OK, why did nobody tell me about AVATAR?

28 12 2009

I’M PISSED. Why did nobody tell me about this AVATAR movie? Apparently it was released last week after like twelve years of development at the hands of James Cameron, with a price tag of around $300,000,000 (out the door) and, word has it, it’s not only going to revolutionize the way films are made, but also make all religion obsolete. Somehow, I managed to miss all this. Fortunately, this makes me the The Perfect Critic™, as I had absolutely no expectations at all going into this film. Swear to god.

AVATAR, I’m only now learning thanks a lot, is a film like no other, one not so much filmed as it is built, using motion capture technology and three-dimensional doohickery. And AVATAR is, to that end, the most wicked 3-D movie ever made… In every other dimension, however, the only astonishing thing about this film is how average it is.

The plot involves a U.S. Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington,) whose consciousness is implanted into the body of an alien warrior on a faraway planet, where a war is being waged on the native Na’vi people by trigger-happy earthlings dead set on extracting a valuable ore from beneath the Na’vi’s size 39 blue feet. Sully, in learning the ways of the Na’vi, falls in love with their very hottest daughter, Neytiri. For anyone who’s ever seen a movie – and I once did – the inevitable showdown between human and Na’vi, with Sully torn between two cultures, is as obvious in minute ten as it is when it finally arrives, bam pow, two hours and many moons minutes later. The action is split into three movements, eliciting one reaction a piece: Act One: ‘Oh wow,’ Act Two: ‘Oh no,’ and Act Three: ‘Yahoo.’ (Depending on how much you enjoy the film, you may want to add one or more ‘o’s to that Yahoo. I’ll stick with two.) And though I suppose that with all the time and cheddar invested in this behemoth, you can’t blame Cameron for playing it safe, for all the new technology presented in AVATAR, this is ultimately the sight of a man doing what he knows. The state of the art’s on display here, no doubt, but it’s been poured into a rigid, ‘epic’ mold. As such, AVATAR is the cinematic equivalent of Jell-O: shit’s delicious, but even three heaping courses of jigglers can’t be called dinner.

MAVATAR bears similarity to many epics, but of all of them, its setup is closest to ERNEST GOES TO CAMP. Sadly, I’m not kidding.

Throughout it all, Cameron pays tribute to his favorite director James Cameron, giving a crisp upgrade to elements of his own older films: from THE TERMINATOR, there’s the narrative device of the protagonist’s dictated journal (no longer in cassette tape form.) From ALIENS, there are the load lifters, now, inexplicably, with giant knife fighting capabilities. Also from that film, there’s pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez,) a succinct combination of the characters of Vasquez and Gorman. And the setup of the entire affair on Pandora (a malicious corporation taps into a natural resource on a distant planet, crossing its dangerous inhabitants) makes AVATAR, in a sense, a bluer, less awesome ALIENS. The climactic battle, with Sully diving across plane wings and dangling from missiles, recalls TRUE LIES. Even the song that plays over the closing credits sounds surprisingly similar to ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from TITANIC. I don’t know, but assume its title is “My Heart’s Still Going On.”

Cameron, it appears, doesn’t have any real interest in contributing to cinematic dialectic apart from advancing its technology. He fills his brave new world with recognizable characters, well-trod arcs, and stock themes. Take for example “Saheri,” the electro-chemical bond that flows through the Na’vi, into all living things on Pandora. In one scene, as Sully attempts to ride a wild creature (one of several,) and Neytiri shouts out “Saheri,” Cameron might as well have subtitled it ‘use the force!’ That’s not to say all this doesn’t work as it should, just that the feeling one gets when sitting through the exposition of Saheri isn’t awe, it’s a gentle sense of déjà vu. And, though it’s not exactly ill-conceived, (Cameron set out to make a record-breaker, and that he has made,) this inescapable familiarity works against the capital ‘N’ Novelty that’s the only real triumph of the film.

Is it racist to say all the Na’vi look the same to me?

All right I admit it, I’m no Perfect Critic™. How could I be?! Of course my expectations for AVATAR are high,  (though when you’re talking about the man who made T2, I can’t say they were too high.) Let’s have some perspective. Compared to, say, this year’s preposterous continuation of Cameron’s TERMINATOR franchise, his newest is clearly a work of rigor and ingenuity; nor is it the product of a man so self-deluded and hopelessly lost in his toybox that he’s forgotten how to tell a tale that actually makes sense. (Click that link, seriously.) Perhaps if he’d made another interesting film in the past decade-plus since TITANIC, I might be more serene about this latest achievement. But all that’s memorable about AVATAR is how it looks. There are no indelible scenes, characters or relationships – only images… Jim, I sincerely hope you buy yourself something really special with my $15… $30 when I do AVATAR again in IMAX. After that, though, I’m fairly confident I’ll never see it again – not on anything less than the big screen. What would be the point?

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original publication of this post referred several times to James Cameron’s AVATAR as James Cameron’s MAVATAR. This error has since been caught, and mostly corrected.


Showcase Cinemas, North Haven, Connecticut

Saturday, December 26, 3:00pm showing


Nein NINE nein NINE nein NINE nein NINE!

17 12 2009

There were plenty of things I could have done instead of seeing NINE. My car could use a wash, I thought, as Daniel Day Lewis made his entrance as Italian film director Guido Contini. As Guido escaped a scandalous press conference, I remembered my gas bill was due. Gotta pay that. And as Guido’s convertible sped across a Roman piazza, I thought of my dog, what she might be doing right now, and whether it was more fulfilling than what I was doing. Mostly though, I thought about closing my eyes, and getting some sleep. Only to protect the integrity of Steven Spielblog did I muster the strength to stay awake through this film. Don’t thank me, readers. Thank my eyelids. DO IT.

Directed by Rob Marshall and starring Mr. Day, Mr. Lewis, and every single actress alive, (and in Sophia Loren’s case, ‘undead,’) NINE is a filmed adaptation of a Broadway musical which is a staged adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8½. One of the pivotal films of the Italian neo-realist movement, 8½ is a kaleidoscopic study of Guido (Marcello Mastroianni,) a 43 year-old filmmaker struggling to translate his mid-life self-reflection into a piece of art that has value to anyone but himself. It’s one of the most insightful portrayals of an artist ever put on film. Comparing anything to it is stacking the deck – but comparing 8½ to NINE – that’s just sadistic. So, let’s get into it, shall we?

Daniel Day Lewis, not good, for once, in NINE

Right off, there’s the unfortunate Mr. DDL, who, though perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, brother just don’t do comedy. And 8½, which is many things, is frequently hilarious. Mastroianni’s Guido is a grown boy, who for all his troubles, views the world in wonderment – a man who spontaneously dances, alone, down a hallway. DDL’s Guido, by contrast, is a man in the midst of a manic breakdown. He’s twitchy, dour, and self-loathing, a serial philanderer who claims to be a child at heart, though evidence of this is absent from DDL’s performance. This choice on the actor’s part then renders the introduction of Guido’s “inner child” character in NINE a Disneyfied cliché: the man who’s lost his joie de vivre, rediscovering it in a magical encounter with his younger self. So when young Guido joins old Guido in the director’s chair for the big finale, (whoops, spoiler,) it’s a moment reminiscent of Bruce Willis’ THE KIDnot-ah so much-ah Fellini.

But it’s not just in DDL’s too-serious turn that NINE misses all the crucial humor of 8½. Maestro Marshall replaces the joy of his source material with the most miscalculated diva worship since Michael Jackson lopped off his nose to be Diana Ross. Take, for instance, the funniest, most delightful scene in 8½, in which Saraghina, a bulky, ferally sexual woman, dances the rumba for young Guido and his schoolmates. Marshall interprets this scene in what he clearly wishes were a showstopper, with the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie as Saraghina. Now don’t get me wrong, Fergie is hulkingly enormous enough to play the part of Saraghina, but – oh wait – WHAT? Seriously, could Rob Marshall not get a single big-boned broad to sing a song? He has to take this Fellini icon and turn her into one more in a line of supermodels?

The repulsive women of NINE

In NINE’s pile-on of beauties, (hellooo Judi Dench,) Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz emerge unscathed as wife and mistress respectively. Sophia Loren phones it in, content, it seems, to accept her beatification as Prima Donna of Italian cinema, and so her part is nothing more than an extended, softly-lit cameo. But it’s Nicole Kidman who takes the crap cake, her upper lip sliding disconcertingly down her face before your naked eyes. In a film of spotty accents, (DDL not exempted,) Kidman gives up on the whole pesky ‘Italian thing’ after about two minutes. Why bother, really? ‘Chilly’ is a word I’d always use to describe Miss Kidman, but after watching NINE I’d suggest her next director check for pulse before rolling camera.

8½, che bel film, is presented in an ambiguous dream state where reality blends seamlessly with Guido’s memory and fantasy. NINE reduces this to a binary: there’s objective (and oh-so stressful) reality, and then, there are musical numbers. It’s very clear when we’re meant to be in Guido’s fantasy: everyone’s singing and dancing… and boring me to death. And worse yet, to reaffirm this conceit, Marshall shoots all the musical interludes the same, from the point of view of the audience. This gets old, in a hurry.

Hey, you know what this movie could use? Some incredibly boring dance numbers.

OK! OK. Maybe comparing this film to 8½ is just too diabolical, even for a diablo like me. I’d judge it solely as a musical then, except not one of the film’s songs stick, not a single hum-worthy chorus in the lot, and about 87% of the lyrics consist of people shouting “Guido! Guido! Guido!” Yes, Academy bylaws require an original song to win ‘Best Original Song,’ even if you’re adding a new number to previously staged musical. But Rob Marshall’s statue-lust doesn’t make it OK for any human person to have to sit through Kate Hudson’s jaw-droppingly awful “Cinema Italiano.” This sequence is so torturous it might as well have been directed by Alberto Gonzalez and choreographed by John Yoo – with ultimate sign-off approval from Dick Cheney, naturally.

The biggest war crime of all is that none of NINE elicits any emotional response – or it didn’t from your Spielblogger. 8½ endures, truthful and touching, because it defies structure to create an impression of life on earth and the challenges – the impossibilities, even – of representing it in art. It’s not a portrait of an artist, it’s the world as seen through the eyes of one. NINE, not just a copy of a copy but the very opposite of its original, is too enamored with its own style, structure, and performers, to truly be about anything but itself.


AMC Landmark Theaters, Los Angeles

Tuesday, December 8, 8:00pm showing

Oh wait - sorry.

DEATH AT A FUNERAL: Who says it’s too soon to be nostalgic for 2007?

7 12 2009


NOT Funny:

In what is possibly the fastest original/remake turnaround of all recorded history, here’s our first look at DEATH AT A FUNERAL, an almost all-Black remake of an almost all-British comedy from all of two years ago. Because you apparently asked for it!

Now, DEATH was a very funny, if minor, farce by the great Frank Oz, but the fact that it did no business State-side is hardly surprising. Just look at that poster. Where’s the big red block lettering that tells the American audiences it’s OK to laugh?! Have we learned nothing from OLD DOGS? But fear not, comedy-likers. Chris Rock wasted no time in calling a flag on the play, and proposing an Insta-Remake® to producer Sidney Kimmel, who realized the err of his ways and put the wheels in motion to produce a film he’d  literally just finished producing. And thus, DEATH was born again.

I have to say, in spite of the fat red font of comedy death, this new version does not look bad. Not bad at all, actually. (Check out the trailer here.) Then again, my biggest problem with the original DEATH AT A FUNERAL was the fact that Tracy Morgan wasn’t in it… Rock, a very smart comedian but very mediocre director, has wisely handed over the reins to, of all people, Neil LaBute, a decision I can get behind, seeing as LaBute’s at his best when he’s trying to be funny… and at his worst when he’s trying not to be funny. But the big winner here? Peter Dinklage, who plays the same exact role in the Insta-Remake® as he did in the original. What a coup – getting paid twice for memorizing lines once.

Bravo, Dinklage, you savvy dwarf. Bravo.

Don’t fuggedabout DONNIE BRASCO

7 12 2009

After an all-day GODFATHER marathon on Thanksgiving, and a subsequent jonesin’ for another mob movie high, I happened upon 1997’s sleeper DONNIE BRASCO last night, and couldn’t take my eyes off it. Starring a pre-super-duper-stardom Johnny Depp as an undercover FBI agent stuck between his family and The Family, it’s not GODFATHER PART II, but it’s a haunting film, and one worth revisiting for a few reasons:


Firstly, there’s Mister Al Pacino, in one of his best showings of the last two decades. (ANGELS IN AMERICA’s a rival – but then, it’s not a theatrically-released film, is it? HM?) He’s fantastic here in a very non-Pacino role, as Lefty Ruggiero, a Mafioso, but by no stretch a power player. Michael Corleone he is not. And though director Mike Newell introduces him in mid-self-aggrandizement, the rest of the film chips away at the delusions of Lefty, revealing him as the Cosa Nostra equivalent of a middle-class working stiff. Absent are the toothy outbursts that have defined too many late-period Pacino-formances. Lefty’s a shlub, and Pacino’s performance is hypnotic in the dimension he lends this shlubbery. His last scene of the piece is a muted master class in naturalist shading that stands alongside his superior early work.

Secondly, the score by Patrick Doyle is outstanding. Doyle’s a composer who knows from epic (check out his work in Kenneth Branagh’s maximalist HAMLET, or in Cuaron’s minimalist GREAT EXPECTATIONS,) yet here he largely holds back, giving his sublime main theme “Donnie and Lefty” all the more bada-bing-bada-bam-boom when it hits at film’s end. This is one credit roll that keeps you in your seat.

Thirdly, Anne Heche does a great deal in a somewhat rote role of the wife losing touch with her husband as he slips deeper into his undercover persona. Yes, Anne Heche. With the shrill off-screen antics that have since dwarfed her actual career, it’s easy to overlook the woman’s chops, and in “Donnie Brasco,” she hits the perfect note, so desperate to connect, though never pathetic in her attempts to hold on. Don’t get me wrong; Anne Heche should go away forever – but here, it’s easy to see why she was once upon a time ‘one to watch.’ So, watch. Then you can go right back to dismissing her. As of the end of this sentence, I already have…

What was most striking re-watching DONNIE BRASCO at the end of the ’00’s, however, is how ahead of the Sopranos curve it was, particularly in terms of depicting the degrading day-to-day of a mobster. Sure, we’ve spent the better part of this decade watching Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti struggle with the banal/evil duties of the family soldier, but Pacino’s Lefty is avant garde of the whole Satriale’s gang.


Two years before Tony took his crown, British director Newell came at the central issues of Los Sopranos – duty, alienation, and betrayal – with a calculated remove that an American shooter weaned on Scorsese and Coppola might not have been able to pull off. Witness a scene in which a very young-looking Paul Giamatti, playing an FBI surveillance technician, prods “Donnie” on the definitions of “fuggedaboutit” (a term that found new life as a t-shirt slogan during the Sopranos’ heyday.) Newell, an outsider himself – and a bit of a chameleon, as established filmmakers go – succeeded in making a film that remains fascinating twelve years on, because it asks questions of Mafia culture, rather than revel in, or glorify it.


3 12 2009

From today’s issue of VARIETY —

“There Will Be Blood” writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has found religion, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, for his next film. Anderson has written an untitled period drama that is set up at Universal… Hoffman will play “The Master,” as in “master of ceremonies,” a charismatic intellectual who hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in America in 1952.

The core is the relationship between The Master and Freddie, a twenty-something drifter who becomes the leader’s lieutenant. As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor. Anderson’s treatment of religion was cynical in “There Will Be Blood.” Here, the scrutiny isn’t specifically directed toward faith-based movements like Scientology or Mormonism that are newcomers compared to established religions. Anderson explores the need to believe in a higher power, the choice of which to embrace, and the point at which a belief system graduates into a religion.

Universal, which has become very selective about green lighting adult dramas, won’t make a decision on Anderson’s $35 million budget pic until he delivers his finished script. His hope is to make the picture next year, sources said.

Up here at the Spielblog, this is the most exciting Hollywoodland news since word broke that i fratelli Coen would be adapting Michael Chabon’s  YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION. Firstly, when you start a statement with “Phiip Seymour,” don’t even bother finishing the sentence – or his name, for that matter – because I’ll give you my $15. Here. Have it… Secondly, I’m not even a particular fan of BOOGIE NIGHTS (it’s overlong, and also, it’s GOODFELLAS,) and I downright dislike MAGNOLIA (just watch Altman’s SHORT CUTS; clearly, P.T. did,) but Anderson’s a filmmaker you simply can’t ignore. That the concept for this film sounds so staggeringly awesome only fuels the flailing happy dance I’m doing here in the office – in plain sight of all.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking how I feel right now

The only real question is, how long are we really going to have to wait for the UNTITLED P.T. ANDERSON / P.S. HOFFMAN PROJECT? Anderson’s a perfectionist, and with results like his for realsies masterpiece THERE WILL BE BLOOD, who’s complaining? More worrisome than the time it may take him to get his film just so, is the (much bigger) news that came hand-in-hand with this announcement today, that General Electric will now only be 49% co-owners of Universal Pictures – with 51% going to the great and wonderful Wizard of Comcast. Boy, if there’s anything I love more than General Electric and its diversified corporate subsidiaries, it’s Comcast. So this, for yours truly, amounts to a 49% ice cream cake, with 51% whipped cream on top. Mmm, a deliciously sinful  monopoly.

That these two notices come out the very same day, throws into relief the challenge of a modern film studio, at a time when studios are owned, without exception, by media conglomerates. Viacom owns Paramount, Newscorp owns Fox, and Time-Warner owns Warner Bros. But Warner Bros. is the most lucrative film studio in town (with mega-properties like the Batman and Harry Potter, etc.,) unlike Universal, which, following a brutal couple of years, is rightfully risk-averse. Armed with what I’m sure are the classiest intentions, this is a studio that has made a brand of allowing auteurs to make movies that have repeatedly failed, sometimes critically, but very frequently at the box office. Michael Mann’s a prime offender, with both his last big-budge underperformers, MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES. And Judd Apatow, who pleased his Universal overlords mightily with THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP, went apparently unchecked in making FUNNY PEOPLE an astonishingly miscalculated feat of self-indulgence.

This poster is exactly as funny as FUNNY PEOPLE.

Time and again, Uni’s gotten into trouble getting in bed with big directors on big films. Even as you read this blog, Ridley Scott is in a bunker in an undisclosed location, finishing his six trillion dollar version of ROBIN HOOD, starring a four-hundred pound Russell Crowe. I’m calling this one in the air. Gonna be long. Really fucking long… And now that Paul Greengrass is jumping ship from Uni’s one real franchise, the studio is even going back to the well of non-superstar Vin Diesel’s RIDDICK non-saga. Yes, the situation is that desperate.

Make no mistake, as much as I, and likely you, are dying to see it, the UNTITLED P.T. ANDERSON / P.S. HOFFMAN PROJECT represents a risk for Universal and its new owners: it looks to be a $35,000,000 muckracking artpiece that stands to alienate the sticks and then some by suggesting religion is anything but Divine. So with Comcast inheriting such a troubled studio, how long until their lieutenants get comfortable enough with Anderson’s vision before they’re willing to make his film? Will the new guard step in with a ‘never again’ attitude about being taken for a ride by another auteur with a tricky proposition? Universal is the studio that entrusted Alfonso Cuaron with CHILDREN OF MEN. But is it a studio that under new management would make CHILDREN OF MEN again?

Paul Thomas, Philip Seymour, for you, for now, I’m building a shrine and praising the Moviegods. May your light be green, and your release date nigh. Amen.

There Will Be RELIGION! (Every P.T. Anderson movie from here on out should follow the THERE WILL BE BLANK format.)

UPDATE 3-17-10 …


After the tepid WOLFMAN, the disastrous GREEN ZONE, and the sure-misfire REPO MEN, I can’t say I blame Universal for pulling back from this one… After all, Adam Fogelson gotta eat.

Now please, would somebody else step in and make this movie happen?