Walking. Running. Digging into the dirt with his toes.

In the jungle, after a thrilling stand-off with a hammerhead titanothere (think: elephant/rhino), and an even more thrilling chase through the woods by a thanator (think: huge, armor-plated tiger), Jake, separated from the scientist/avatars, is saved from a pack of prowling viperwolves (think: super-panthers) by a Na’vi, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who, afterwards, contemptuously dismisses his gratitude. “You don’t thank for this,” she tells him before the body of a dead viperwolf. “This is sad. Very sad only.” She blames him for the death of the viperwolves. “You’re like a baby, making noise, don’t know what to do.” When he asks why, then, he bothered to save her, she responds, “You have strong heart. No fear. But stupid.” It’s a good back-and-forth. Those who remember only Cameron’s “Titanic” dialogue may be surprised.

She’s lying, by the way. The reason she saved him, the reason she didn’t kill him herself when she had the chance, was because the seeds of a holy tree, looking like aerial, benign jellyfish, floated in front of her arrow. A sign from Eywa, her God. And as they argue in the jungle, more of these seeds float by, alight on Jake, and amaze her. Which is when she decides to take him to back to her tribe, where she is a princess, the daughter of tribal leader Eytukan (Wes Studi) and spiritual leader Moat (C.C.H. Pounder), and betrothed to Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso). They know Jake’s a dreamwalker, an avatar of the “sky people,” but they let him live because he’s a warrior (and thus one of them), and because they hope to learn about the sky people through him. They also appoint Neytiri to teach him about their ways.

Reluctant at first, calling him a moron throughout, Neytiri teaches him how to ride a pa’li, or direhorse; how to climb; how to fall from great heights using giant leaves to break the fall. All the while Jake is reporting back to the Colonel. Eventually Grace gets wind of this and moves the entire operation to the floating mountains of Pandora, where, in the flux vortex, they’re harder to contact, and where their research can continue uninterrupted. They have only three months until the bulldozers arrive to tear down Hometree.

“Avatar” is 160 minutes long yet there’s little fat in it. Cameron expertly guides us through long set pieces (Jake’s first day and night in the jungle), to shorter montage scenes (Jake’s Na’vi training), and back again. Bit by bit, Jake’s avatar fills out and grows stronger. He learns the rudiments of the language and the religion, which involves the flow of energy and the spirit of animals, and which he calls “tree hugger crap” even as he’s swept up in it. The Na’vi literally bond with animal and plant life through live tendrils in their braids. One of the last tests before he can become a man, and thus take another step in the hero cycle, is to bond for life with an ikran, or banshee, all of which nest in the floating mountains. And how will his ikran choose him? “It will try to kill you,” Neytiri answers matter-of-factly. “Outstanding,” Jake, the jarhead, answers.

Jake and Neytiri both have this spirit of adventure—as does the film. And when Jake finally gets his ikran, he and Neytiri soar through the air together—menaced only by two things: the huge red toruk, the baddest thing in the Pandora skies; and time. Their three months are almost up.

“Everything is backwards now,” says the human Jake, his jarhead cut grown out, scratching his beard. “Out there is the real world and in here is the dream.” So it is with us in the audience. Jake’s avatar initially seems bizarre, but, over time, it’s the avatar, the Na’vi Jake, that appears normal, while his human self seems small and undefined. So it is with the 3-D technology. Initially it seems obtrusive. After a while you don’t even notice it. Earlier this year, Cameron told a French journalist. “It's not just about literally seeing [the Na'vi] but about perceiving differently —perceiving through the eyes of the other person. That's what cinema's all about to me.” And that’s what it is here.

When the “Avatar” trailer hit the Web in August, an almost universal cry of pain went up among the geekish: That’s it? they asked. They felt its plot was too reminiscent of “Dances with Wolves”—military man sent to watch indigenous people and sides with the indigenous against his own—but of course “Dances” was a good movie, and this is an old plot anyway. Think “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Pocahontas” or “The New World.” Think especially Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars,” since that’s the story that influenced Cameron the most. Published near the turn of the last century, Carter, a Virginian and a Captain in the U.S. Civil War, dies, or “dies,” in a cave in Arizona and wakes up re-embodied on Mars, where he becomes a warrior-savior among its humanoid inhabitants. During the course of the stories, he keeps traveling back and forth between Earth and Mars, between his two selves. Like Jake.

What Carter doesn’t share with Jake is a sense of guilt; a sense of almost constant betrayal. When the bulldozers arrive, Jake’s the first to stop them, betraying the humans. But the intel he provided allows the military to destroy the Na’vi’s home, the gigantic Hometree, which comes crashing down like one of the twin towers. Neither side can forgive his treachery. The Na’vi tie up the avatar Jake while Selfridge pulls the plug on the avatar project and the Colonel’s men toss the scientists, and the human Jake, into the brig. What balance of power existed is gone. It’s a military-industrial complex now.

But an iconoclastic chopper pilot (Michelle Rodriguez) springs the scientists, and flies them, and a makeshift lab, to the Tree of Souls, the Na’vi’s most sacred place. Jake is returned to his avatar body, which has been left behind after the destruction of Hometree, and he walks among its ashes. It’s a poignant scene—particularly if one recalls his earlier joy at kneading the dirt with his toes. To win back the trust of the Na’vi he knows he must do something spectacular and foolish, and it involves the toruk, the baddest thing in the skies, which Neytiri told him has only been tamed (ridden) five times in Na’vi history. But Jake figures if you’re the baddest thing in the skies you have no natural predators, and thus no need to look up. Which is why, on his ikran, he divebombs the toruk. I love the logic of this. I love how Cameron films it, too. Just as Jake leaps, we cut to the Na’vi chanting to Eywa at the Tree of Souls. Then a shadow appears. They cry and scatter in terror (it’s a toruk!)... and then in wonder (it’s a toruk... ridden by Jake!). Cue incendiary battle speech. Cue final battle scenes.

Of course the Na’vi, with bows and arrows, have little chance. They gain an advantage with a surprise attack but lose it because of the humans’ superior firepower. How do they gain it back again? Through a deus ex machina. A literal deus ex machina. They have God on their side.

Most adventure movies inevitably end with a final confrontation between hero and villain, and Cameron’s are no different, but his tend to involve like battling like. In “Aliens,” it was two matriarchs. In “Terminator 2,” it was two terminators. Here it’s two avatars. Jake, as a Na’vi, takes on Col. Quaritch, outfitted in the same kind of mechanized, supersized warrior suit Ripley wore at the end of “Aliens.” Neither avatar does the killing, though. Neytiri does. And this time it’s not sad only.

James Cameron has done an amazing, ballsy thing with ”Avatar." Yes, he imagines an entire world and creates it in meticulous detail. Yes, he sends his main character on a hero’s journey through this world. But within this framework, this age-old story, he critiques the worst aspects of our own culture. “When people are sitting on something you want, you make them your enemy,” Jake says near the end, summing up the sad history of the human race. It’s not an abstract or ancient history, either. It’s current. The villains in “Avatar” use the language of this decade: “Shock and awe”; “fighting terror with terror”; “balance sheets.” They are us. “Dances with Wolves” was set in an historical timeframe, more than 100 years earlier, in which everyone knew the Native Americans would fight and lose. Not here. Here, in this future setting, the humans not only lose but they’re sent back to Earth—to their dying planet that has no green on it. They lose because God literally isn’t on their side.


That James Cameron could get such a message into a fantasy epic, a Hollywood blockbuster, is truly more astonishing than any of the astonishing computer graphics within it.

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Posted at 07:37 AM on Dec 23, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Wednesday December 16, 2009

Review: “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009)


Both Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and I were born in 1963, and by the time I was Max’s age it was hugely popular but I wasn’t a fan. I guess I didn’t have much of a wild thing in me. I was a sickly kid, and fairly obedient, so not the type to tackle the family dog or start a snowball fight with bigger kids—both of which Max (Max Records) does in the first 10 minutes of Spike Jonze’s adaptation and expansion of Sendak’s work. It’s a brilliant first 10 minutes. Before we see anything we hear Max, humming, and before we see Max we see his handiwork: all of the movie-studio logos, from Warner Bros. to Legendary Pictures, have been defaced, the last one reading M-A-X. Then we get Max himself, in wolf costume, chasing and tackling the family dog, at which point Jonze freeze-frames and gives us the title in childish script. At which point I went: “This is going to be good.”

The photography is so muted, the colors so washed out, that the movie not only feels like it takes place in the 1970s but was filmed in the 1970s. Max is a rambunctious kid, possibly friendless, living with a teenaged sister and a divorced mom (Catherine Keener). When friends come to pick up his sister, he attacks them with snowballs and then gleefully runs back to his newly made snow fort. But they’re wild things, too, and bigger, and they follow and collapse the fort, leaving Max tearful—probably less physically hurt than emotionally hurt. His sister watched the destruction and did nothing. In revenge, he runs into her room, stomps the snow off his body, rips up gifts he’s made for her. Anger spent, regret sets in. This cycle of creation-destruction-regret continues throughout the movie.

We see him briefly at school. His science teacher is offhandedly explaining that the sun is a fuel source, and, like all fuel sources, will eventually expend itself and everything in our solar system will die. Attempting to cover up this awful fact, he digs deeper: He talks up the ways mankind will destroy itself before then. More creation-destruction-regret cycles. More callbacks to the 1970s. Back then, in the midst of my own parents’ divorce, it seemed I was surrounded by destruction scenarios, and one in particular stuck with me: an “In the News” report (sponsored by Kellogg’s) shown between Saturday-morning cartoons, in which it was reported that a graduate student wrote his doctoral dissertation on how to build an atom bomb. The meta-message: If one individual can do it, what country, with many individuals at its disposal, can’t? The knowledge was out there and couldn’t be bottled up. It made you feel small and powerless. It made you cling to fantasies of being all-powerful.

Max clings to such fantasies. His sister’s on the phone and his mother’s entertaining a man who’s not his father. Everything’s moving away from him, he has no say, and he’s bored. So he rebels. He acts bratty with his mom, then fights with her, then bites her—the act, not only of a wild thing, but of the powerless. Then he runs away. He finds a boat in a creek, gets in, and sails away to the island where the Wild Things are.

In his journey, Jonze emphasizes the smallness of Max against the vastness of the ocean, the deserted beach, the steep cliff face, and, finally, the Wild Things themselves, who crowd around and talk of eating him until his cry of “BE STILL!” stuns them into silence. Then he declares himself their king. In essence, this restores things to the way Max perceived them early in life. He’s small and powerless, surrounded by big, powerful beings, with big heads and big mouths, but he rules.

On the island, events unfold that, one imagines, mirror events in Max’s real world. Carol (James Gandolfini). a defacto leader of the Wild Things, and both father and buddy to Max, is estranged from KW (Lauren Ambrose), who’s off with Bob and Terry. “What about loneliness?” Carol asks Max during his coronation. “Will you keep out the sadness?” So even in Max’s fantasy there’s an immediate sense that things are not whole. But in the midst of their “wild rumpus,” as they run, jump, howl at the moon, KW returns, and they all hogpile together and sleep together, rather than in the separate cocoons (literal and metaphoric) that Carol was smashing earlier. “We forgot how to have fun,” Carol says as they drift off to sleep. Max showed them.

The next day, in a journey across the desert, Carol shows Max his secret cave with his model city, and Max declares that they will build their own city, a real city, where only things that they want to happen will happen. This city, this home, winds up looking like the cocoons they were smashing earlier, but big enough for everyone. Shortly after, though, Max follows KW across the desert to meet Bob and Terry, two owls whose wisdom is incomprehensible, and she brings them back to the new perfect home, setting in motion its destruction. “Why did you bring them here?” Carol asks Max angrily. “This was supposed to be for us.” For a time, Max distracts everyone with a dirtball fight but it mirrors the earlier snowball fight, ending badly with hurt feelings. Everything is breaking up again. The Wild Things demand that Max use his powers to make everything right but his powers turn out to be a robot dance with which, earlier in the movie, he’d tried to cheer up his mother. “That’s what we waited for?” they ask in disbelief. Carol’s anger can barely be contained. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he says. “You were supposed to keep us safe.” Others counsel acceptance: “He’s just a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king.”

In this way Max’s fantasy of absolute power and absolute safety turns into a fable of acceptance. Every Wild Thing has faults. Carol is fun but with a hair-trigger temper, KW is maternal but keeps bringing in agents of destruction, Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is carping and critical but often correct. Ira (Forest Whitaker) can make great holes but he’s passive. Alexander (Paul Dano) is a goat no one listens to. And Max is a boy, made king, made parent, and made to recognize the limits of parental power and authority. Things break up. Things change.

Is “Where the Wild Things Are” a movie for kids? I don’t know. My nephew, Ryan, 6, liked it, while my nephew, Jordan, 8, didn’t. But it’s definitely a movie for adults. It has the feel of a classic. Then there’s this high praise from a friend, a mother with two sons: “It helped me understand boys.”

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Posted at 10:18 AM on Dec 16, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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