Archive for the ‘Why [classic movie] is an over-rated pile of dung’ category

Why Avatar Is an Over-Rated Pile of Dung

January 22, 2010

As I said in my last postAvatar has earned the dubious distinction of becoming a part of my “Over-Rated Pile of Dung” series even before it has left theaters for the first time.  This represents a concession: Avatar will go down as a classic.  Just writing that made me pull out half my hair (I’m saving the other half for when Avatar wins the Academy Award for Best Picture).  So, I’m preemptively going to explain why it doesn’t deserve to be a classic and should, instead, be permanently stricken from pop-culture.

Since I reviewed Avatar so recently, I don’t want to just repeat the critiques that I outlined there, so I’m going to take a slightly different approach.  I’m going to humor all of the idiots out there (Steven Spielberg among them) who have favorably compared Avatar to Star Wars.  So, let’s look at the similarities that the two films share – I’ll start with the praise:

1.  Ground breaking special effects – This is the one place that I will say Avatar shines, although even then it’s largely over-rated.  I will admit that the technology that allowed James Cameron to capture the performances of living actors and then transpose those performances onto CGI characters was original and impressive (whether or not any of those performances were worth capturing is another question).

What so many fans of Avatar seem to forget, though, is that James Cameron didn’t invent CGI or 3-D film-making.  Sure, he might have pushed the limits of what CGI had done before, but so has just about every major CGI movie of the past decade or so.  And 3D movies have been around for decades.  In both of these regards Avatar just seems like an incremental step rather than a paradigm shift.  The special effects in Star Wars changed the way movies were made.  The special effects in Avatar will do nothing of the sort.

2.  Original Aesthetics – It’s easy to forget since we’ve seen so many copies of it in the past thirty years, but Star Wars‘ “used universe” look was completely original back in 1977.  We hadn’t seen anything like it.

The colorful jungles of Avatar?  Nothing new.  The Jungle Book, Pocahontas, the Star Wars prequels, heck, last summer’s Up all used some variation of bright saturated colors in natural surroundings to try to give a simultaneously familiar and exotic look.  The overall color palate was eye-catching, sure, but so is the color pallet of Lady Gaga’s wardrobe, that doesn’t mean I want to stare at it for three hours.

3.  Imagination – Wookies, TIE-Fighters, Lightsabers, R2-D2, Jawas – Star Wars was full of iconic characters, vehicles, and creatures.  Sure, George Lucas has been grasping at straws ever since but, for a brief period in the late 70s and early 80s, his mind seemed to be bursting with completely original ideas that are still instantly recognizable as belonging to the Star Wars universe all these years later.

Avatar does nothing but recycle old ideas.  Sure, the creatures that the Navi ride have six legs and nostrils in their necks, but at their core they’re still just horses.  The flying creatures are just pterodactyles with an extra set of wings.  The giant land creatures that run crashing through the jungle are just overgrown bulls with hammer-head shark noses.  And if 18th century caricatures of Native Americans ever somehow mated with Smurfs, and someone pumped the resulting love-children full of growth hormone, the Navi just might be the result.  Cameron’s imagination is so used up that he even recycles the mechanical suit that Ripley uses to fight the alien in Cameron’s own Aliens.  That’s right, he’s had twenty five years to come up with something new but, apparently, was too busy giving Celine Dion an excuse to make overly-sentimental soundtracks to actually have an original idea.

4.  Politics – Okay, most of us don’t think of Star Wars as a political movie, but it did contain some simple political messages.  It’s a celebration of the power of the individual and the inner self over a mechanized society aiming for homogeneity (meaning that, thirty years later, we could still learn something from Star Wars).  Sure, as a message it’s pretty simple.  But that’s what makes it effective and enduring – Lucas realized that the archetypal, pulp entertainment aesthetic of his movie wasn’t conducive to complicated political interventions.  To try to force it would just be laughable.

Which is exactly what Avatar‘s politics are: utterly and completely laughable.  Big corporations are bad!  Oh no!  Everyone in the military (except the token woman) is evil!  Oh my!  Nature is good!  Hooray!  Science will save us!  Yippee!  Colonization is dastardly!  Oh dear!  When Cameron incorporated lines straight out of Dubya’s mouth I just cringed.  I’m sure there are plenty of pseudo-liberals who just gobbled that stuff up (most people in Hollywood, for instance), but its lack of sophistication and complexity ultimately fails to make any kind of meaningful political statement.

And, really, how could it?  The problems that we’re facing as a society are complex, detailed, and specific.  The simple black/white, good/evil dichotomies of Avatar just aren’t up to the task of engaging the current political moment any more than Star Wars was equipped to take on The Vietnam War or Watergate.  Lucas new this, and steered clear.  Cameron didn’t, and ended up insulting liberals and conservatives alike, not to mention Native Americans, who Cameron apparently still thinks are nothing more than nature loving noble-savages.

Of course, the similarities between Star Wars and Avatar go beyond the praise that people lavish upon them.  They also extend to some of the common critiques of the films.  Here are some examples:

1.  Predictability – It doesn’t take long for most audiences to figure out the basic narrative trajectory of both films.  Lucas, though, gets away with it because the predictability was part of the point.  He was consciously drawing on archetypal narratives following his discovery of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Then, he combined that with his love of matinee serials like Flash Gordon.  The story was supposed to be predictable.  What kept Star Wars fresh and exciting was all of the imagination that I’ve already mentioned.  We’ve seen the hero’s journey before, but we’ve never seen that hero accompanied by a Wookie and a beeping three-legged trash can of a robot.

Star Wars also benefited from Lucas’ sense of pacing.  He knew that his narrative arc was familiar, so he kept things moving.  There’s some kind of action almost every ten minutes, but the action never lingers – the heroes get out of one scrape and then land in a new one.  Furthermore, he didn’t overstay his welcome – Star Wars clocks in at a very reasonable 120 minutes.

Avatar is almost three hours.  Cameron doesn’t keep things moving.  He lingers.  And lingers.  And lingers.  It isn’t just that we know how the whole story is going to end, we know how individual scenes are going to end, sometimes twenty to thirty minutes before they finally, mercifully come to a close.

But the reason that we know how they’ll end has nothing to do with an homage to classic pulp narratives or to Cameron’s understanding of archetypal figures.  We know how they’ll end because James Fenimore Cooper wrote this story two hundred years ago.  Then Kevin Costner made a movie out of it in 1990.  Then Disney turned it into a cartoon in 1995 (and got a lot of criticism for their portrayal of Native Americans, I might add).  This recurring noble-savage/Pocahontas story isn’t grounded in archetypes that have been around as long as the act of storytelling, it’s grounded in racism that’s been around since the establishment of our country.  As such, this isn’t a narrative that needs to be retold any more than it’s a narrative that takes three hours to tell.

2.  Bad Dialog – Maybe this is why Cameron chose to quote Dubyah – the woodenness of the former President’s speeches fits seamlessly with the woodenness of Cameron’s script.  On this point, though, I will admit that Star Wars isn’t any better.  The dialog in Star Wars is often quite bad.  So congrats to Avatar, it finally matched Star Wars in something.

3.  Bad Acting – Again, congrats to Avatar, it is the equal of Star Wars on this point as well.  That being said, Harrison Ford brings a natural charisma to his role and Alec Guiness was superb as always.  The closest thing Avatar can boast is Sigourney Weaver, who gives it an honest effort but doesn’t have enough screen time (and when she does, she usually has to fight through a CGI Smurf suit) to carry what is otherwise a horrible collection of acting talent.  Carrie Fisher could blame it on drugs – I’m waiting to find out what the cast of Avatar will use as an excuse.

So that about does it.  Avatar resembles Star Wars in only the worst ways.  Ironically, Star Wars was a low-budget film, costing roughly 10 million dollars, whereas Avatar had a bloated (and wasted) 280 million dollar price tag.  While Lucas made film history through ingenuity and creativity, Cameron made the most technologically advanced film ever by simply buying the most advanced technology.  Apparently he also bought a few Golden Globes and, probably, some Academy Awards to boot.  None of this, though, will change the fact that Avatar is an Over-Rated Pile of Dung.

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Why The Big Lebowski is an Over-rated Pile of Dung

December 11, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Also, I am aware that The Big Lebowski has a large and passionate following, and that this post might put me in danger of physical mob violence (or would if mobs of people actually read my blog – needless to say, I’ll sleep easy tonight).  As such, I decided to re-watch the movie just to make sure that I wasn’t missing something the first time I saw it.

I wasn’t.

In fact, rather than finding anything new I actually found something entirely and disappointingly familiar.  Lebowski is, when all is said and done, a stoner movie.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I don’t think I realized this the first time I watched it because it’s a stoner movie hidden underneath a pretty thick veneer of faux-wittiness and clever (not the same as funny) film-making.  But in the end, this is simply a stoner movie.

As such, it suffers from the same flawed premise that hinders most stoner movies: while it is often inherently funny to be high, it isn’t inherently funny to be around someone who’s high – in fact, it’s often incredibly dull and/or frustrating.

Now, I realize that there is actually not a lot of pot smoking going on in Lebowski (the White Russians get a lot more camera time), but Lebowski (or “The Dude”) himself is clearly a typical burn-out: he likes to drink/get high, he’s a dead-beat, he’s harmless, he finds everything a little bewildering, and he’d get along with everyone else a lot better if they’d just be as chill as he is.  So, yes, he’s a burn-out.  And, no, that isn’t funny.

I also realize that the rest of the characters don’t fit the burn-out mold.  In fact, they are really anti-burn-outs; characters who are so un-“chill” that their manic intensity (whether it be about bowling, artistic pretensions, or Vietnam) stands in stark contrast to The Dude’s complete lack of ambition.  Their humor lies in their being foils to The Dude and what he represents.  As a result, the film simply wastes their potential for humor since they are meant to highlight the inherent funniness of The Dude – a funniness that isn’t there.

Take, for instance, one of the film’s most beloved characters.  I’ll be the first to admit that the notion of a brightly dressed pedophile who calls himself “The Jesus” and takes his bowling way too seriously is ripe with comedic potential.  In fact, just writing that last sentence made me chuckle.  But, ultimately, the film doesn’t do much more with this notion than my sentence did.  Instead, it uses The Jesus and the absurd passion he has for crushing his bowling opponents to further highlight Lebowki’s nonchalance.  In other words, The Jesus only exists to make us more aware of The Dude as a burn-out.

Which isn’t funny.

And this was, repeatedly, the problem I had with the movie – the humor of each character was dependent on that character’s interaction with The Dude and the The Dude just wasn’t interesting or original enough to bear that burden.

This was even true of the movie’s visual style.  As I’ve said before, the Coen brothers have a special talent for capturing unusual aesthetics and finding beauty in what we would normally consider the mundane.  In Lebowski that aesthetic centers around the bowling alley and I will be the first to admit that this is probably the most beautiful (and yet still genuine) depiction of a bowling alley I’ve ever seen.

But the question remains: why should I care about a representation of a bowling alley?  Again, the answer is the The Dude.  The film’s striking (no pun intended) representation of the bowling alley highlights Lebowski’s desire to be left alone to waste his life rolling a ball at some pins.  Once again, I don’t find that inherently funny and so, once again, the film wastes its own potential on a flawed central character.

I do want to be clear about one thing, though.  I don’t think the failure of The Dude is in any way a comment on Jeff Bridges’ performance, which was outstanding.  In fact, all of the performance were outstanding.  As were so many other aspects of the film.  Everything was well done and cleverly (again, clever and funny aren’t the same thing) put together.  But, in the end, all that this effort accomplished was to very effectively convey what it’s like to be around a burn-out.  Unfortunately, that means that the film left me a little bored, a little frustrated, and intensely aware of wasted potential.

Why Halloween is an Over-Rated Pile of Dung

October 31, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Since today marks the greatest day of the year, I thought it only appropriate to celebrate that day by decrying the awfulness of the movie that shares its name.

In many ways, Halloween exemplifies several of the things that I generally don’t like about movies.

As I’ve mentioned before, one reason I hate movies is that they set me up for disappointment, and Halloween was no exception.  In addition to being named after my favorite holiday, the movie also gets off to a tremendous start – we get a first person perspective of a murder, only to eventually learn that we’ve been looking through the eyes of a young boy; a young boy who hacks people to death with knives.  Even I will admit – that’s good cinema.

But after such a promising start, the movie quickly goes downhill.  Of course, after starting with momentum, the movie has to slow down and catch its breath for a while.  However, over the course of the next hour or so the movie manages to catch its breath, lower its heart rate, and eventually take a nap on the couch (which is what I ended up wanting to do).  Cars driving down the street slowly and young women looking nervous and peering over their shoulders doesn’t build tension, it isn’t interesting, and it isn’t scary.  It’s boring.  For most of this movie I had to fight the temptation to grab the remote and just fast forward.

When the movie finally does start to pick up, another of my pet movie peeves rears its ugly head.  When Jamie Lee Curtis is running away from the incredibly slow, plodding psychopath, does she bolt down an open street, looking for crowded places with people who might be able to help her?  No, she runs to her own empty home, goes upstairs, and nullifies her greatest advantage: speed (of course, she does finally do the sensible after she’s fallen down the stairs and hurt her leg, thus nullifying the one thing she had going for her).  Then, when she still somehow manages to survive the attack by Michael Myers, and ends up stabbing him a few times, does she do the sensible thing and make sure he’s dead and take the knife with her as a precaution?  Of course not.  Instead, she walks away and lays the knife down next to the still living body.

When I point these things out to fans of the film, though, I tend to get one of two responses: either “you’re missing the intentional silliness of the film – it’s supposed to be a little ridiculous” or “those things seem stupid now because they’ve become horror movie cliches, but this was the film that started them.”  As I’ve said before, these excuses just don’t fly with me.  I am a huge fan of ridiculousness, but, as I pointed out long ago, there is a big difference between the ridiculous and the inane and Halloween is definitely an example of the latter.  If this movie is supposed to be a little bit awful, then shame on it for accomplishing its goal.

And to claim that we should forgive Halloween for using these inane, contrived devices because it was the first to do so is equally absurd.  After all, the Beatles introduced plenty of musical ideas that have, over the years, become cliches.  But, in those old Beatles recordings, these ideas really work – only after years of repetition in the hands of lesser musicians have these cliches become annoying and tiresome.  And even then, when I go back and listen to those old Beatles recordings, those ideas still feel fresh despite the baggage that now accompanies them.

But after watching Halloween I didn’t feel that I was witnessing the inspired birth of a set of conventions that have devolved as a result of over use by lesser artists.  Instead, I felt that I finally knew who to blame for inflicting a bunch of contrived nonsense on horror audiences for the past few decades.  I think no more highly of the creators of Halloween for introducing these stupid contrivances than I do of early American settlers and slave traders for setting the tone for centuries of racism.

Instead, like racism, I wish this movie had just never existed.