Thursday, December 31, 2009

Even Cat People Get the Blues

So I saw Avatar. And after seeing the trailer for Clash of the Titans, I find it pretty hilarious that here's a Sam Worthington movie where his entire job description involves blending in to an environment. Specifically (that is, if you've been living under a rock the last six months) the environment of the planet Pandora and its blue catlike inhabitants, the Na'vi.

First things first. Visuals, since that's what this is, primarily, and the majority of the critical acclaim which Avatar has received has focused on those amazing visuals as well as its innovative use of 3D. I was worried initially I'd get an an absolutely titanic headache watching this, based on my limited experience with 3D movies before, but this article set me straight. I had no problems, except on occsion with closeup shots. Anything shot at middle distance, provided you just trust Cameron and let your eye go where he wants, works fine. The landscapes are gorgeous. The action is fantastic and there's a minimum of BOO! GOTCHA! 3D work.

The whole 3D thing raises questions of its own about the future of movies. Movies went color long before TV, and fifty years ago, threatened by infiltration of TV into every American household, movies went bigger. Specifically, wider. And at $10 a ticket, $5 for popcorn and a zip-dandy recession, 3D is here to stay. And if the above article is any indication, it may change entirely how shots are framed and composed.

So this movie looks amazing. Amazing. Not only is it simply pretty, but Cameron and his art department have taken great pains to depict a completely alien ecosystem. Most of the terrestrial creatures have two sets of forelegs, joined at the knee, suggesting a common evolutionary path. It's not like they stuck a couple of fake horns on a dog. There's bioluminescence everywhere. Big freakin' pterodactyls roam the sky. And there's the Na'vi. In keeping with the planet's low gravity, they're tall & gangly, but in service to the plot, these natives are hard to kill. Also: restless.

Which is where our guy comes in. Perhaps it's simple human arrogance on the researchers' parts, but I can hardly see how they expected to be taken seriously, let alone generously, as what the Na'vi call "dreamwalkers." Worthington gets downloaded in to an avatar, a cloned Na'vi that looks like the blue-cat-Hakeem-Olajuwon version of himself in order to shill for the evil company that's here searching for their Nth metal.

Same old story. It's Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai in space. And really, this is the focus of all the negative criticism of the movie. Rightly so. It's a shopworn cliche. The Na'vi are just another band of Noble Savage, painted blue this time. Of course Our Hero was going to bed their princess and become King. That was just inevitable. So Chameleon Sam falls for M'Ress (because she's a cat and played by Uhura, get it? Anyone? Anyone?) and turns against Space Blackwater's Evil Colonel of Evil, whose Evilness Can Be Seen from Space. He rebels, using Advanced White Guy Tactics, and they save the day. Hooray.

But it's so PURTY!

Other reviewers, specifically AV Club's cool, refreshing Sam Adams, argue a different tack with regards to the movie's politics, drawing an allegory not just to the obvious Native American similarities but also to the privatization of warfare brought on by strange bedfellows like Blackwater and Triple Canopy in this country.

I'm not sure that I buy all that, but it's an interesting read. More than anything, again, this seems like Dances with Wolves or Last of the Mohicans or any white-guy-cum-Indian movie you've seen, even going so far as to use its science fiction pedigree to grant the World Spirit Circle-of-Life animism present in most Native American mythologies a literal foundation. Space Blackwater's guys mock the Na'vi's religion, but we're shown it actually at work here, which seems an unintentional slight against people who have actual religions based around this kind of thing. There's no weird tentacle connection to a worldwide superconsciousness on Earth to tell us not to buttfuck the environment in to a bloody husk, so that must be why we did it, right? Right?

I do recommend the thing. If you have to see some version of the White-Guy-as-Reluctant-Savior cultural trope at some time in your live, it might as well be the floating mountain, helicopter dragonfly, bioluminescent moss, blue-cat-people, pterodactyl riding, Now-in-3D-with-100%-more-Michelle-Rodriguez version.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Clash of the Titans

Sometimes, things slip by me. Like the entire career of Sam Worthington. Where'd this guy come from? It's like Hollywood, bemoaning the lack of charisma in its current generation of actors, decided to cast the SAME uncharismatic actor in every damn movie.

You might have noticed him in Avatar. Or last summer's Terminator 4, where he was the one who looked distractingly like Christian Bale in a lot of the teaser pictures. Or you might not really have noticed him at all, since he tends to blend in to the surroundings, and not in a method-actor way but more of a most-beefcake-chameleon-ever way.

So then I find, this morning, a trailer for the new film 'Clash of the Titans.' Below.

I like that bit. "Titans will Clash." It's Clash of the Titans, so I should bloody well hope so.

If you've been living even deeper under a rock than I have (seriously, Sam Worthington and Lady Gaga are the two things from 2009 that ambushed me like the Cheney-era CIA) let me start off with a bit of history. This film is based, not just on the success of 300--though this time it looks like they decided to make something other than a Fascist Instructional Cartoon--but also the 1981 film Clash of the Titans. It had Burgess "The Penguin" Meredith, Lawrence Olivier as Zeus, and a young Harry Hamlin as Perseus, before he would go on to star in a bunch of things you or I have never heard of.

That's a fan-made trailer, updated for today's attention spans. The original Clash was the last really big showcase for the model work of Ray Harryhausen, who designed, among other things, the menacing skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts and that big, Godzilla-like Venus creature in 20 Million Miles to Earth. He's a legend. A legend of stop-motion monsters. I'll bet he makes some token cameo in this flick, which has replaced all his charming, I-know-they're-dated, stop-telling-me-they're-dated, stop-motion effects with a bunch of CGI monsters and creatures who look like they missed the audition to a Guillermo del Toro film. Of the former I'm ambivalent. It's amusing to me that we've advanced this far in creating creature effects that are for the most part no more realistic than they were in 1981, just cheaper and made on a Mac instead of with silly putty. Of the latter I'm pleased. Guillermo del Toro doesn't make a whole lot of movies and it's nice to see the monster freakshow jet-set getting in on other Disposable Friends of the Hero-Killing action.

The original Clash was very much in the mold of Star Wars, going back directly to the source material for its hero's Joseph Campbell-ing about the place. It's been years since I've seen the thing, but I don't think Perseus was aware that Zeus was his Dad. It was much more an adventure movie, the young lad sailing off to fight monsters and win the heart of the girl.

In this one, at least in trailer 2, ol Worthius seems conflicted about his demigod nature and Zeus is much more of a prick. Oh, Liam Neeson. You'll do anything, won't you? You're like Morgan Freeman, an actor of immense gravitas who will do films like The Bucket List. I haven't included Trailer 2 here because Trailer 1 was so dorky. "Titans will Clash" indeed.

"I'm dark and conflicted!" Worthius shouts at the screen, and I suppose I believe him. But I'm not going to mistake growling or shouting at the screen for drama, rather I'm going to miss the feeling, encapsulated by this movie of my childhood, of going off to adventure just for the sheer hell of it.

Monday, December 21, 2009


There are stars out here. Actual, proper stars. Get about five miles from town and on a clear night like tonight, the whole sky is laid bare. I can see the Milky Way, faintly, from the ground. I'd forgotten. I always forget, it seems, things like the stars, or the lonely, sparse beauty of the place, coming up north from Wyoming across the sandy bluffs, ragged with scrubby trees.

I'll be home a little over a week. Chatting with family, meeting up with old friends, falling in to those patterns effortlessly, under the starlight. I wouldn't ever want to live anywhere this small, not really, but it's hard not to become a little intoxicated drinking in those stars.