Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Dances with delusions of grandeur

By Edward Copeland
There's a certain freedom that comes with being able to see and write about a film long after it's been dissected to death, especially a blockbuster such as Avatar. I don't have to waste time on the plot, I can just get to the critique and James Cameron, be prepared: both barrels are loaded.

Now, since my physical limitations prevented me from seeing Avatar in the theaters, I didn't get the 3D experience. Not that I think it would have changed my opinion of the lousy movie that I finally saw on DVD. Perhaps the 3D glasses were laced with a hallucinogen that made people believe they were enjoying themselves. I do understand why Cameron chose 3D, since the story and screenplay for Avatar barely register as one dimensional, he had to do something. I was shocked to see in the end credits that the great actress CCH Pounder also was in the film, but who the hell she played I have no idea. I assume one of the Ewoks — I mean Navi. What does puzzle me is that I read that the film was shot in scope (2:35:1 aspect ratio), but, for some reason, the DVD has been reconfigured to 1:85:1. It wouldn't have made my viewing experience better, but it did make it even less like theatergoers saw and for no good reason that I can discern. It's a puzzling decision by Cameron, supposedly such a stickler for the visual look of his films, to allow, but I don't have enough interest to go searching for the answer since the film would suck in any aspect ratio.

Granted, I was no fan of Titanic, but at least it had mostly top-notch actors from top to bottom giving Cameron's insipid dialogue more life than it deserved. In fact, I always said it could have been a truly great film if it had been a silent movie. Cameron also had a true story to help guide him as he tacked his ridiculous fictional one on top of it. (Billy Zane is chasing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet around with a gun as the ship floods! I hope he doesn't shoot them! They might drown! I guess the sinking of the ship just wasn't suspenseful enough by itself.) Still, if you want the best film telling of the Titanic story, that title still belongs to Roy Ward Baker's 1958 classic A Night to Remember. Avatar only has Sigourney Weaver and the usually reliable Giovanni Ribisi (sadly trapped in a stock role) trying to hold up the acting end for the entire bloated film, which is otherwise populated by uncharismatic lightweights and Stephen Lang as a bad guy Marine colonel who comes fully armed with every cliche a military stereotype will need at his disposal.

Many made the comparison of Avatar's story to Dances With Wolves, but what really came to my mind was Willow, which borrowed heavily from every legend, myth, story and movie it could get its hands on. Just a short list of references I scribbled while watching Avatar: the aforementioned Dances With Wolves, the video game Joust, the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi and the Ewoks in general, This Boy's Life, The Last of the Mohicans, Platoon (minus Oliver Stone's subtlety), RoboCop, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (though I'd have preferred to hear Tone Loc singing "If I'm Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You)" over James Horner's cloying score) and even Cameron's own Aliens. At one point in the film when one of the Navi says, "No more talk," I knew he meant it was time to fight, but there was part of me that hoped the film was about to become that silent movie I dreamed of for Titanic to spare me from the rotten dialogue and frequent shouts of "Nooooo!" as the good humans witness some new atrocity. You would think that perhaps on some level Cameron's message of protecting natural resources and ecosystems would touch me given my current level of outrage over the disaster BP has inflicted upon the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, but then again, the news does a much better job at getting me worked up over that than this terribly written, overlong movie assembled from bits and pieces of other, better films ever could.

Of course, what exactly is this mineral that the corporate bad guys are so eager to harvest anyway why are they allowed to use Marines to obtain it? As far as I know, it could be what Claude Rains kept in his wine bottle in Hitchcock's Notorious. By the way, when is this film set and who and what kind of president gave a corporate shill such free rein over the military for their company's pursuits (not that it's outside the realm of possibility)? When we get to the climactic battle between the Ewoks/Navi and the Marines, aren't the Marines just following orders? Should audiences root for their deaths and injuries?

Enough about Avatar. I really have nothing more to say about this equivalent of a roadside con man's very expensive miracle elixir that was sold to gullible millions. I want to discuss James Cameron himself. It is easy to see how he rose to prominence. His writing-directing projects started out as solid. In fact, he made some of the all-time best action films such as The Terminator, Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, films where the thrills moved the pictures along so fast that the dialogue hardly mattered. However, within this period there were signs of his supreme suckiness as a screenwriter. He authored Rambo: First Blood Part II and made what, in its own way, could almost be called his underwater Avatar, The Abyss, the first real evidence of him taking himself way too seriously in a movie that I largely forgot about as soon as I left the theater. I think Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio got CPR at some point, though they may have just been trying to wake her up. No one offered to do the same for me.

He also wrote the muddled mish-mash Strange Days for his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, who continues to grow and garner acclaim as a director without ever stumbling upon a good screenplay. The film he wrote and directed that really showed he should stick with what he was good at was when he tried to mix action with comedy in the dreadful True Lies and ended up with a misogynistic misfire loaded with myriad ethnic stereotypes as well as Tom Arnold.

Then he really became obsessed with special effects and his own self-worth with Titanic, thanks to the Oscars and legions of teenage girls with too much time on their hands. Compare him to another filmmaker who can't write dialogue worth a damn, George Lucas. Lucas can at least tell a story and, as flawed as the Star Wars prequels are, Lucas never tries to pass them off as important or works of art. He's there to play with his expensive toy box and make entertainment. Cameron enjoys playing with his toys just as much, but he suffers from the delusion that the films he makes are IMPORTANT. Lucas' films turn out to be the equivalent of high-tech serials with lousy dialogue. Cameron's last two films, especially Avatar, turn out to be pompous crap with delusions of grandeur AND lousy dialogue without any storytelling sense. Whether his movie turns out for better or worse, George Lucas is a storyteller. James Cameron just wants to show off technology. Lucas has found the proper venue in movie theaters. Perhaps Cameron should be strutting his stuff at one of those preview conventions they hold in Las Vegas to introduce the latest in high-tech gear.

Now, I'm sure Avatar defenders will claim I'm just writing this to be a contrarian for contrarian's sake, but I honestly cannot fathom how anyone who truly loves film can sit through this hokum and think it stands up as a great movie on any level unless standards have been lowered to the point that cool visuals are enough. Perhaps I'm too old-fashioned a movie lover, but I don't care how stunning the images are if it's really only stunning wrapping paper masking a box with no gift inside.

I had neither the time nor the energy to try to find an interview with Cameron to answer a question I've long wondered about: Has he ever mentioned that he had any cinematic influences, important movies or favorite filmmakers? All I can ever find is his obsession with integrating science with filmmaking. (I guess that's why he's found favor with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) Call me a film snob if you must, but I'm always going to prefer directors who love the medium itself, not the gadgets. It would explain his shitty scripts. He could care less about the story and dialogue — he's too busy concentrating on the technical wizardry. Perhaps Errol Morris can create a documentary on Cameron called Slow, Expensive and Out of Control.

Cameron has predicted that eventually all films will go 3D (it's the new colorization!), but all films don't need 3D. Will they go back and retrofit movies for 3D like they did with the Clash of the Titans remake? Who is up for that 3D Pretty Woman? Hell, let's go further back. I think 3D is what Mrs. Miniver always has needed. (I know the new 3D isn't the same as the old, but I can't help but think of John Candy on SCTV every time I hear about it.) A few years back, hack extraordinaire Michael Bay tried to spread the rumor that he was the illegitimate spawn of the great director John Frankenheimer. I wonder if the truth is that Bay actually was created in a lab by Cameron.

James Cameron, I challenge you. For your next film, let someone else write your screenplay and go small. If you really believe that you have become that important an artist, you must know that you can make a film about a subject you care about on a small scale without a gargantuan budget, 3D or CGI run amok. Remember how simple The Terminator was and how much better it still is when you compare it to Titanic or Avatar? You've broken box office records galore and made yourself a very wealthy man. You can get away with making a small project. Do a movie that has absolutely no need for anything besides a good script, good actors and good direction without gizmos and eye candy to distract the moviegoer. Prove me wrong about you. I dare you. Show your bona fides as an artist not just overpaid tech support.

BONUS: I couldn't find the specific SCTV clip I wanted, but here is an example that is just as funny, especially when you consider that the 3D trend has more to do with taking more of your money than making quality movies.

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Great, smart post. I too watched Avatar with stunned disbelief. As Will Ferrell said in Zoolander, "Am I on crazy pills?!" I would dread any full-on involvement from the government over the creative side of Hollywood, but I wouldn't mind if they tapped the shoulders of the studios with a simple, government-enforced request: Every aspect of film production must have a 33% reduction, straight across the board. So, films must be made for a third less than they are budgeted for, in a third amount of the time, creating a film a one third shorter than it might have been, and (most importantly) the advertising budget should be dropped accordingly.

Basically, impose limitations that will force the creative side of the equation to push themselves. Oh, this 33% might not apply to the screenwriting process. The goal would be that a filmmaker won't begin making a film until the script is tight.

The stars themselves need to sacrifice the most. In fact, this is where most of the $$ should be saved.

And here's the kicker: that third of the budget that was allocated to, say, shooting a 2.5 hour (which is now only 100 minutes) will go to poverty.

I hope you humor my ranting and raving here, but I love your dare to Cameron. I've wanted to make the same dare to Scorsese for decades. (God, I would love another film with the taut energy and passion he had in After Hours.)

The whole time everyone was going on and on about how Cameron was saving Hollywood and breaking all these records and so on, there was all this suffering in Haiti, and I kept thinking how depressing it was when so many people were giving SO MUCH of their money just to see Blue Man Group in Space or whatever it was that Cameron spent so much money on.

It isn't just recirculating Hollywood's $$, not when the ticket prices are so damn high. That's hard-earned cash that could go to help people. Hungry people. Sick people.

(Shucks, I didn't mean to go on so long! Still your post got me riled. Thanks for letting me vent.)
No need to apologize. I loved your comment. (Of course, my ego loves to get comments in general.) I expected some defenders to show up but haven't heard a peep from any yet.
I don't think Cameron did anything good since The Terminator. Which he basically stole from two Philip K. Dick novels.

Noel Vera
The script is junk. The acting is wooden. The environmental message is labored and self-congratulatory. Every idea has been ripped off from other, better sources. The director is a smug, self-impressed egomaniac who's deluded himself into believing that his films are not only art, but socially important.

All true.

And I liked Avatar, for the the simple reason that I was entertained - both times that I saw it. It's not the film that Cameron wanted it to be and thinks that it is, but as a feat of pure movie-magic showmanship, it worked for me, and I had fun. In Cameron's defense, I think there's a kind of artistry in action sequences that are done well, and spectacle that actually manages to be spectacular. Do I think Avatar is a great film? Of course not. But the 13-year-old teenage boy in me thought it was kinda awesome - and that the 3-D was really, really cool.

A lot of people (mostly those over 60) insist that the original Star Wars was a stupid film with a lousy script; while I think it's a much better film than Avatar, if I'm being completely critically objective, they aren't wrong. When I saw Star Wars for the first time, I didn't notice how execrable the dialogue was, or how you drive a truck through the number of holes there were in its a cockamamie plot - I just enjoyed myself completely. As an older and wiser moviegoer, I can see the flaws in Avatar - they're huge and they're gaping. Fortunately, I'm not so removed from my childhood self yet that a well-executed piece of junky popcorn-movie hokum can't still bring out the kid in me.
The biggest difference between a Star Wars film and Avatar, no matter what your age, is that Star Wars holds your attention. I've heard people not like Star Wars, but not because they thought it was boring which Avatar certainly was. I didn't think there was a riveting action scene in the entire movie and I was bored a lot of the time.
I basically agree with Edward (though perhaps not quite as vehemently); while I felt that Avatar was decently entertaining on a comic-book level, it was ultimately disappointing, self-important, over-elaborate, over-inflated, underwritten and unoriginal...sure, kids (and adults) who haven't seen Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas probably won't get deja vu like I did, but this was supposed to be some kind of 'revolution' in film, and while I concede that Avatar works well enough as a lavish and spectacular action entertainment (though it comes nowhere near the intelligence and tension of The Terminator/2 and Aliens), it fell way short of the mark for me as a supposed boundary-breaking/redefining, 'meaningful' cinematic experience...

If I were a kid who had never watched a non-G-or-PG film before, I imagine I would have been blown away and raving about 'Avatar', but in the wake of the spectacular AND intelligent AND poetic work of Peter Jackson with LOTR, Cameron's film feels like a simplistic wanna-be epic that fails to match the best that sci-fi/fantasy film has already been shown to offer...

and I love Star Wars (A New Hope); it's just one of the most enjoyable entertainments I can think of - plus I think the dialogue is fine; I can quote almost all of it without shame :-) and I'm an English major!

but Edward...Oliver Stone's "subtlety"??!? Oliver Stone doesn't do 'subtle', Oliver Stone does 'sledgehammer' (though intelligently and effectively) - I've not seen all of his films, but could you please tell me where you think there has been a shred of subtlety in his work...?

Also, I saw Avatar in good-old 2D; is there anyone who's seen both formats and would insist that it's a whole other undeniably amazing experience in 3D?
The Oliver Stone subtlety line was a joke.
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