Sunday, January 03, 2010


Let this now be known: I am not immune to advance hype, and no other writer I know is either. As much as those of us who attempt to regularly chronicle our reactions and analysis of films might like to think so (and I don’t know too many reputable writers who are willing to swallow this myth any longer), there is no such thing as pure and simple objectivity, the viewing of a movie in a cultural vacuum. Nor should there be—the introducing of personal truths and observations to the act of criticizing a film (or any other work of art) is unavoidable, which is why it’s a damn good thing that it’s also essential. And since none of us, no matter what our professional credentials or lack thereof, is immune to occasionally being swept up in the hype generated by a studio over their $xxx-million project, or the word of mouth (or keyboard) generated by a performance, or a festival phenomenon, or an apparent return to form that was once thought abandoned, if we have the luxury of time to let a film jangle or slosh or stomp around in our heads for a while before we try to express what we think about it, our ultimate, more considered reaction—which is sometimes far different from the initial one—is often the more honest of the two. This is why I’m glad I’ve never tethered myself to trying to review the movie of the moment as it comes hot off the griddle-- SLIFR is not the place to come on a Friday or Saturday afternoon for immediate reaction to the weekend’s new releases. It’s also why I long ago realized that though I could do as much as acknowledge everything I’d seen and then point to good, interesting writing about those movies whenever I could, there was no way that I was going to be able to keep up the pace of writing about everything I’d seen, nor could I possible see everything there was to see. Thus I await the magical moment when some kind benefactor bestows upon me $60,000 a year to gladly undertake such a task. (Those anticipating my usual caveat in this regard will have to wait for the full-blown version in my upcoming year-end review piece.)

So it is with several big movies that are generating quite a lot of talk (and in one case not quite enough) over the holiday movie season. Most of that talk is about Oscar chances, a conversation which interests me less and less each year. When the Academy releases its 10 Best Picture nominees this year, it will take me precisely five seconds to choose the five that wouldn’t have made the cut in the five-movie category of the past, and that is about as interesting as it threatens to get. (Also, if there are to be 10 Best Picture nominees, does anyone know if Oscar will also expand the Best Director category to 10? If he/she/it/they does/do, does it imply even more emphatically that the 10 nominees in each category should line up perfectly? And if they don’t, is it sheer numerical and human inconsistency within the voting, or will the variations be spun to mean Something Important, as if the Academy were 3,000 voters united in purpose and spirit. Shit, I’ve already talked about the Oscars too much, haven’t I?

The talk about the four movies of the moment I’m thinking about as I write this will definitely be tainted by Oscar prospects, but for right now they have their own legends to contend with, and so do we, as critics coming late to seeing and writing about them. Let’s take the movies one by one, consider the legend, and then consider the reality as written a considerable distance away from the original breathless hype.

AVATAR is groundbreaking cinema that will change the way movies are made and the way narrative cinema is approached.

This is the business that James Cameron is in these days—ever since the pioneering CGI morphing effects featured in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, each new Cameron film has brought with it, as part of the filmmaker’s reputation and his supposed raison d’etre, some form of new wrinkle on bringing to life what was not thought possible before, whether it be water creatures of The Abyss, the resurrection and pictorially stunning decimation of Titanic, which felt almost pornographic in its visualization of a tragedy heretofore relegated to our imaginations via history books, or the coexistence in the same body of Arnold Schwarzenegger, family man, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, killing machine in True Lies. (Guess which effect came off the worst.) Avatar ups the ante a zillion fold and finally lands Cameron squarely amongst the greatest picture-makers in cinema history. The landscapes of Pandora, the distant planet on which Cameron plays out the ecological/technological/spiritual conflict he sets up between the 10-foot-tall, azure-hued Na’vi, residents of Pandora who are hard-wired into its very ecosystem, and the human invaders. And the scale of the human toys they bring to bear on this landscape—great huge box-shaped tankers filled with smaller weapons of destruction, all forged of the heaviest of metal, have a solidity, a hugeness and grandeur, and they are choreographed with such jaw-dropping magnitude that every iota of excitement the director takes in playing with them comes through and then some. (Glenn Kenny rightfully observed that great huge sections of Avatar seem to be conscious attempts to recreate the spectacle of a rompin’, stompin’ two-page Jack Kirby action canvas, and it’s thrilling to experience just how close Cameron gets to it.)

Cameron does not specify from what country these invaders originate—they certainly seem to represent a great cross-section of familiar nationalities and ethnicities—but merely that they are doing the bidding of an obscenely rich and powerful human conglomerate which disregards the Na’vi and their planet in pursuit of a valuable ore named, with a clunkiness typical of the director, Unobtanium. Clunkiness aside (for now), the movie is, from moment to moment, one of the most beautiful, ravishingly realized ever made— the reach of Cameron’s lens extends from the minutest detail in close-up down the z-axis to the most profound depth of field. He seems fully aware of every extraterrestrial bit of flora and fauna of this world, every almost-familiar-looking creature, and he gratefully takes the time to allow us to luxuriate in them before the inevitable destruction gets underway. And most impressive, he and his effects crew have managed to break through the hard shell that previously prevented motion-captured performances (Gollum excepted) from resonating as anything more than mannequin-like representations of humanoid life. The Na’vi are, after a brief moment of resistance, entirely compelling and physically believable as characters existing in three-dimensional space, capable of registering the tiniest shifts of emotion and other expressive facial qualities, radiating believable life through giant yellow eyes which had been up to this point vacant from every other attempt to conjure the spark of a soul in similarly animated creations. (My friend turned to me at one point and whispered, “Somewhere Robert Zemeckis is weeping.”) To think that this most tactile of worlds (do endure the glasses and see it in 3-D) was created entirely from scratch out of the imaginations of the director, a cast of infinitely patient actors and 800 million of the finest special effects wizards an unlimited budget could buy is truly mind-boggling. It is unquestionable that, for years to come, every movie of this sort will be influenced and affected by what Cameron has managed to bring to life here.

Unfortunately, regarding both the Lord and James Cameron, what he giveth he most assuredly can also taketh away, and if Avatar’s splendiferous forests of Pandora ultimately come under attack from the forces of multinational conglomerate evil, then the floors of those forests, as well as the interiors of the spacecraft and the military vehicles that rumble through the landscape, have already been punctuated with devastating land mines in the form of Cameron’s inability to write convincing, anything more than obvious dialogue. As has always been his blind spot, inasmuch as he paints his spectrally explosive universe with the most intricate and expressive tools at his command, Cameron’s political message and his way with characterization are blunted and smeared with primary colors from the broadest of possible brushes. (David Edelstein was the first critic I recall reading who recognized that the movie was simultaneously a visual wonder and a crock.) From Sam Worthington’s benumbed, paraplegic marine (who ultimately occupies the Na’vi avatar who becomes, for him, more real than the life he knows as a human), to Sigourney Weaver’s crust but benign, foul-mouthed scientist (“Where’s my goddamned cigarette?” she growls upon emerging from cryo-sleep), to Giovanni Ribisi’s marmot-like posture as the requisite and representative corporate sleazebag, to Stephen Lang as the requisite and representative Sgt. Rock stand-in at the controls of all that heavy equipment, not one of these characters emerges as much more than a cartoon sketch. (The Na’vi are all visually marvelous, but only Zoe Saldana, as the fighter princess with whom Worthington yokes himself, manages to carve out a real presence in the film, all the more remarkable for the fact that she is never actually herself seen under all that Na’vi conjuring. The shrieks of pain that uncontrollably bark out of her are Avatar’s most singular and moving sound effect.) All of these shortcomings throw into relief how much attention Cameron his lavished on his setting and the technical aspect of his filmmaking to detriment of the humans at its center and what it is he would have them say. The dialogue is uniformly uninspired throughout, and you will be forgiven for thinking you’ve slipped back to 1986 as it reaches its nadir during the spectacular battles scenes that comprise the movie’s last third. (Michelle Rodriguez firing upon her old military bosses and shouting, “You ain’t the only one with a gun, bitch!” will make you remember with affection just how funny Bill Paxton was screaming, “That’s it! Game over, man! Game over!”)

But the visceral power of Cameron’s visual/aural mastery will likely make you believe, while you’re watching Avatar, that the director has somehow transcended the severe limitations of his writing, and the vigor with which he’s brought this very familiar narrative to life may make you care less that you’ve seen it many times before. (Only someone who has never seen a movie prior to stumbling into Avatar is likely to find originality within the movie’s story, which borrows liberally from Broken Arrow and Dances with Wolves, not to mention Cameron’s own oeuvre— omnipresent corporate evil is not exactly virgin territory for the director, and who is Ribisi’s character if not Paul Reiser’s slimy corporate apologist from Aliens writ all peanut-sized?) It’s in those quiet moments afterward, when we’re not being bombarded by the latest Hollywood and James Cameron has to offer, that we’re likely to think back on the movie and locate chinks in the blue-sheened armor of its storytelling. A movie like Avatar should, if anything, expand in the mind upon reflection. Instead this one stays stubbornly earthbound, a glorious creation to be sure, one that will be looked upon with envy and stolen from with impunity for years, but one that has little in the way of real narrative innovation to offer. (At the risk of crossing over into the realm of cinematic evangelism, I maintain that Speed Racer has it all over Avatar in terms of how it manages to artfully shuffle the cards of its narrative structure, and that the Wachowski Brothers movie is the one from which the true inspiration to carry moviemaking and storytelling fever into a new generation will likely be derived.) For the exquisite rush of being swept up in an enveloping universe thundering and quaking with sights and sounds you may have never seen before rendered in quite so vivid a way, Avatar simply cannot be beat. But that rush evaporates, leaving in its place thoughts illuminated by the movie’s unique grandeur and tugged at by the tiny reminders of what could have been.

Jeff Bridges is our most underrated, undervalued actor, and his brilliant, lived-in performance in CRAZY HEART is just the latest evidence.

It has been noted with such unerring frequency, from around the time the actor was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Last Picture Show (1971) and again for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), that Jeff Bridges is “one of our most underrated actors” that one has to wonder, how can an actor so beloved, so recognized by the bodies of award-bestowing organizations (look here, if you don’t believe me), so in demand by filmmakers, so talked about by everyone in and out of the know in the vast satellite universe of The Movies, possibly be underrated? The guy’s been in 65-some features since that first Oscar nomination, been Academy Award-nominated two other times (for Starman and The Contender) and is right now filming the role that if he is not Oscar-coronated this year will likely get him so honored next year when he emerges in the Coen Brothers’ closer-to-the-book remake of True Grit as Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a role which already won John Wayne an accolade or two, you might recall. But right now the movie that seems likely to set Bridges up for a lot of year-end gold is his Waylon Jennings-inflected burnout of a country music star in Scott Cooper’s lovely if slightly familiar Crazy Heart. We never know of the stature of Bridges’ dissolute, alcoholic Bad Blake (a nickname that describes him to a tee, but one he deems not good enough for his tombstone) but for what others tell us, and but for the voice that seems to struggle to get out from under the excess weight and psychological baggage the singer carries around.

That voice is whiskey-soaked and well-traveled, and it comports enough of a sense of past assurance and triumph that it lives up to the plaintive, hard-scrabble truths of the melodies and lyrics given Bridges by music producer T-Bone Burnett. Burnett avoids making the songs in Crazy Heart overtly biographical or otherwise illustrative of the breezes that blow the film’s leisurely paced story, but we can sense Blake inside them as the character feels his way around chord changes and uses the mike stand as a crutch onstage, and also when he’s groping around for the means to put newfound inspiration into a new song, something he hasn’t been able to do for years. Bridges’ performance is pretty much fearless and without ego, and what sells it even more is that Cooper fails to write him a grandstanding showstopper of a scene—the actor stays true to the tempo and the temperament of Bad Blake even when the movie itself settles into familiar show biz dilemmas and moments of melodramatic tension. If Crazy Heart is ultimately undistinguished in the story it tells—you’ll detect A Star is Born, Songwriter and Tender Mercies at various times, the latter directly by the presence of Robert Duvall as Blake’s bartending buddy, who serenades Blake during a fishing trip and reminds us of the reedy wanderer in Duvall’s voice which helped win him an Oscar in a similar role in 1983—it is bolstered by Cooper’s directorial sensitivity and that of his director of photography, Barry Markowitz. For a film shot in Panavision and well aware of the majestic vistas afforded by its Southwestern locations (New Mexico and Texas are tenderly evoked), Cooper chooses to shoot his actors largely in close-up, which might be chalked up to a rookie misstep were it not for the fact that Markowitz’s cinematography, unusually tactile and vibrant, sensitive to the least of the cracks and crevices on Blake’s facial topography, is able to make Blake’s rumpled, bloated, exposed body sing songs of past indiscretions and horrible mistakes with every intimate glimpse. Cooper and Markowitz allow Blake to hold and command the frame—even diminished his body has graphic power, and we never forget why and how he must have been able to command a stage-- but they’re never precious about it, and the intimacy of the camerawork never feels evasive. You never feel like pushing back; quite the opposite, the camera seems to invite further examination of what makes Blake tick, and Bridges, ever generous and intelligent, gives as much as he can give toward that end, even when the movie itself becomes more and more comfortable with convention.

If there’s an arrhythmic pulse at work in Crazy Heart, aside from the movie’s tendency toward the familiar, it’s located, for me, in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance. She remains for me an impenetrable actress, one who wears her self-consciousness on her sleeve, even in a working gal concept like the one she embodies here, a reporter who interviews and then, against her better instincts, falls for her besotted subject. As worn-out and beaten up and alive as Bridges is, Gyllenhaal is postured and on the surface, and she never convinced this audience member of her respect for Blake’s music, let alone her need to be touched by him and his broken-down artistry. Another actress might have been able to sell this essentially underwritten role and in the process spur the movie itself, through the alchemy created by her interaction with Bridges, to a higher level. As it is, Crazy Heart doesn’t illuminate the bruised and weary man at its own heart beyond what we’ve already seen or could have guessed, but it gracefully clears the stage for Bridges to make fine, honorable and inspired work out of trying. Bridges’ ability to make a man like Bad Blake breathe continues this actor’s streak of masterful work, and if it ultimately isn’t as resonant a characterization as the Dude, well, Crazy Heart ain’t no Lebowski either, big or small. But the idea of Bridges being underrated must finally be put to bed. It’s a crock too, and Crazy Heart seems likely to tuck it in and send it to sleep all neat and proper.

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE is a great, wrenching humanist film that is as inspirational as it is difficult to watch.

I felt sure that, in the moments leading up to the release of Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (Sorry, but it’s just Precious from now on), there was going to be real pressure on critics and everyday moviegoers to feel obligated to relegate this movie, an award winner and huge audience hit at Sundance, to Must Respect status. But dissenting voices were if not exactly plentiful then at least well articulated. Jim Emerson even devoted two posts to the movie, one which dissected his own preoccupation with his presumptions about the film (and his hesitance to see it) based on the heavily orchestrated hype built around the film, from its Sundance splash to its being taken under the umbrellas of those untouchables of African-American representation, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and another post based on his admittedly surprised and surprising take on the film, in which he likens it, with convincing intelligence, to a virtual remake of John Waters’ Female Trouble.

Well, about a week ago I finally buckled down and faced my own presumptions about Precious. I’ve never hidden my revulsion with the depiction of rape on screen—it’s just one of those things that find intensely transgressive, the way it pushes my empathy buttons without mercy, beyond what seems necessary to bear in order to understand the point of any such scene. I’m also confronted with an ugly truth when watching rape scenes that affect me in this way, and that is that, despite my physical revulsion I’m perfectly capable of understanding how my physical strength and my gender puts me in the position of possible attacker, that there, but for the grace of God and/or lack of comparative swells of rage and sundry other psychopathologies, go I. I entered into the theater with less a sense of what the movie might or might not be as a representation of ghetto life, particularly as it is applied to this spectacularly put-upon and abused character, and more with a crushing dread of having to endure representations of what Precious herself (according to all the breathless descriptions I’d read) must go through in order to attain her measure of freedom. Coming out of the theater, the gale force winds of Mo’nique finally subsiding, I was struck by how little impact the movie seemed to have on me, how unmoved I was despite its "Everything Including the Kitchen Sink" attack on not only the character, but the very believability of the incessant assault, hampered as it was by the director’s less than subtle, often less than competent approach. Was this evidence of my own inhumanity, or evidence instead of the movie’s inability to register more than one note of monotone despair? It is surprising to me the degree to which the movie is so easily taken as a straight-up social melodrama-- the piling of problems onto Precious and the fever-pitched gothic/tragic aspects of the scenes between her and her mother are genuinely over-the-top (the relationship between Margaret White and her daughter Carrie seems like a model of restrain in comparison), yet Daniels is as wobbly as a two-legged stool when it comes to storytelling and image-making. He hasn't the fire in his belly to make the grotesque juxtapositions he traffics in here leap off the screen as anything but literal-minded concessions to an audience who wants to have a good wallow and feel better about themselves at the end. Daniels may secretly aspire to high camp, but I don't think the movie is even as funny as Jim suggests it is-- it just struck me as flat and obvious, full of characters as types (the hot-tempered lesbian schoolteacher with a heart of gold, the good-looking male nurse with a heart of gold), exaggerated horrors rather than people, and punctuated by obvious, lead-footed fantasy sequences.

It's pretty easy to see why, even though Daniels (who produced the similarly hideous Monster’s Ball) cites John Waters and Pedro Almodovar as influences, his movie hasn’t a whiff of those directors' heightened sensibilities. Daniels isn’t a camp aesthete or a nihilistic jokester. He tends to try to disguise his own blunt mediocrity as a storyteller as social realism. Why else would he construct one of the movie’s central fantasies around a scene in which Precious and her gargoyle mother sit lifeless in front of the TV watching Sophia Loren in Two Women (in Italian!), only to have the movie morph them into a black-and-white scenario resembling De Sica’s neorealism in which Mother and Daughter continue their volatile relationship complete with inappropriately crude subtitles (“Eat, you whore!”)? The idea that these two would spend two minutes watching a movie of this nature on TV—Precious complains later of a benefactor and her girlfriend who talk like “a TV channel I’d never watch”—makes sense only if you find Daniels’ stylistic indulgences funny or somehow enlightening. But Precious’ pop-star fantasies which periodically take us out of the horror, ostensibly for a respite, are themselves tacky and kind of horrifying. She’s invariably seen at some premiere or dancing onstage, and the director has no idea how to heighten the sequences to make us empathize with Precious’ desire to be outside her grim existence, or her own body for that matter. She just comes off looking kind of pathetic, and all these sequences ultimately prove is that Daniels has even less facility with fantasy than he does with depicting everyday existence, no matter brutal or ordinary. Both Gabby Sidibe and Mo'Nique are exceptionally good, even if the movie insists on letting them down, and in Sidibe’s case stranding her with a character whose uplifting frame of mind at the conclusion seems imposed from on high (by Daniels, certainly not by any God who governs the real-life fates of girls as unfortunate as this fictional creation). It has to be some kind of blot on a director that such raw performances, in touch as they were with specific pain, still could not bring me emotionally into their world.

Also of note is Mariah Carey, deliberately, almost hilariously frumped-up as a sympathetic social worker who conducts the symphony that becomes Mo’nique’s Oscar-baiting swansong. Carey, New Yawk accent untethered, is kind of riveting in a strange sort of way and she acquits herself admirably. She keeps a straight face when all around her seems to suggest that the best tack is to do otherwise. Looking at her, I kept thinking that, but for her role’s almost complete lack of humor, she reminded me of a young Elaine May.

I also greatly appreciated Jim Emerson’s bringing the "Be Black, Baby" segment of Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! into the conversation, because it says a lot about what Jim and I both suspect some people are thinking as they walk out of Precious. Jim described in his second post on Precious the relevance of the satire in the De Palma film:

"`Be Black, Baby’ is a satirical black-and-white documentary for National Intellectual Television that's plunked down into the middle of De Palma's 1970 Hi Mom! starring Robert De Niro. The cinema verité conventions (hand-held camerawork, b&w, naturalistic/improvisational acting, etc.) suck you into an experimental theater production that physically and emotionally abuses members of a mostly suburban, upper-middle-class white audience under the guise of revealing to them `what it's like to be black in America.’ One white woman, painted in blackface, is raped with a broom handle by white-faced African-American actors. (This is decades before Irreversible, and almost as unwatchable.) The pitch-dark `joke’ at the end comes when the cast bids the survivors a cheery goodnight (‘Be black, folks!’), and the audience members are interviewed for the cameras. `Wow, Clive Barnes was really right...’ `It made you feel what it felt like to be a Negro -- to be black.’ `It really makes you stop and think. Certainly I've worried about the problems -- you could almost say the sicknesses -- in our society, but ... it was invigorating...’”

I began to get a little worried as the movie began to inch closer to release and the hype began in earnest, especially as I saw the reactions to what David Edelstein wrote concerning the movie’s various insensitivities. Edelstein asked in all sincerity how the movie would be perceived if Daniels had cast a merely overweight girl instead of one so grossly obese as Sidibe, and he made trenchant points about some of the movie’s grotesque visual juxtapositions—cutaways to frying bacon during a ghastly rape, attempts to tie Precious’ mother’s abuse to her daughter’s eating disorder by close-ups of Precious gnawing on pigs’ feet during a typically vicious harangue—that were hard to ignore, or for the movie ultimately to justify, when I finally saw it. I worried too that Precious was being positioned as a movie about "a," if not "the," black experience that, because of its brutality and because it bore that Oprah/Tyler stamp of approval, demanded to be taken seriously-- that to fail to do so was to reveal something ugly about the viewer. I was prepared for it to become the social problem picture version of The Dark Knight, and woe befall anyone who didn't buy it, pig's feet and all. I don't think that has quite happened-- the debate over its merits has been, for the most part, more thoughtful than the crudities and threats fanboys dumped all over anyone who didn't like the Batman movie. But still, that upbeat ending, the one where this unfortunate of all unfortunates stumbles out into the world with renewed aspirations, is a real corker. Is she really going to be okay, what with the laundry list of obstacles the movie has bashed us with for two hours—AIDS, single-motherhood, illiteracy, unemployment-- and the odds stacked no less against her than at the beginning? Precious will be okay because the movie says so, because it needs to send us stumbling out of the theater with lightness in our step, feeling as though we've been changed, affected, enlightened, truly moved or disturbed, like those clueless “Be Black, Baby!” viewers. The best movies that affect us this way, that suggest we understand something about the characters we’ve spent time with on screen (say, Killer of Sheep, or A Serious Man) can do so within a milieu of ethnicity, heightened or not, but without suggesting we should be congratulated for having learned something about what it is to be African-American or Jewish. These are stories that feature characters whose ethnicity is clearly central to their experience but may be only be part of the whole picture that the audience takes away. The challenge of Precious, as I see it, is to contextualize this movie as something other than what is apparently represented by the two extremes of reaction to it. If we're to think about what we see on the screen, as opposed to what we're simply told is there, by breathless reviewers and film festival hypesters and well-meaning social service advocates, then Precious presents an interesting opportunity because the gulf between the movie’s advance word and what it actually is accounts for a lot of the hesitance beforehand and indifference after seeing it that has been expressed here. It is, I suspect, more prevalent than the rave notices might suggest. Certainly the movie deals with horror, but it wasn't even close to the harrowing experience I expected, to its discredit, and its camp tendencies didn't elevate the situation either. I'm fully aware that tragedies like those depicted in Precious take place every day. But there's a difference between simply depicting that knowledge and unifying it with something other than morbid fascination.

Disney Studios have made a great return to the traditions of 2-D animation with their sprightly musical THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, which features the studio’s first Black princess.

I wish I had more enthusiasm for this movie. It is, to my eye, the most visually spectacular and ravishing, in terms of design, color and detail, of any of the post-Little Mermaid Disney renaissance era feature-length cartoons. There is always something magnificent to look at in The Princess and the Frog. But as much of an advance as the movie is from a technical and visual standpoint, it is neither an advance nor a retreat, narratively speaking, but instead a bit of a lateral move disguised as progress. It is undeniably a positive that young African-American girls now have their own princess to stand beside Mulan and Jasmine in the multi-ethnic hall of Disney royalty. But is it such a positive that she has been conceived, both physically and as a character, in such shriekingly familiar terms—she is rail thin and beautiful, of course, with features only as African as Middle America is likely to not be threatened by. (Neither Serena Williams nor Jennifer Hudson were likely sources of inspiration, to say nothing of Gabourey Sidibe.) Of course, how threatened would anyone be by a Black princess who spends the majority of the running time of the picture in the guise of a frog?

Unfortunately, the Disney formula pervades all aspects of the picture, which means that no one is allowed much opportunity for introspection or dignity (unless there's a brassy song to go along with it, of course)— every character from the stock animal sidekicks right on up through the lead love interests are pitched at a level of annoying slapstick right from the start. The directors, who also helmed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, as well as the nadir of modern Disney animation, Hercules, take more cues from that crass fiasco than the relatively measured romantic tone found in the former cartoons. The picture has an air of forced exuberance which the jazzy New Orleans milieu does nothing to exacerbate, and try as he might, Randy Newman’s score is, for all its boisterousness, sadly lacking in the kind of imaginative tunesmithery that he is historically capable of. (Nothing here even approaches the minor but catchy tunes Newman delivered for Pixar, let alone the brilliance of his New Orleans-tinged Land of Dreams album.) Despite the beautiful and lyrical send-off the movie gives to a relatively minor character, and the generally excessive amount of beauty within each frame of the picture itself, there’s a kind of monotony that settles in during The Princess and the Frog that doesn’t support the kind of rejuvenation the 2-D animated film form is going to need to keep a spark under this move back toward traditional animation. I’m hoping that with John Lasseter at the helm of Disney’s animation division the studio will relearn not only the techniques and formulas that made them capable of producing wonderful staples of pop entertainment, but also that the striving for greatness requires a lot of risk. One doesn’t sense much being risked with The Princess and the Frog, and maybe the studio was hesitant to shake things up too much out of the gate. Maybe they sensed that there was too much at stake in reestablishing the legitimacy of 2-D animation in a 3-D CGI world to get too loosey-goosey. If this new movie is a big-enough worldwide hit to keep the 2-D division alive and drawing, will the success of The Princess and the Frog be seen by Lasseter and Disney as a signal to begin taking Pixar-like chances, or to retreat into the merely beautiful, the safe and familiar?



Patrick said...

I would argue that Jeff Bridges does indeed continue to be underrated, and I'll tell you why.

1) Bridges has been the lead/ supporting lead in many if not most of his films - something very few character actors can say - yet his movies are not identified with him the same way that, say, mention of a Jack Nicholson movie or a Meg Ryan movie draws an instant connection for John Q. Moviegoer. I put that down not only to his versatility - from President to Dude, from passenger hero to Iron Man nemesis, it's impossible to miscast him - but for his locating his character's place in the movie and anchoring it there, never stepping forward for a flashy solo without bringing others along with him. What this means is...

2) Bridges's performances are never about Bridges. Sean Penn's Matthew Poncelot has nothing to do with his Harvey Milk, and they're both great performances, but there's an awareness that it's Penn's skill that's drawing you in, more than Poncelot's and Milk's characters. As for Tom Cruise, well, it's 100% impossible to forget that you're watching Tom Cruise. But with Bridges, the character takes center stage to such an extent that the actor is left behind. We the audience are caught up in these fictional lives, and never get distracted by the technique or the dazzle.

3) While Bridges can act with intensity, that intensity is directed at his situation, or the other characters with him. Never is it aimed at the audience. As viewers, we don't notice when we're being pulled in; we do, however, notice when a force pushes us back. Bridges's intensity doesn't push us; therefore, he's not noticed.

How can a performer who's recognized as great still be considered underrated? Bridges has done it by getting the job done right and placing the film ahead of his own work in it. Only a concerted effort will bring him to the fore. And until the day that The Big Lebowski is known as a Jeff Bridges movie and not a Coen Brothers movie, that's the way it's always going to be.

Bryce Wilson said...

I have to say, I've really taken issue with the argument that its OK that the exposition is so clunky, and the characters so one note, in Avatar because Cameron was always a bad writer.

I wrote about this in my own piece on the film, but if you watch the mess hall scene in Aliens it takes Cameron all of about two minutes to sketch an entire platoon worth of personality, and deliver a metric ton of exposition. Not to mention setting up virtually every inter human conflict through the rest of the movie (Lieutenant Vs. Grunts, Army Versus Corporate, Ripley Vs.Bishop)

He's playing broad, but he fixes them in your mind. Giving them personalities beyond, Michelle Rodriguez flies a hovercraft! and Ram Ghas is a spy!
And without resorting to calling The Aliens "TheScaryThingsThatWantToEatUsiums"

Anonymous said...

Evil Dead Junkie is right about Cameron. His dialogue has always been as clunky as those found in the STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS films. Even worse, his plots have been blatant rip-offs from other movies and television episodes. TITANIC and THE TERMINATOR (1984) are prime examples.

However . . . I still enjoyed AVATAR.

"At the risk of crossing over into the realm of cinematic evangelism, I maintain that Speed Racer has it all over Avatar in terms of how it manages to artfully shuffle the cards of its narrative structure, and that the Wachowski Brothers movie is the one from which the true inspiration to carry moviemaking and storytelling fever into a new generation will likely be derived.) "

Dennis, I'm with you on this. I enjoyed AVATAR very much. But when it came to visual storytelling, it doesn't beat the originality of SPEED RACER.

Bryce Wilson said...

For the record that was the exact opposite of what I was saying, but that's OK I'll take my support where I can get it. ; )

Chris said...

AVATAR is groundbreaking cinema that will change the way movies are made and the way narrative cinema is approached.

No it won't because Hollywood has been luring audiences with flashy special effects accompanied by trite plots and bad dialogue since its inception. There's very little that's "groundbreaking" about AVATAR in that regard. Better movies have already been made entirely or largely with computer-generated imagery. Put another piece of meat in the Big Mac -- is that a revolution?

For all his popularity, it never ceases to amaze that a review of a James Cameron movie can be written in 2010 that fails to recognize the fact that, at the end of the day, James Cameron stinks in much the same way that George Lucas stinks. These people suck up money and spit out product.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I may finally feel obliged to see Precious on DVD to evaluate the hubbub for myself. I did see Daniel's previous film, Shadowboxer which has scared me from seeing anything else he's done. I feel like the guy saw early Tarantino, plus Guy Ritchie's gangster films, and thought to himself, "Hell, I can top this!". Believe me, you do not want to see Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren doing the hibbidydibbity, or Mo'nique as a crack addict nurse named . . . . Precious.

Joe Baker said...

I hope "Crazy Heart" gets a wider release soon. Bridges deserves some major recognition for his performance. While watching it, in the beginning, I was thinking 'ok another boozy country singer performance here'. Then about halfway through Bridges does something (perhaps its the realization that he's not just after Maggie for the booty call) and I was completely invested in his character. A really, really good performance.

Peet Gelderblom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peet Gelderblom said...

The term "unobtanium", however clunky it may sound, is actually a standard term in engineering circles for a material that would instantly solve a tricky design problem, if only it existed. Believe it or not, Cameron's being a little tongue-in-cheek here!

The word's first printed definition dates from 1958: "A substance having the exact high test properties required for a piece of hardware or other item of use, but not obtainable whether because it theoretically cannot exist or because technology is insufficiently advanced to produce it."


Ronak M Soni said...

Hello, Dennis. I just discovered your blog today (I remember coming across the name earlier, but I never actually headed over), and I'm loving it, especially for the Speed Racer bit.
Just thought I'd announce my presence, as I'm something of a compulsive commenter.:)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Glad to have you here, Ronak, and I'm glad to hear of your plan to make your presence known. Yes, Speed Racer have a rather torrid history, and if you like the movie you'll find hanging out here a lot more tolerable! :)

Thanks for dropping me (us) a note. I look forward to getting familiar with your point of view.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Whoops! Meant to say "Speed Racer and I have a rather torrid history..."

...but maybe all the details about a man and his imaginary car are best left out anyway, eh?

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