Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Film (page 1 of 8)

Keep Me Posted

I recently got a message about the new Web comedy Keep Me Posted:

Keep Me Posted Teaser from Hillary Nussbaum on Vimeo.

As the Seed And Spark fundraiser explains:

We spend an embarrassing amount of time analyzing the nuances of that text from our latest Tinder match, or the meaning behind that random “like” on our last Facebook post, but what about the particulars of the way we communicate with our closest friends? 
Are we mistaking constant communication for true connection? 
Keep Me Posted is a 3×20 comedic web series that raises those questions and more. It follows the lives of three childhood friends stumbling towards adulthood, three friends who are constantly in touch, but still find themselves growing apart. As their lives diverge in significant, challenging ways for the first time, they hide their respective struggles behind a constant flurry of chipper texts and insincere status updates to project the impression that everything is just awesome.

Incidentally, I have that copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that they show at 1:26. It’s great. (It’s where he talks about writing as “creative sleep”.)

Les Mis

Yesterday the family went to see the new film version of Les Miserables, with Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe et al. I can see why critics dislike it, but I found it quite engaging. Yes, Russell Crowe approaches singing the way some Americans approach making themselves understood in a foreign country– if the cabbie doesn’t understand you, just yell your destination, and your words will be magically translated– and the close-up style that worked so well in The King’s Speech takes a little getting used to.

But the movie is every bit as manipulative and heart-tugging as the play, Tom Hooper can be sweeping and bold when the scene calls for it (some of his shots of Paris and Javert singing from rooftops reminded me of Gore Verbinski), Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks were terrific, and the film did the musical justice.

Quote of the day: Margaret Thatcher

Via Meryl Streep:

If you want something spoken about, ask a man. If you want it done, ask a woman.

Quote of the day: Cars 2

From Slate:

A little girl near me kept asking her dad, “Which cars are the bad guys? What are they doing?” Her father shushed her politely, but he would have done his fellow audience members a bigger favor by loudly and accurately answering her questions, since we were just as stumped.

Uh oh.

Even Uwe Boll can watch “Battle: Los Angeles” and say, “Man, this sucks”

When Roger Ebert calls your movie an “assault on the attention span of a generation,” you know you’re in trouble:

Here’s a science-fiction film that’s an insult to the words “science” and “fiction,” and the hyphen in between them.


[To the tune of Johann Johannsson, “Part V: The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black,” from the album IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (a 5-star song, imo).]

Oh how I love Netflix

I don’t care if it could destroy the Internet: Netfliex streaming has totally changed my life.

Okay, that’s not quite true, but I’ve had somewhat the same experience with it that I had with iTunes in the early days, when I used it to buy digital copies of singles I’d loved in high school and hadn’t heard in twenty years or more. There are lots of movies I haven’t seen in ages that I’ve watched again (though for some reason they turn out no to be so great– what was up with Ghostbusters 2?).

More interestingly, Netflix also drives down the cost of experimenting: it becomes incredibly cheap and easy to try a vast range of movies and to dive into unfamiliar genres. Scandinavian World War II movies? Spanish feral children serial killer films? Mountaineering tragedies? Thai action flicks? It’s all here, and if you don’t like what you’ve chosen, after 10 minutes you can switch to something else. (It reminds me of how picture-taking changed when I got a digital camera.) It’s like channel surfing, only there’s actually stuff to watch.

And the kids have access to every episode of Johnny Test ever created in this universe, which they seem to quite like.

Airbender: the new Plan 9 From Outer Space?

Maybe when the kids are back from camp we won’t go see The Last Airbender after all. The kids love the original animated series (called Avatar: The Last Airbender, but to avoid confusion with the Cameron film they dropped the A-word), which I find to be smart, funny, and ultimately very deep. My daughter had always had doubts about a live-action version of the story, and according to Gawker’s roundup of the early reviews, it looks like she was right. This is Roger Ebert:

“The Last Airbender” is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here.

And, incredibly, it gets worse. Then there’s the New York Times:

After 94 minutes — was that all? I could have sworn it was days — of muddy 3-D imagery and muddled storytelling, the idea that this is just the first “Last Airbender” seems either delusionally optimistic or downright cruel. An astute industry analyst of my acquaintance, who is 9 and an admirer of the Nickelodeon animated series on which the movie is based, offered a two-word diagnosis of its commercial prospects on the way out of the theater: “They’re screwed.”…

The problem — the catastrophe — of “The Last Airbender” is not in the conception but the execution. The long-winded explanations and clumsy performances are made worse by graceless effects and a last-minute 3-D conversion that wrecks whatever visual grace or beauty might have been there…. So the best way to watch “The Last Airbender” is probably with your eyes closed.

Apparently the 3-D is singularly bad. The Chicago Tribune calls it “the latest 3-D offering in theaters, yet barely functional in 2- or even 1.”

Even The Onion is not amused:

Shyamalan lets his unimpressive special effects do the work for him while coaxing performances from his young cast that make Jake Lloyd’s performance in The Phantom Menace look studied. [ed: OMFG OMFG OMFG] (Star Noah Ringer, who plays a messianic figure who might unite the warring forces, delivers his lines as if reading a book report, and his older co-stars don’t fare much better.)

And they’re not the only ones who think the acting is bad:

Newcomer Noah Ringer, who plays the title role of Aang, a messianic child with the power to manipulate the elements, is woefully miscast. Not because he’s white, but because the kid can’t act…. Ringer brings less than zero gravitas to the role. He makes the kid who plays Gibby on “iCarly” look like Sir Lawrence Olivier…. Making matters worse are Ringer’s young castmates. Playing Katara and Sokka, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone are stiff and awkward. Short of a screen test, it’s hard to imagine less convincing line readings.

I admit I was a little taken aback by the whitening of the main characters (Katharine Hepburn’s niece as Sokka and Katara’s grandmother? really?) but that turns out to be the least of the movie’s problems, and the whole project will accelerates M. Night Shyamalan’s downward spiral. That’s a shame, because I really liked The Village (it kind of reminds me of my kids’ school), and you get the sense that he’s trying hard to do interesting things, even if he often fails. (As one commenter said, “so the twist is that it sucks? he’s done that one already.”) I think I’ll just watch the cartoons again.

[To the tune of Willie Nelson, “September Song,” from the album Stardust (a 3-star song, imo).]

Too brilliant (though completely NSFW)

Bill O’Reilly rant remix (thanks, Jess!)

[To the tune of Joni Mitchell, “Strong And Wrong,” from the album Shine (a 3-star song, imo).]

More on Avatar

The New York Times weighed in a few days ago on the Avatar Interpretation Complex (something I wrote a bit about), and I’m just now getting around to reading it:

[“Avatar” has] found itself under fire from a growing list of interest groups, schools of thought and entire nations that have protested its message (as they see it), its morals (as they interpret them) and its philosophy (assuming it has one).

Over the last month, it has been criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion and the use of military force; feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; antismoking advocates who object to a character who lights up cigarettes; not to mention fans of Soviet-era Russian science fiction; the Chinese; and the Vatican. This week the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of the film would be pulled from most theaters there to make way for a biography of Confucius.

That so many groups have projected their issues onto “Avatar” suggests that it has burrowed into the cultural consciousness in a way that even its immodest director could not have anticipated. Its detractors agree that it is more than a humans-in-space odyssey — even if they do not agree on why that is so.

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

[To the tune of Oleta Adams, “I’ve Got To Sing My Song,” from the album Circle Of One (a 2-star song, imo).]

Avatar redux

Today I took my son and his aunt to see Avatar in 3D. I saw Avatar a few weeks ago, and wanted to see how it looked in 3D. To be honest, while there are some terrific things that the it offers– the night scenes on Pandora are really cool, and some of the flying is terrific– it’s hard to notice the 3D in the big battles– i.e., the entire last hour of the film.

Which is really hardly a criticism. And in other respects, it holds up really well, or is even better the second time. (For all the hype about it transforming cinema, I think it’s just a really good movie, which is good news: when I think of a film that’s not a movie but an “event,” I think of something like Matrix Revolutions.) Cameron is a genius at his craft: as everyone knows by now the film’s cast of characters includes some people we’ve seen before– the Yuppie scum played by Paul Reiser in Aliens, the tough Latina soldier played this time my Michelle Rodriguez– and some of his favorite technology– snub-nosed, mean-looking landing craft, and utilitarian robots that turn out to play a pivotal role in the action. And of course there’s Sigourney Weaver, who does a nice turn as a character who would have probably hated Ripley. I was also impressed again at how many science fiction and fantasy references the movie manages to pack into even three hours: Pandora owes a huge debt to the work of Roger Dean, and the influence of the Dragonrider series is more evident.

I think the film also stands up against the cultural criticism lobbed against it. Some contend that the film is a condemnation of imperialist adventure and displays contempt for white people; others, that it’s an imperialist adventure in face paint, a retread of tired SF tropes, and racist to boot. The right has tied itself in knots. Some of it stretches the bounds of stupidity: Nile Gardiner seems to have completely missed the fact that the military forces on Pandora are mercenaries, not servicemen (a fact that Cameron doesn’t stress enough in my view, but still– if I could catch it, Gardiner should have too– unless we really want to equate mercenary armies and armed services). But commercial reality aside– this is a film rather than a dissertation, and you shouldn’t be surprised when a $300 million film hedges its bets with some familiar elements– the appearance of the trope of the noble savage shouldn’t be any more surprising than the fact that there’s a romantic thread in the movie. That Cameron was trying something as complex as creating a new species pretty much guaranteed that he would end up falling back on some familiar package of metaphors, much as the artists on James Cook’s voyages reflected Enlightenment ideas about non-Western peoples and academic ideas about landscape– even as they tried hard to faithfully represent the scenes and peoples before them. (And arguably there have been far more damaging representations of the Other than one that emphasizes their inherent goodness and capacity for living simply.)

Then there’s the question of how powerful Jake really is. Annalee Newitz’s argument that the movie is an extended essay on white guilt and escapist fantasies privileges race over class: it ignores that Jake is in the situation he’s in because he’s disabled and poor, and that he doesn’t have a lot of power among his own people. He’s useful to the company, but that’s not the same thing as having any influence. And for all of his determination, you get the sense that his disability is always going to leave him on the margins of his own people, the mercenaries whose worth is defined by their ruthless skill and capacity for violence.

Likewise, in movie-world logic, his leading the Na’vi during the war makes sense because he knows the enemy from the inside, even if it stretches the bounds of real-world credulity. (Imagine a high-ranking German defector leading an Allied division at Normandy. Can’t do it? Neither can I. That’s what I mean by movie-world versus real-world logic.) Just as Wikus in District 9 is able to help save aliens because his humanness gets them into places they can’t go alone, Jake isn’t superior in any absolute sense, but useful because he understands humans. And for better or worse, people aren’t as likely to watch a movie in which the main character becomes a bit player when he joins the other side.

Cameron could easily have made the film subtler and more interesting with a couple tweaks. Jake’s relationship with his dead brother kind of disappears 10 minutes into the movie, even though Jake is literally taking over Tom’s body (or avatar) and life. Driving home from the theatre, I imagined what the film would have been like if his video journal had been an imaginary conversation with Tom: it would have opened up some chance for Jake to talk about that relationship, and ultimately to say goodbye in a way he never does in the film. Jake’s relationship to his own damaged human body doesn’t change over time, and by playing up the adventure element of becoming an avatar, Cameron skips over what could have been another motive driving Jake to throw in his lot with the Na’vi. And this time I realized that we never see the Na’vi without Jake, and it would have been interesting to have a couple scenes where Jake’s not a presence: it might have allowed us to see the Na’vi the way they see themselves, and get a sense of them trying to figure him out, just as he’s trying to figure out them. He’s taken in because the tribe’s leader decides they need to understand humans; but we don’t get a sense later on of the Na’vi still thinking about how to deal with humans, until it’s too late.

Still, it’s always easy to wish that the director had made a different movie than the one you saw (I really felt that way about Star Wars: Episode III, and having also watched that again with my son recently, still do.) Nonetheless, I love Avatar. Maybe I’ll see if the IMAX version is any better.

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