Tuesday, July 31, 2012


How do you solve problem like James Bond? The producers did the best they could without Connery. They re-cast 007, hoping that it was the role, not the actor that made the series the monumental success that it was. Unfortunately the box office receipts did not bear that out. On Her Majesty's Secret Service wasn’t a flop by any means, it was one of the top grossing film’s of 1969, but it still earned far less than its predecessor and received very mixed reviews, many hostile towards new Bond, George Lazenby.

Knowing Lazenby was not a viable option and that Connery wasn’t interested in returning, producing partners Saltzman and Broccoli set about the unenviable task of re-casting James Bond yet again. Some felt that it was time to make Bond appeal to younger audiences by casting an American as Bond. Such a thing would be unthinkable today, but back in 1970, Saltzman and Broccoli where insistent on it. The pair even talked to Batman star Adam West before signing John Gavin (Psycho) to don the tux. That is until the studio insisted Connery return for the next installment. Despite his initial trepidation, he agreed on the condition he be paid a record breaking salary (which he donated to charity). It was firmly understood that Sean would only be returning for one film, and so a more permanent recasting of Bond was put off for another film and Connery returned to serve as a sort of band-aid for a franchise in need.

If On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the ballsiest Bond yet (ending with the death of 007’s bride), Diamond’s are Forever is the safest. Considering the ending of that film, one would expect Diamonds to be something of a revenge film. Indeed the prologue shows Bond savagely hunting down and killing Blofeld (Charles Gray). Not knowing what to do with the rest of the film, M (Bernard lee) sends Bond off on the trail of African diamond smugglers. He attaches himself to smuggler Tiffany Case (Jill St. John). In a neat twist Bond kills Tiffinay’s real contact and switches wallets with him, leading her uttering best line of the movie: “You just killed James Bond!” It should be noted that Bond’s only form of I.D. seams to be his membership card to the Playboy Club.

This screen cap should constitute a spoiler as it's the best part of the film.
They grab some diamonds and head off to Vegas, which in this film is a circus dreamscape where elephants gamble and Bond rides around in a moon buggy for some reason. Eventually the supper-spy unravels some convoluted business involving a kidnapped Howard Huges surrogate (played by sausage magnate Jimmy Dean), Blofeld (not really dead) and his diamond powered laser satellite (no, really). Director Guy Hamilton tried to bring surreal touches to Bond when he made Goldfinger but these same instincts run amuck here and reek of desperation. It’s just amazing how thin this film feels. Nothing really feels connected to anything else. Bond wonders around being Bond. Women are slept with, thugs are punched, cars are driven. The films two Bond girls aren’t particularly memorable and come off a bit shrill. Connery is good half the time and visibly bored the rest of it.

But Connery could be giving the best performance of his life and it wouldn't matter in the face of the film's real problem, which is that there's no main villain till over an hour into the film. A genre film lives and dies by its villain. Even the worst Bond film’s so far have had a clear villain or threat right from the get-go. After saving the world six times, some loosely assembled diamond smuggling story isn’t enough to keep the story going until Blofeld shows up. but by then the movie is already dead. It doesn't help that Charles Gray looks and acts nothing like the Blofeld we've seen in any of the other films and his SPECTRE organization couldn't be mentioned because of rights issues. The film doesn't know what to do with him. I'll ask again, why wasn't this film all about killing Blofeld from start to finish? The producers insistence to make Diamonds as if Secret Service never happened kills the film because Bond has no real motivation. A modern franchise would try to play on the links between the films and creates a sense of continuity and resonance. Instead we're stuck in this land of sudo-reboots.

The closest we get to villains for most of the film are two assassins, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (Bruce Glover and Putter Smith, respectively). Despite not being very menacing, they are the film’s most successful element. Up till now the series has had several homosexual characters. Their homosexuality was never overly explicit (censorship issues) and they where always villains. Wint & Kidd aren’t particularly different. They fall very squarely into the ugly 'gay killer' trope and their presence should date the film terribly, but the fact of the matter is that they are an adorable couple. You get the feeling they’ve been together for years but never left the puppy dog stage of infatuation. They finish each others sentences and murders. Props to the actors (particularly Putter Smith) for taking their roles just seriously enough to imbue them with affection. At any rate, as hammy as they are, they are the only characters in the film that feel alive in any way.

As for fidelity to the source material, a lot of the broad strokes are there, certain scenes and character names are the same and they do all go to Las Vegas, but that's about it. Diamonds was the third Fleming novel, written before Bond had graduated to saving the world. It's a mediocre detective novel, and a film version makes no sense at this point in the series which explains why so much was changed. Diamonds Are Forever the book and the film are not essential entries in their respective series, but the novel fairs a bit better if for no other reason than a great closing paragraph equating diamonds with death, something indestructible, unconquerable and eternal. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012


 Cameron Roundtable comes to a close this week with Avatar, a film that positively wowed audiences when it came out in 2009, quickly becoming the highest grossing film of all time. It introduced a us to next level CGI and ushered in the current trend of 3-D films that have helped prop up the movie industry in a time when theater attendance hasn't been so good. Some where so effected by the film that they suffered depression after the film ended because they couldn't handle the fact that Cameron's world was fictional. But three years on the film has suffered a bit of a backlash. Does the film hold up, or was that initial hype the result of good CGI and the novelty of 3-D? Joining me, as always, is Max O'Connell of The Film Temple.

Max O’Connell: Before we start on Avatar, do we want to talk a little bit about what James Cameron was doing between Titanic and Avatar?

Loren Greenblatt: He took a bit of an absence, you might say: twelve years. That’s a long time for any filmmaker. He wasn’t sitting in his cave counting money, though. He was doing stuff. Right after Titanic he worked on a Spider-Man movie, which he never made because he wasn’t happy with the technology available.

MO: It sounded interesting in theory, at least. He wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus…I’d watch that.

LG: I love Molina in Spider-Man 2…but that would have been interesting. We never got that, but in the meantime Cameron was doing a few other things.

MO: Right before Titanic’s release, he was developing a potential third film in the Terminator franchise. What we got was his supposed warm-up, T2: Battle Across Time, an attraction at Universal Studios Florida that’s basically a Terminator 2 reunion and his first extensive use of 3-D. It’s not as sophisticated as Avatar, obviously. There’s a lot of sequences of stuff poking out at you. But his use of the environment is still great, and we get to see everyone come back, so it’s fun.

LG: And it’s notable for what he did technically. He used 3-D and 70mm cameras, and he used higher frame rates for the first time, which he says he’ll do with Avatar 2 (and 3 and 4, if we’re to believe it).

MO: He also co-created the show Dark Angel.

LG: Another strong female sci-fi thing which we didn’t have time to get into. He only directed the finale, and we’re not watching that without having watched the show. He was also working on a 3-D remake of Fantastic Voyage, which he may still produce for Real Steel director Shawn Levy.

MO: Cameron also went on an underwater documentary kick with three films: Bismarck, his exploration of the Bismarck wreckage; Ghosts of the Abyss, which is basically Titanic bonus footage and Aliens of the Deep.

LG: The latter two are both early explorations with 3-D technology for Cameron. The last one is more deep water bioluminescent creatures . I understand that they’re all fairly anonymous. They show his interests, but not his personality.

MO: It shows his ability to turn his personal pet projects into things people want to see. It’s almost like a precursor to Avatar 2, which should explore the oceans of the fictional planet Pandora. Cameron played around with 3-D technology and developed two projects: Battle Angel, a return to hard-edged sci-fi that would use the same technology as Avatar…

LG: It’s based on a manga, and I understand it features a strong female protagonist, so there’s a return to his 80s work.

MO: It’s a film that’s ostensibly still on his agenda, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because he’s so preoccupied with Avatar…which we love, right?

LG: (long pause)…well, I don’t hate it. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s the best Star Wars prequel ever made.

MO: In that it’s not terrible.

LG: Though come to think it, it’s the second best now that John Carter came out. Avatar made $2 billion, so everyone’s probably seen it. Just in case, though, here’s the basics: Jake Sully is a paraplegic marine in the distant future who goes to the planet Pandora to assist with the native culture, the Na’Vi. His twin brother was a scientist helping out, but he’s been killed, and they need someone with the same genetic code for his brother’s avatar. Avatars are genetically engineered Na’Vi bodies with wi-fi brain link-ups.

MO: And basically, the military comes into conflict with the Na’Vi and the scientists.

LG: Now, Cameron loves building sci-fi universes, and this is his most intricate one. It’s not as intricate when it comes to the storyline, unfortunately. This is his environmental movie. It’s not the first message movie he’s done, but here it’s the most overt. We have problems with the last ten minutes of The Abyss. Imagine that scene dragged out to three hours, and you’ve got Avatar. A lot of my problems begin with the casting of Sam Worthington as the hero.

MO: He is the least charismatic actor who has ever lived, I swear.

LG: I worry about Sam Worthington. He looks sleepy or hungover or something. He never looks awake. He’s not engaging at all. He’s a total lump.

MO: His Australian accent is always coming through, too, but it’s a secondary problem compared to his lack of screen presence.

LG: I’ve seen other actors that are not charismatic. He is the first actor who has negative charisma.

MO: He is a black hole for charisma.

LG: He drains charisma away from any actor he’s standing next to, aside from Zoe Saldana, who’s very charming as the native princess.

MO: He’s perfectly OK when the dialogue is minimal in the early going or when he’s the avatar. But whenever we see his face or hear him give a speech, he’s boring. He’s essentially in a sci-fi coma throughout the film, since the avatars…it’s sort of a biometric wi-fi he goes through that leaves his human body asleep.  That’s almost symbolic for his performance.

LG: It’s interesting, though, that we learn late in the film that the whole planet is a biometric network, because it’s not built up at all. It’s a great idea, but we need more of it. My other big problem with the film is the Na’Vi. Their culture is very generic. There’s so much amazing production design in this film. It’s gorgeous. Cameron spent years making it…

MO: He waited until the technology was advanced enough to make it.

LG: And you can tell. He’s thought up the whole ecosystem of this planet…but when you get to the culture of the natives, it’s a generic mix of native cultures. It’s a pastiche of natives.

MO: It’s hokey and it’s nonspecific. They believe in nature, and that’s all I know. It’s this hokey New Age crap that I neither understand nor am I interested in. We don’t get to know any of them other than Neytiri, the princess, and even then, I’m uninterested.

LG: It helps that Zoe Saldana is very charming in the role. She’s the shining light of the film.

MO: She’s a presence. She’s got some chops.

LG: Based on this and her work in Star Trek, she’s got a lot of potential, and I want to see her in more stuff. Worthington, meanwhile, keeps getting cast in stuff…

MO: I don’t get it. He’s been cast as the hero so many times in so many movies, but he’s a complete non-presence.

LG: This, Terminator Salvation

MO: The two Clash of the Titans movies and Man on the Ledge, which has the worst title of any movie ever. It’s like they gave up. “There’s this guy on a ledge, what do we want to call the movie?” “Well, shit, how about Man on a Ledge?” “Good enough.”

LG: It’s as forgettable and generic as he is.

MO: Hey-o! But as for Avatar…it’s kind of a mix and match of sci-fi films. The big intricate world feels like it’s inspired by Star Wars, the biometric network is like something out of The Matrix, there’s some technology that reminds me of what Spielberg did in Minority Report (the touch-screens the scientists used, specifically), and there’s plenty of stuff from Cameron’s own films. People made comparisons between John Carter and Avatar, and they’re both inspired, to varying degrees, by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels, as are Star Wars and Superman (John Carter is a direct adaptation of Burroughs’ works).

LG: John Carter does it a lot better.

MO: I have a lot of similar problems, but yes. It’s actually goddamned fun.

LG: It’s not three hours long, it doesn’t have an environmental message to beat you over the head with, and it’s funny. There’s a great gag where Carter and his friends run across the planet to fight the bad guys only to find that they’re at the wrong camp, and they needed to go the other way. As disappointing as Taylor Kitsch is in that role, he’s not boring like Sam Worthington.

MO: There’s some problems with exposition in John Carter, but there’s a sense of fun and discovery throughout. Avatar has that for a little while: the first fifty minutes are pretty engaging. It turns into a coma when it gets to the Na’Vi stuff.

LG: My reaction to it when I saw it on IMAX 3-D was that I didn’t have to see it ever again. It was gorgeous, and the CGI and 3-D is at a level that it’ll take years to top, but the story is so draining and boring. Our pre-review screening was the first time since it came out, and for the first forty minutes I forgot about my criticisms and managed to have some fun. And then I remembered…

MO: Here’s how it works for me: I saw it in 2D. I was excited for it, but I grew bored quickly. When we saw it together in 3D, my opinion didn’t change. It’s great looking, he’s worked out most of the world and technology (although we have complaints), but I don’t care about anything.

LG: He has created a great platform to tell interesting stories, he just hasn’t managed to tell a good story. When Avatar 2 comes out, he needs to tell a more engaging story and get more specific about the Na’Vi culture. It’s in him, but he’s been out of the director’s chair for so long that it hurt him.

MO: But we’ve seen so many of these things done better. Like I said, I saw a lot of the human technology in Minority Report. The avatar-human connections is like The Matrix, only without the stakes. The motion capture is impressive, but we saw great motion capture with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and King Kong, which are better movies. It’s better than what Zemeckis has been doing with it, but that’s not saying much.

LG: We watched the extended edition, which we hoped would add some more specificity and stakes to it. For the first few minutes, I was really hopeful. There’s a new opening on earth that establishes the Blade Runner-like corporate-owned world. That’s pretty good. We get to learn more about who Jake Sully is. That’s pretty good. Sam Worthington isn’t so bad, we see that earth has been destroyed. We see Worthington, in a wheelchair, take on a big guy in a bar after the guy starts beating on a girl. The way he compensates for his disability while picking that bar fight is resourceful and endearing. I learned more about Jake Sully in those opening minutes than I did for any of the rest of the movie. There’s one other addition I like that shows the tensions between the scientists, the corporate world, and the Na’Vi, where we learn that the military shot up a school Sigourney Weaver was using to teach the Na’Vi English and stuff. It helps my understanding of the world. But not much else is added that’s very useful. There’s no specificity to the characters after that.2

MO: We started speculating on whether or not it’d be more engaging with a better actor at the center, since Cameron usually has a charismatic center to his movies. We threw out a few names: a younger Guy Pearce, Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal, James Franco, Chris Pine…but honestly, probably not. We know nothing about this character.

LG: He’s driven to the point of being self-destructive, but that’s not explored enough.

MO: Saldana is better, but what I know about her is basically that she’s the love interest.

LG: She's kind of cutely domineering at first but that's about it. Saldana is so good that you can overlook the blandness of her character.

MO: That worked better for you than it did for me.

LG: It did, but my point is that good actors can rescue dire material. Sam Worthington needs the light-up-in-the-eyes smile, which he just doesn’t have in this film.

MO: Cameron has been good at casting people in his films until now.

LG: I don’t know where he found this guy. It’s not like he was a rising star at the time. Terminator Salvation was filmed after Avatar (though it was released before), and up to this point he was most famous for an Australian version of Macbeth, which is weird.  I really want to see a good performance from this guy.

MO: We really don’t want to beat up on him. Acting is hard, it honestly is, and I hate beating up on actors over and over again.

LG: We want to see him be funny and likable, but he’s just not. Three years later we’re losing hope.

MO: The supporting cast isn’t much better. Michelle Rodriguez is brought in as a tough-girl marine with a conscience, almost like Vasquez, but she has no character.

LG: She is literally “Not Vasquez”.

MO: I don’t know anything about her other than the fact that she disobeyed orders.

LG: She disappears for about an hour of the film. There’s a few people who do that: they’re established only so they can disappear for a long time and come back when at the end.

MO: Sigourney Weaver plays…Sigourney Weaver, basically. She’s good, but she disappears for a long time, and her character is basically “I am a scientist”.

LG: She’s basically her character in Gorillas in the Mist. She hates the military, loves science, and that’s that. She’s charming enough to make it work for a little while. I also like Stephen Lang as the G.I. Joe villain. He’s a Space Racist who wants to kill the “blue monkeys”, and you know he’s a villain because he has a big scar on his face and he works out a lot. He has fun in the role, though we don’t see enough of him. Though, much as I like him, I would have loved to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in that role. How much fun would that have been?

MO: He was too busy being the Governator. And we don’t want to begrudge Lang the thing people will remember him for. Here’s my problem: Michael Biehn played the same reactionary jarhead in The Abyss, and that character was more interesting. He had a reason he was evil. He’s not the only recycled villain: Giovanni Ribisi basically plays Paul Reiser in Aliens. He’s the corporate lackey who’s evil…except Ribisi is terrible in this film. He’s terrible. Ribisi overplays every bit of this, though it doesn’t help that the script is awful.

LG: Paul Reiser had a character arc in Aliens. He’s not so bad at first, until we find out what he’s really like. Ribisi is there to do bad things from the get-go. He doesn’t care about the Na’Vi, he has kill trophies from before the events of the film. He has bows and arrows and dreamcatchers (yes, they’re that generically Native American). He’s there for unobtanium…now, we don’t know what unobtanium does, we just know it’s valuable and hard to get. It’s a technical term used in mining, but to actually call a metal that…

MO: It’s lazy. It’s like saying…”OK, we have this thing that can solve everything. It’s a widget!” “What does it do?” “IT’S A WIDGET!”. That’s all the explanation we get, basically.

LG: That could work if you committed to being silly, but it’s all done with a straight face.

MO: And there’s no struggle over it, sense of what it does, or what the Na’Vi feel about it.

LG: We could have one line! “This metal can save the earth by doing this”, and that’d be at least something. Now, I understand Cameron using shorthand for the sci-fi stuff going on in the movie to give the audience something familiar to hold onto. But to go so far and make them so recognizable is lazy. They’re an alien culture! Make them a little alien!

MO: They’re called “Na’Vi”! Like Native, or naïve. It’s so bad. It doesn’t help that the planet, meanwhile, feels totally underpopulated until we find out that there’s actually several other tribes (though they seem exactly the same as the one we saw) that haven’t been referenced before. There’s no dynamic we know about. Oh, and “Pandora” is the planet name.

LG: Nothing bad will happen at a place called “Pandora!”

MO: We’re not the first people to point out that this is basically Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai all over again. It’s another painfully reductive noble savage myth.

LG: Sorry about imperialism, but the one good white man will lead the natives to victory by being superior to them!

MO: And there’s none of the complexity we need.

LG: It’s condescending and annoying, though less so than The Last Samurai, where there’s a real culture you’re reducing.

MO: Well, yes, it’s not a terrible movie, just not very good. Another complaint: the dialogue is terrible and uninteresting. Cameron is known for his one-liners. I can’t name on. Not a one.

LG: Um…”I see you”?

MO: Yeah, and that’s awful…and reused from Titanic. And the narration is clunky and overly expository, there’s no forward momentum…even Titanic and The Abyss, which are slower than most Cameron films, have forward momentum and characters we care about.

LG: Now, Cameron’s films are usually well-structured. Cameron doesn’t do a lot of lulls. His films usually have some sort of a timetable in the story to keep them going but Avatar stops cold a lot. The film needs momentum especially near the end cause the climax of the film takes forever. Cameron’s ticking clocks usually get us going (“the ship is sinking”, “T-1000 is after us,” “the planet is going to blow up”). That’s a very good screenwriting move, but it’s nowhere here. Stephen Lang says “we should go in now, because it’ll be harder to do later”, or something like that, and it’s vague and not as effective. It’s not a very hard to invent a “we need to do this in three hours or we’re all dead” scenario. Instead, Cameron allows the characters way too much time to do other things, like recruit other tribes from the other side of the planet that we didn’t know about…we didn’t know there were more Na’Vi characters until the end of the movie, by the way…

MO: I was complaining that the planet was so underpopulated, and then there’s more? Why haven’t we seen them? Why don’t we know anything about them? What’s their stake in that magic tree I don’t care about?

LG: That tree…look, we’re environmentalists, but part of me clapped when the tree got blown up.

MO: Because something fucking happened. Here’s the thing: I agree with everything he’s saying about the Native Americans, the Iraq War, and the environment, but it’s all painfully simplistic.

LG: His stylistic tropes also get really silly in places. He does the blue smoke and water like he always does, but he has this new trick here where he desaturates almost to black and white. It’s so obvious and cheesy. It’s something you’d see in a bad videogame.

MO: That can be done well, obviously. I think of Saving Private Ryan.

LG: But that’s made by a director who had been making films consistently rather than taking time out.

MO: That’s my point. He seems to have lost touch with everything that made him great. There’s no kineticism, there’s no momentum, there’s no great characters or memorable one-liners, there’s no sense of humor, and there’s no fun. There’s nothing to hang your hat on other than the world of the film and visuals, which doesn’t interest me that much here.

LG: The eye-candy kept me going a little longer than it did for you, but after a while the problems with the film pile up. By the time he becomes a man in the Na’Vi society, I had pretty much checked out.

MO: There are so many plot holes in this thing that I was having trouble listing them all (and I can forgive plot holes). The scientists go off to avoid military interference…they can just leave? With a corporation and the military having such high stakes in this, they just let them go? Lang doesn’t do anything about it? Then there’s the bit where they bring up all the women in the Na’Vi tribe. But we don’t know any of them! We never see them, other than Neytiri and…Neytiri’s mother whose name I can’t remember. Who? We haven’t seen anyone.

LG: There aren’t too many we can remember…

MO: Jesus, Dances with Wolves had more Native American characters I knew.

LG: We don’t really get to know any of the other characters. It’s the world through two characters’ eyes, which can work, but you need to be a lot more specific.

MO: Why don’t we just start with the Na’Vi? We’ll learn a little bit about them, maybe. I don’t particularly care about them, but there’s something to work with there. Then there’s the Na’Vi spiritual network that isn’t explored at all. There’s Michelle Rodriguez abandoning the military and getting zero punishment for it.

LG: I assumed they arrested her too and she broke out, and they didn’t show it because she’s not a main character.

MO: We don’t get that. There’s the fact that the equipment for the avatar hookup is still there after they shut it down. They didn’t destroy it? Is their arrogance so great that they don’t consider Jake and his friends a threat?

LG: Here’s a problem I have with the technology. Cameron is usually great with showing how technology in his films works, but there are big questions I have regarding this avatar wi-fi thing. They go to a place where none where non of the other tech uplinks work, but their Na’Vi equipment still works. One sentence could explain it, but we get nothing. Bigger, though, is that they don’t explain the consequences if your avatar body dies. Basically, we know it was expensive. We don’t know what, if anything, happens to the person driving the body. Do they die, or have a schizoid embolism, or go into a coma?

MO: Again, one line would explain it.

LG: In The Matrix, it’s simple. You die in the Matrix, you die in real life. With those 10 words we know what’s at stake, and we worry about Neo getting shot at in the computer world.

MO: Hell, a year after this, Inception explains what happens if you die in a dream, and there are more complications later on. Here? What happens? It’s so vague, there are no stakes, and when we finally get some explanation it’s late in the film and we don’t understand.

LG: There’s a sequence where Jake has to claim his flying bird thing, and they’re wrestling on the edge of a giant cliff. If I knew that if the avatar body died something would happen to Jake, I might have been a little more invested. You need to set up the stakes of what happens if your body dies out there. For most of the film, as far as I knew, it’s “your body dies and you’re out of the game but otherwise unharmed.” That’s it.

MO: How about Jake’s arc? I don’t believe in any of the changes he goes through. He’s gung ho and doesn’t care about the Na’Vi until he does. Sam Worthington can’t project anything anyway, but the script just isn’t there. I’m not invested in his arc, his conversion is bullshit (it’s via narration), and it doesn’t work.

LG: He changes because the screenplay gods demand it.

MO: How about when he’s sent in to learn about the Na’Vi for the colonel? What is he doing for them? What is he learning that they don’t already know?

LG: They’ve been out there for at least twenty years. Probably more. Do they not have any other sort of intelligence? It’s very vague. I’d be more willing to buy it if it were done well, but it isn’t. His conversion you expect because it’s that kind of movie, but that’s the only reason it happens: it’s that kind of movie.

MO: By the end I was drained and disengaged, and I’ve been beaten over the head with this heavy-handed allegory. The death scenes for characters I don’t care about (who were barely introduced) go on forever…

LG: The horse has a death scene! The horse! I half expected Jake to have a flashback to all those great times he had riding that horse!

"Oh space-horse, how will I go on without you?"

MO: It looks great, but I don’t care, and by the end I’m ready to leave. And the song doesn’t help. You commented that you’ve never seen a theatre clear out as fast as during the “I See You” song. People think “My Heart Will Go On” is bad? This thing is just…the corniest...

LG: We got about four seconds into it this time. When we walked out of the theatre, I said that it was losing half-a-star for this.

MO: It’s just so bland. It doesn’t help that the melody provided by the score isn’t good. This is James Horner’s weakest score for Cameron. I couldn’t hum this if I tried.

LG: Well there’s bum-bubububum…no, you really can’t. It’s very generic. Horner has a lot of detractors, but he’s done some great work. And it’s not age. Howard Shore still does excellent work.

MO: As does John Williams, whenever Spielberg has something for him to do.

LG: I don’t think he was passionate about this.

MO: If he was, it didn’t come through.

LG: Now, we don’t hate this film. It’s still better than the Star Wars prequels.

MO: The storytelling is lazy, but the creation of the world and integration of the actors and characters in it isn’t. Whereas the Star Wars prequels are lazy all around, except for some of the creations, which feel like they were made to be toys.

LG: I really don’t need to see this again. I’m giving it a C.

MO: I’m giving it a C as well. This is easily Cameron’s weakest film, since Piranha II doesn’t count, nor do the underwater documentaries.

LG: I’m going to get on my John Carter soapbox because that film was a huge flop. It’s way better than Avatar. Whatever problems it had, I had fun, and I walked out with a huge smile on my face. I gave it an A- when I reviewed it because despite all it’s flaws, I still had fun.

MO: I gave it a B. I found it more problematic than you did in the storytelling, there were things in the world I didn’t understand, and I didn’t remember very many of the characters. But there’s a sense of discovery and fun to it that’s missing from Avatar. This thing just clatters and clangs. I compared Ridley Scott’s Legend to being the Avatar of the day: looks fantastic, well-realized world, but it’s hokey and clunky, and it moves at a snail’s pace. But even Legend was more engaging than this.

LG: I’m also worried. This film has suffered a huge backlash after being such a monster hit. I think a lot of the goodwill towards it was due to the novelty of the 3-D, which has worn off now. If Cameron wants Avatar 2 to be a hit, he’s going to have to either come back with a better, more involving story, or come up with an even more audacious world, which I’m not sure is possible.

MO: If he promises to kill off Sam Worthington’s character he’ll clinch a C+ from me.

LG: Or at least recast him. It’s sad that we have to end this on a down note, but the last twelve years has not been kind to his talent. One interesting anecdote I read is that he showed the film to a Native tribe in South America, who hated the film because they felt the answer of fighting these people with violence was wrong. Cameron said that this was interesting, and that maybe he’d incorporate that into the next film.

MO: Well it’s also the noble savage fallacy, where they’re all pure.

LG: They’re pure, the military is evil, and the scientists are science-y. There’s no shades of grey. You look at the history of Native American culture, they’re not all peaceful. There’s a lot of grey in there, and I would have loved to have had that, minus the condescending “white man has to save everything” plotline we see too often. It’s very lazy and played out and outdated.

MO: I would love to have seen more investment in the spirituality beyond the generic Native beliefs. Cameron is an atheist, but there’s some sort of New Age-y connection there, maybe. But it needs to be more specific.

LG: That’s the end of the James Cameron Roundtable. Hope you enjoyed our collaboration. I’m Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams.

MO: I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple.

LG: And to borrow from Arnold, “WE’LL BE BACK!”

MO: We certainly shall.

Loren’s Grade: C
Max’s Grade: C

That's it for our discussion of Avatar. If you agree or disagree, feel free to post your comments bellow. This also marks the end of our Cameron Roundtable collaboration. Thanks to the hundreds of readers who made the project a success on both our blogs. We'll be doing more collaborative reviews at some point in the future as soon as our schedule's align. In the meantime be sure and be sure to keep checking out this blog as well as Max's blog, The Film Temple for even more awesome movie criticism.

Other Installments in the Cameron Roundtable series:
Piranha II: The Spawning 
The Terminator
Aliens (Special Edition)
The Abyss (Special Edition)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
True Lies
Avatar (Extended Edition)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


For many The Dark Knight Rises the most eagerly awaited film of the year. Its predecessor was one of the most well liked action films of the last decade and everyone want’s to know if Christopher Nolan has done the impossible and topped The Dark Knight. In part one of this series, I theorized that a trilogy that measurably topped itself with each entry would win a sort of trilogy belt. We’ll get to that, but first lets talk about the film itself.

It’s been 8 years since the catastrophic events of The Dark Knight. Hero district attorney Harvey Dent is dead, and Batman has taken the fall for his crimes. A law passed in the wake of all this has rendered Gotham essentially crime free, but for our heroes, things are not so good. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is racked with guilt that he’s had to protect the legacy of a man who tried to kill his family. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is even worse. He’s got a bum leg and wanders around his once great mansion in a Howard Huges like solitude. Bruce is going to need all the help he can get because a new enemy named Bane (Tom Hardy) has moved into Gotham’s sewers with a secret army of mercenaries and one of the most diabolical evil plans to come along in a long time.

The film starts off a bit slower than its predecessors, taking a wider view of Gotham city. The slow burn nature of the plot feels necessary after the anarchic chaos and implication heavy ending of the last film and while not all of the plot’s multitude of moving parts work (the McGuffin is introduced very messily), the slower buildup gives us a better idea what Gotham, this city Bruce cares so much about, is like. We meet a young beat cop John Blake (Joesph Gordon Levett) who does a lot of the legwork putting the mystery together. We also meet Selina Kyle, A.K.A. Catwoman (Ann Hathaway), a mysterious cat burglar who knows more about what’s going on than she lets on.

Ultimately things get really dark. Without giving too much away, Gotham eventually becomes a dystopia of sorts. There is massive social upheaval and class warfare, but it’s not Occupy being invoked so much as the Reign of Terror, complete with kangaroo courts. The films have always had some sort of political subtext but it’s a shift in away from the Bush era Ends vs. Means undertones of the last few films. The second half of the film still plays out like the worst nightmare of the War on Terror generation. As such the film looses some moral ambiguity but surprisingly, it isn’t missed too much.

The actors all do a nice job. All the major supporting characters return and do a fine job even though some of them have less screen time. People who are bothered by Christian Bale's bat-voice will still find no relief. The new players acquit themselves well. Ann Hathaway is the best new addition and plays Catwoman as something of a female Han Solo. Tom Hardy was the perfect choice to play Bane. Hardy is an actor with excellent control over his physicality which is useful here as he needs to imbue a character who’s face is completely covered with a cold intellect.

Ultimately this is a better film than then it’s predecessors. It succeeds where Dark Knight stalls. There are no clunky action scenes and it seems that Nolan has, at long last, truly arrived as an action filmmaker. The film is full of beautifully done, lip biting sequences. The mid-air extraction that opens the film may be the greatest Bond style prologue ever captured on film. The siege of Gotham sequences at the end of the film make for some incredible, silent movie epic level spectacle that makes Avengers look like a mid-budget indie film.

Beyond showing us that Nolan has finally, unquestionably nailed his action scenes, Nolan has also grown as a dramatic filmmaker. The first half of the film has some legitimate issues, but Nolan builds to one of the best constructed third acts he’s has ever done. More importantly the film has an earned emotional resonance that hasn’t been present in his work since Memento and perhaps The Prestige. The tragic elements in this film work on an emotional level where as the same elements of the last film felt a little too “thesis statement” for my taste.

As for whether or not Rises is better than Dark Knight and earns the so-called trilogy belt I theorized about in part one of this series, the answer is a firm, absolute “debatable.” Rises is a better film than Dark Knight, but ultimately I’m not sure I like it more. The antagonism between Batman and Bane isn’t as intense as it was between Batman and Joker. That said, I don’t think it was meant to be. Joker’s plan was to expose Batman and his allies as frauds. For Bane, Batman is a minor concern. Someone to be gotten out of the way and that has a massive impact on the dynamic of the film. It’s not that the later approach is worse, but it’s different and it reveals that the city of Gotham is the real main character in the film. Then there is the ending. Without spoiling it, the finale takes a few unexpected directions. They are not bad directions and they are set up very well, but your satisfaction levels may vary.

The more I sit with this film, the more I like it, but I don’t like it enough to award it a Trilogy Belt, but that’s okay. The trilogy goes out with a bang and brings the series to a memorable and satisfactory conclusion. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t the film we wanted, but it’s the film we deserve. 

 Grade: A- 

Note: About 70 minutes of the film was photographed in IMAX and undisclosed percentage of the remainder was shot on traditional 70 mm film and the results are breathless. Seeing the film in the format, to the extent that Nolan uses it is a great treat that should be enjoyed by anyone who can. In an age where the industry is shifting towards lower resolution digital photography, it's reassuring to see Nolan moving the other way towards sharper, brighter, bigger images.

Be sure to check out our page on Facebook and to read parts one and two of this serries:
Entries in this series:
The Dark Knight Rises 

Friday, July 20, 2012


There’s a lot of hype and trepidation about The Dark Knight Rises as to whether or not it will conclude the trilogy with a bang or a whimper. If he does, Nolan will be the first director in 50 years to create a trilogy that tops itself with each entry. Such a feat is akin to a world heavyweight championship of film, to the winner goes the trilogy belt (explained more fully in part one of this series).

Nolan has more than history working against him, he also has the 2nd installment of his trilogy, The Dark Knight,which whatever its flaws is certainly one of the most unique and relentlessly entertaining blockbusters of late.

It’s been a year since Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) took up the mantle of Batman and hit the streets of Gotham to start a war on crime. In his crusade he has joined forces with Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the newly elected DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckheart) who's currently dating Bruce's love interest Rachel (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Batman and co. have had some solid results. Together they’ve managed to deprive the Gotham mob of its accountant and along with him go all their finances, but there’s a new complication in the form of the Joker (Heath Leger), a punk rock, psychotic super crook bent on nothing less than the obliteration of Gotham’s soul.

Complication is the key word of Dark Knight. The film is a relentless series of horrors. The highly episodic plot never slows down. A great villain exists to put the hero through the ringer, Nolan understands this and treats the film like a Shock & Awe campaign, never letting the audience get comfortable. Many films use a sort of ticking time-bomb to accelerate the 3rd act. This film seems to have them every five minutes. Joker issues an ultimatum that people will die every day Batman doesn’t reveal his identity. Later, two main characters are kidnaped and Batman must choose who to save. Joker orders the city to kill a man in an hour or he blows up a hospital, etc. This tactic makes the film a wonderfully nerve racking experience. Every time you think Joker has run out of evil schemes, he pulls something even more diabolical out of his hat. The fact that the film doesn't collapse by the end or run out of juice is a huge testament to how well much of this film works.

What doesn’t always work is the drama. Dark Knight is ultimately supposed to be a tragic film about men who pin all their hopes on an all too human savior. This is all very thoroughly explained to us in the films worst scene where Bruce, Rachel and Dent sit around a table an talk to the audience about the films themes. It’s a shame that a film with such an ingenious structure has to resort to such condescending exposition. Also the tragic parts are underwritten. Perhaps I’m too familiar with the comics to be surprised about what happens to Harvey Dent, but I still should have felt something. It’s as if the characters invest more in Dent than the film is able to. It’s not as if the film doesn’t have time, Dent is on screen long enough, but that thread only works on an intellectual level and not necessarily an emotional one.

Nolan’s technical skills took a measurable step up with this film. He starts to play with sound in interesting ways. Being an action film, there are naturally a lot of loud bangs, but Nolan contrasts this by dialing back at times to the point that there are snippets of complete silence that really force us to look more fully at the image. Those images are better than ever, he and his cinematographer Wally Pfister have sharpened their visuals a lot for this film. The last film made a huge jump towards "realism" but still had a foot in the overly designed world of the old Batman films (the trains, the backlots). Dark Knight makes more extensive use of location shooting (mostly using Chicago as Gotham) and it really works like gangbusters.

Nolan’s ability to conceive and shoot action sequences has improved measurably. There are some memorable show stoppers here. The opening bank heist and the extraction of the mob accountant from Hong Kong are particular standouts. But while Nolan’s ability to edit these scenes aren’t always up to snuff (this video goes into excruciating detail as to why), they’re still extremely effective on a visceral level. The fist fights are better photographed this time out. The camera has been pulled back and you can actually see Batman hitting people this time. That said, there are still some clunkers. Late in the film there’s a gimmick involving sonar vision. Now there are some gadgets in these films that are totally plausible (sky hook), and some stuff that it’s better not to think to hard about. Of the later group, Batman’s sonar vision strains credibility the most. Worst of all it’s an ugly, disorienting gimmick that really detracts from the enjoyment of the film.

This whole scene is a headache.

Now whereas Batman Begins was an example of the superhero formula done about as well as it can be done (despite some flaws). The Dark Knight is all about changing perceptions of the genre. Dark Knight has very little to do with the standard superhero movie. It’s much more like a crime film that happens to have a superhero in it. It’s clear that it’s not Iron Man but film’s like Micheal Mann’s Heat that are the film’s closest cousin. Now in comparison to Heat it doesn’t quite measure up, but it’s a relatively fair fight most of the time.

One of the things evening out the playing field is Heath Leger as Joker. It's been 4 years since Dark Knight came out so there's nothing really left to say about the performance other than wowie wow wow! It's a very twitchy performance but his intense, calculating gaze keeps him down to earth. Also it's just an interesting character, he isn't evil just for the sake of it, he's an armchair shrink out to prove his theories of human existence and shake up the established order. Most of all he wants to expose Batman as a fraud. The thing is, Joker is kinda right. As the film goes on, Batman seems more and more willing to cross lines to stop Joker. Like Dirty Harry, he tortures suspects, breaks legs, even wire-taps the entire city and barely stops for a second to consider it. Like in the last film, he also has to decide if he's going to go all the way and become a murderer. (Spoilers for that 1 person who still hasn't seen this movie) First, he throws Joker off the side of a building but saves him. This is an improvement over his behavior in the first film where he left Ra's Al Ghul to an almost certain death. Perhaps he felt that he would have been more directly responsible for Jokers death seeing that it was him who personally threw him. Or perhaps Nolan didn't want to reenact the ending of Burton's '89 film too closely. Later, after the Joker has been apprehended, Batman learns that Dent has gone insane and has kidnapped Gordon's family. In that scene Batman finally, explicitly, directly kills someone. We can argue that it was justified, but again, the point is that Batman breaks his most important rule and he'll have more trouble rationalizing it this time, and even though Batman finds a way to salvage some dignity, it's very clear that Joker has essentially won. Batman gets torn down, he breaks his rules, loses his objectivity and discipline and even worse his legacy as a force for good is ruined. Batman finds a way to salvage a win, but it feels like a hollow one. (end spoilers)

The dramatic elements of Dark Knight are sometimes hit and miss, but Nolan still manages to tell an amazingly entertaining yarn. Like Begins, it feels a little essayish at times but is emencely entertaining with some interesting moral quandaries. It's a superior sequel that elevates the genre. 2008 was an important year for the comic book movies, Dark Knight and Hellboy II ushered the super-hero genre into more ambitious, more adult territory. It's a shame that the rest of the industry hasn't followed suit.

Grade: A-

Entries in this series:
The Dark Knight

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