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Rating History

Avatar (2009)
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I am the last person in the world to see "Avatar". Okay, maybe not, but I'm probably not far off.

So what do I finally think of the biggest (non-adjusted) money-maker in the history of film?

It is, as has often been remarked, a great achievement in the realm of translating real performances through cgi 'Avatars' so to speak. The uncanny valley has never been this close to being breached before, and that's no small achievement.

Also to the film's great credit is the deft way in which complex action scenes are handled and choreographed, shot and composed. In an age where scatter-shot visuals supplant real action, Cameron always keeps a wonderful sense of space and place - something all good action directors know and live by.

This is all wonderful and fantastic stuff. It's just not the underlying reason I go to the movies. I go first and foremost for the story

I can hear it already: "Can't you just sit back and enjoy the EXPERIENCE?" Of course. I loved Cloverfield. That was a textbook roller-coaster ride, and it really did try to do something different from a narrative perspective by taking up the point of view of what it was like to be under Godzilla's foot instead of following the scientists, generals and other important folk from above or at a distance.

Here, all the innovation is technical and visual. The experience is not unlike watching the most visually stimulating Saturday morning cartoon you're ever likely to see. You'll remember that you enjoyed the experience at the time, but the story leaves your head as quickly as the (tin) dialog enters your ears. It's strictly paint-by-numbers. The good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black, and while I am speaking metaphorically, they could've literally had wardrobe make that call and it wouldn't have felt any more or less heavy-handed for it.

It's the "Noble Savage" stock storyline which ultimately harms "Avatar", or rather it's strict adherence to it. Taken at face value, this storyline sets up the main conflict as being between a race of near saints with a race of near devils. Oftentimes, this runs as an excuse to dispense with character development. And this happens in spades with 'Avatar'. Why is Col. Quarich and 99.99% of the rest of the marines so enthusiastically eager to commit genocide? They're human, and what's worse, they're military so of course they're blackhearts why should we expect more? Because it's flat and lazy characterization.

On the flip-side, what we learn of the Na'vi is that they have little internal conflict to speak of, and no predominant or significant flaw throughout their culture. While one may argue that their physical connected-ness makes them more harmonious, it also makes them less relatable. A perfect character is a dull character.

Lastly, though it has been mentioned elsewhere, I can't let it go when I see yet again a situation which could have easily been avoided, or at least put-off with more plausibility, a character keep quiet with CRITICAL information which might actually give the saintly species a moment of self-reflection and self-searching.

The whole purpose of Jake's original mission is to get the Na'vi to peacefully grant access to the mineral which we find out later might save the earth and untold billions of lives. But telling them of that sympathetic (or at least pitiable) plight might cause divisions. Some Na'vi still might refuse aid and that would make them less than perfect. Others might want to offer assistance, and the possible rejection from their peers and the risk that represents can carry weight which translates into more fleshed out characterizations.

All of this is left on the wayside. Instead, we have marines shouting "git some" which was more entertaining when it was Bill Paxton's Pvt. Hudson shouting crazy talk and was allowed a small amount of characterization. In fact, much of what Cameron has chosen to recycle from his previous films was done better the first time he did them.

Of all the narrative aspects of the film, the one that showed the most promise of actually reaching above stock and formula, was that of the performers themselves really throwing themselves into their roles (with the odd exception of Sigourney Weaver, who is the last cast member I would have thought would resort to uninspired line readings). Zoe Saldana offers probably the most heartfelt performance - through pixels no less - in Neytiri.

The merger between her physical performance and it's translation to film (as is the translation of all the other digitized characters) is the real star of the film. It's just disappointing that I caught myself thinking rather of what other directors could do with this advancement in CGI rather than the film I was watching. The future of storytelling holds so much potential from this and I sooo want to see this stuff put into a film that cares as much about engaging the audience on a character and story level as much as the visual level.

Yes, films are visual experiences, but not solely visual. They are audio-visual narrative experiences. The most beautiful painting in the world can only hold the attention for a few minutes, and even a painting can generate a narrative connection with the viewer. Films being of much longer length need to work a lot harder at developing that narrative element because that's what keeps people coming back. That's what separates the special from the average.

In summation, Avatar was a frustrating experience for me. Aesthetically brilliant, but hollow in so many more important ways.

Inception (2010)
7 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It has taken a bit of time (and two viewings) to be able to say with confidence that Inception ranks in the top 3 films I've ever seen. It's not that I didn't know it was good right away, but the magnitude takes time to sink in. Puzzle pieces which at first remained scattered, stuck in the mind after viewing, until hours later, they found their home in the overall picture. I can't think of an instance where the film's most emotional beat hit me several hours after the film ended.

Much has been discussed about the films' intellectual bona-fides. Being a Chris Nolan film, this is pretty much to be expected, but the level and degree of attention demanded is above and beyond any film I've seen prior. Upon the first viewing, I felt as if I grasped about 60 percent of the films' concepts and structure. Ordinarily, this would cause someone like me to feel negatively , but I felt surprisingly upbeat, and the film nagged at me for hours afterward, prompting a quick second viewing the day after, upon which I can gladly say that I comprehend about 95% of the story (and am settling on the meaning of the ending).

But the beauty of the film is that it literally allows the audience to decide the meaning. This is not a cheat here, nor is it an 'easy out'. The ending, described as a 'twist' by some is in reality, is that rare open door left by a director who has given you plenty of raw material to draw upon, and even nudging encouragement along the journey to prepare you for forming your own ideas of it. I have assembled about three different themes from the film, each as good as the last and all equally valid. This is a heady way for a director to establish a relationship to his audience. It makes you an equal partner in the process. Nothing is spoon-fed in the way that Hollywood seems to believe that we need to have all our food pre-chewed for us. Nolan's films all have been building this trust to various degrees, but none more-so than this. All the ingredients are there, and all the pieces fit. When they come together, the satisfaction is intense.

Normally I am pleased when a film at least lets you verify one or two layers of logic below the surface before the inherent nature of fiction brings the reality (dream?) of that universe into question. The worst films don't even bother with making the most obvious surface work. Nolan's intricate layering in Inception actually makes its logic solid for as many layers deep as its protagonists travel into the subconscious of their target, and I can't think of anything which fails to fit into the rules which are established by the narrative. If there are violations of the rules (and fiction demands that eventually there must be), I think I'd hurt my brain pushing it to the level required to find them.

It's not necessary though. The film more than stands on its own enough that one can stop looking for the crack in the facade and simply enjoy the marvel of what was accomplished (ironically enough, this is one sentiment which is mirrored in the film's last scene), allowing you instead to focus on the overall thematic content.

It's funny, but as the characters play out their heist-in-reverse to implant an idea into their 'mark', so too does the film subtly plant its own ideas on the nature of ideas and reality into the mind of its audience.

Highly recommended. A film which will be studied, analyzed and debated for a long time to come.

Cloverfield (2008)
9 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

How can I describe this film? Others have had a hard time doing so, but I believe I've got it nailed.

You know that nightmare you get sometimes where you're always running from something? Something terrifying? There might be a respite here and there, but before you know it, and without warning, you're in imminent danger again and coming [i]very[/i] close to being "killed". You know how it goes, how you can wake up in a start and need to take a moment to regain your senses?

That nightmare is this film - without the waking up part. J.J. Abrahms just produced this one.

The movie has tapped into something so primal it works at that level of fear and anxiety. A lot of that has to do with the hand-held camera approach, which while irritating in other movies, is absolutely indispensable in this film. It gives you an immediacy to the events that simply cannot be replicated with any standard film making technique.

Bottom line: If you're looking for a city-stomping monster film, this film wins the gold medal amongst all such movies to date. The movie also comes in at a brisk running time, so even when there are lulls, they don't last long. Heck, even the lulls often still contain the distant audio pounding of monsterous activity combined with the very loud efforts of the military to neutralize it.

Speaking of sound, this quality of it here aided in no small measure to the immersive qualities of the film. I'm talking Oscar caliber work here. It's not often I take special note of something like the sound, so when I do it's either because it's very, very good or the opposite.

I found the handycam approach to be not quite as bad as other movies employing a shakey cam techniques (like whole swaths of the Bourne movies, which I also enjoyed by the way). I still reccomend sitting towards the back of the theater to minimize sickness. I noticed a few people leave the screening who were seated further up. Those who remained for the whole screening, however, responded with serious applause, myself included.

The movie does exactly what it sets out to do: Scare the hell out of you. And it does it really, really well. A lot of films don't live up to the hype. Here is a pleasant (if you can call it that) exception to that rule.