Thursday, January 28, 2010

In A Better World, We EarthThings Get Our Comeuppance

When an Indic term is employed for the title of a major Hollywood motion picture, it is not a trite assumption that its projected audience will be a tad, if not adequately, educated. What is Avatar anyway, the name of some planet? Sounds like it could be. Tolkien relied on a dull epithet (Middle Earth) for the world he created, but fanciful names have more ‘pull’, don’t they? Well, in this case it’s not at all a planet’s name (more on that later) that makes the title. In this case, the Indic meaning of the word is indeed employed. So we sort of have to know what it means. Plus, when such a film ascends to first place - at least for a time - as far as box office receipts are concerned (mainly due to ticket prices of $10.00 and above; ‘Gone With The Wind’ remains far ahead in cumulative viewings and popularity), then, well, it is due a view and review so as to at least find out why.

Such a film is of course James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ (20th-Fox), and I saw it over a week ago.

Does anyone remember when Jim got the Best Director Oscar ™ back in ’97? He stood there at the lectern, brandishing his new Cedric Gibbons-designed statuette, and, through that ragged stubble, with a posture that showed he might be in his early 80s instead of half that age, he crowed, ‘KING ‘A THA WORRRLD!!!’, just like Jack, his lead character, as played by Leonardo diCaprio. Since he scripted that very Best Picture, I think he had a right to use his own line, but good God, it was a horrible, horrible thing to do, and it made him look wretched and icky. (People, beware of films that have blithe romantic leads named Jack. Sclerotic cloying readings will red-line as a result…) Needless to say, that little Academy act did not endear him to me or many others. By it, he was just showing that egomania is probably harmful to a director’s future projects, because they’ve probably peaked at such a moment. Otherwise, why would they be acting so godawful stupid? But it was not to be. In spite of having squawked to the world that his dick was as big as the Titanic, Jim has clearly moved on to more mature and thoughtful film creation, as ‘Avatar’ shows. Thanks for growing up at last, Jim. No, it is hardly a perfect film, but taken as a whole, it is deserving of worthwhile examination, albeit with a wisp of tongue-in-cheekiness, as this is a big action picture with more than a few cartoonish aspects. It is also a serious message picture, and I find that the seriousness is not strained. Instead, it is actually pretty soft-pedaled.

Another thing I like about Jim Cameron is that he provides an alternative to the predictable Spielberg/Lucas solar system of schlock. Now don’t get me wrong, Jim was well and truly caught in that very yoke-like gravitational pull with his floating junkyard, ‘Titanic’, the outrageous success of which I imagine generated more than a tad bit of jealousy from others used to being ‘kings of the world’. However, with ‘Avatar’, Jim’s a founding father of his own planetary neighborhood. (One of ‘Avatar’s cornball aspects is the moon/planet’s name – Pandora. Sticking with Greek-based planet names is a great tradition – even though most of ours are Romanized – but for storytelling’s sake, I assume the name was given by the cynical grubbers of the Earthen mining corporation that does the mineral pillaging, a name more apt than they could have known; Pandora’s Box was not a cool discovery. I imagine that to locals, the planet’s name should sound something like Cczxc’cqu, but that’s not very sexy to American audience’s ears; ‘Pandora’ is sexy. Mysterious and edgy, too!) But if a director is going to be stratospherically successful, and have a dozen franchises hanging around his neck along with his viewfinder, then at least he or she should be damned interesting – if only for a while. As a director, Jim is officially interesting, I’d say, and while those old Indy/Yoda dudes try to reinvent themselves in order to acquit themselves of any schlock that came before (sorry guys, it’s a little late), and while Scorsese continues to willfully bury himself under increasingly crappy films, Cameron’s at least coming up with some interesting stuff, and I hope he continues to do so. So-called ‘foreigners’, from Otto Preminger to Anatole Litvak to Mike Curtiz to David Lynch (yes, he’s the Man in the Planet, you know) have always had some great successes in Hollywood, and Jim, who probably speaks Canjin better than he can Pandorean, because he’s from Ontario, is the latest in an illustrious line. Peter Jackson’s been in there too, if only via studio relationships, though from what I’ve seen of clips from ‘Lovely Bones’ – clips that look like commercials for Mercedes or any number of beverage alcohol products (I’ll take a classic Magritte painting any old day!) - he seems set up for his first major failure as a director. No matter, both these guys have used New Zealand for locations in their big films. Certainly Jim studied Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ for jungle tips. Which reminds me, ‘Avatar’ has touches of both ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘King Kong’ in it, and not just via the scenery. But Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ was indeed a remake, and ‘LOTR’ had mandates from fans to fulfill. ‘Avatar’ seeks and succeeds to open a new door in story ideas, and that’s almost an impossibility in mainstream filmmaking today. Jim’s one lucky Canook.

It is a no-brainer to compliment the visual texture of ‘Avatar’. It is high-level computer art, used wisely and with superb dramatic purpose. It is also credible to the point of not interfering with the story. Out in Pandora’s marches, we accept the horrors that gradually give way to wonders, whatever their risks, so that we can get on with absorbing the story. For it is the story that takes and keeps pride of place here. What a refreshment from a picture like ‘Titanic’, where most everyone just wanted to see how the ship sank, and could give a rip about the very sub-plot-ish love story. So, the visual appointments achieved for ‘Avatar’ are, as everyone has said, unimpeachable and sublime.

Some spoilers ensue.

To just dive in…

There’s no doubt that some of the dialogue, fortunately confined to the humanoid side of things, is very silly. It is also grounded in the 2000s, and will not age well. But I realize that Jim had to compromise to his audience just a bit. Besides, it makes the noble savages all the more elevated and epic, because that’s what this picture finally agrees to let itself proclaim: that it is a full-blown epic, and that it's really okay to BE epic!

One question: why, in the latter part of the picture, is Neytiri (Nefertiri? 'The Ten Commandments’? What the – Sorry, too many epic digressions right now…), in the native Na’vi people lead role, suddenly wearing a chaste tank top-ish thing, when before that teen boys in the audience were slurpingly thanking Jim for presenting her ‘National Geographic’ style, with just a trace of discrete tribal hair providing modesty panels for her pertnesses? Is this post-mating wear, or battle armor? Curious!

The blue cat people have very, very slim torsos, perfect for modeling Pandoran fashions and to instill anorexic dreams in young teens. But teens take note: the blue ones are what, ten feet tall? Think how thick they are in comparison with your scrawny teen asses, okay? Keep all of this in proportion. (Blue body paint is bound to emerge somewhere along the line, and not only at fan conventions. Goggle-sized amber contacts, too.)

Susan ‘Sigourney’ Weaver has, I’ll admit, been in some decent pictures. She has even put in some decent performances. I’m one of hordes though, that find it hard to get past the inherent snotty face and demeanor that she can’t help but bring with her. But in ‘Avatar’, not to worry. It’s official: Sigourney is under control. Director Jim, who knows her panties well, tells her how to do it, and she obeys. Pretty soon, we forget who she really is and happily get submerged in the story. Who cares who the actors are or aren’t. Well, in her case anyway.

For us Earthlings still incapable of aesthetically ascending without question to the Na’vi peoples’ lifestyle, there is one yummy babe to marvel at: Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy the (Traitorous) chopper pilot. A built-in heroine, Trudy is as feisty as she is sexy, and she don’t take no shit. That’s why she does what she knows is the best thing in life she ever did: to go over to the other side. When I saw her suddenly wearing her blue-cat-people war makeup, it was so wonderful, so glorious, I almost started bawling. Of course though, the beauty could not last. She must be sacrificed, along with others. Ms Rodriguez effortlessly succeeds in a role that might have been a mere caricature. I wish Jim had given forth a bit more of her for us though. Can you insert a sub-plot with her in the six-hour Director’s Cut, oh Jim?

Giovanni Ribisi, as the cocky corporate asshole who commands the planetary conquest, steals every scene he’s in. A splendid performance, and though brief, quite three-dimensional. He ponders momentarily on the ethics of his actions, but unlike transcendent Trudy, he remains a corporate slave to the end, when he really IS a slave.

Stephen Lang is another bit of perfect casting. Whether in 600BC or far into the future, hardasses will always be hardass, and Lang’s capture of the type will go down into cinema lore. We do not hate him so much as we want to carve more Mau Mau trenches onto his skull until he gets his muhfuh-ing troops out of Afghanistan (yes, there’s a corollary there). His final rage-parade is almost as drawn out as Frodo and Gollum’s at scenic Mount Doom. Gung-ho, fat boy!

I can only yak about the Earthling actors with specificity but those who played blue catlike Na’vi peoples were all damn good in their rather challenging roles. If Jim sought inspiration from the Watusi tribe in crafting his race, well and good. He obviously took many elements from many sources and combined them, wisely pushing the limits of representation just far enough to be ground-breakingly different, yet keeping a leash on we overly grounded groundlings in the seats of the picture show. So, features of Zoe Saldana, CCH Pounder, and Laz Alonso clearly mold their appearance, but the CGI takes over from there.

I’d better wrap this up before it joins the ranks of wannabe dissertations now being offered for 400-level college courses in the growing field (and subject heading) of Jim Cameronology and Avatarology. But first, notes on the score.

There is another James involved at a high level in this production, another Jim. James (The Second) Horner, reprising his ‘Titanic’ collaboration with the director, composed the score. Like Cameron, Horner has come a long ways in providing a score to reckon with in a film to reckon with. It does all the right things, and it has many merits, but in these ears’ opinion, it doesn’t go far enough. While I give credit for Horner being fairly free of the once respectable but now agonizing John Williams Effect, and somewhat avoiding the soul-less sound walls of the Hans Zimmer Music Machine, his ‘Avatar’ score stops a number of steps short of being really great. I think what was needed was just a little bit of blatant Russian-style passion and some Mittel European-type zing in pushing, pushing, pushing the score past its conventional borders. Now that gets into Cameron territory, because Cameron doesn’t want his lovingly-created sound effects compromised. But listen, Jim (the First), when Jim (the Second) has gone to all the trouble to compose a vast symphonic foundation to your stunning visuals, don’t shortchange its power for yet another doomship’s explosion. If the producer side of Cameron happened to have, say, more early 20th century immigrant Jewish qualities, he might have let Horner’s inherent Alfred Newman or Miklos Rozsa potentials play themselves out at key moments, but I fully understand that this is the metallic 21st century, and such a thing would be too ‘over the top’, so alas, less emotion, more THX eruptions, I guess.

That said, there’s no doubt that Horner achieves some very fine and genuine heartfelt emotion and genuine epic effulgence in some sequences. Especially during the end title crawl, the score is unleashed, and it sounds damn hot. Another thing to credit Horner: his score was also possibly diminished by not only Cameron’s preferences but by certain sound engineers who are more attuned to car chase blow-outs than they are symphonic power. After all, Rozsa’s score for ‘Quo Vadis’ (1951) was virtually hijacked because of the incompetence of MGM’s sound engineers.

One more thing, James the Second - just a friendly suggestion. Not EVERY gigantic third act mass movement in cinema has to be scored with a baleful wordless Orff-like chorus in order to justify itself. I don’t care if that’s what the director wanted, next time, TALK HIM OUT OF IT, or walk.

And Jim (the First), why does the credit for the composer come way down the line, like, after the Assistant Associate Executive Producer, or whatever? What kind of respect is that??

In closing, another of ‘Avatar’s virtues. There’s virtually no cussing. I’m no prig, but the tacked-on shit-talk in pictures today can get awfully gratuitous after awhile. I’m only so glad that there was nowhere to be found in ‘Avatar’ anyone like that awful sewage-mouthed (and Cameron-like?) ‘scientist’ who finds the Titanic in the modern prologue in ‘Titanic’. You’ve come a long way up from the depths, Jim Cameron. Keep going.

‘Avatar’ takes its place as a truly impressive and original tour de force in cinema.

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