Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Avatar: The Cameron Infection

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Call me a perv, but have you ever tried turning back to look at the audience while watching a movie? I did, while I watched Avatar not because of lame curiosity, but because I wanted to make sure I was in a real world that was good old sober and dull. People were sitting with their clumsy 3D goggles, mouths agape in wonder. One guy was dropping his popcorn, because his hand seemed to be heading away from his mouth, smearing his face with the butter. Another whistled for the seventieth time, since he’s evidently excited on seeing breasts (alien or human irrelevant) uncovered on screen, A woman didn’t realize her shirt was getting smeared by the cheese that was dripping off her burger. A little kid shooed away imaginary flies that virtually tried to buzz him through this non-existent cinemascope screen projecting a gorgeous forest that defied the most imaginative visions and the most intrinsic perspectives of our time. Me, I put back my goggles on and continued to try and virtually smell this world of unflinching beauty that literally sprouted out of the traditional, cliched mind of one of the most technically (and financially) gifted fim-makers of our generation. James Cameron certainly had no dearth of funds at his disposal for his decade old dream, after proclaiming himself the king of the world on oscarstage. And to say that he’s put his resources to good use would be like proclaiming Sam Raimi’s franchise-born-Spiderman a perfect nemesis to heath ledger’s joker: Stupid. 
Avatar is a moviegoing experience that swoops you into it’s intricate, myriad layers of red, blue, green and everything in between, brings to screen a visual experience that would set the standards for CG filming, even half a decade from now, and perhaps get recognized as an instant classic in hollywood’s history text books (it already has). Sadly, Avatar stops to a grinding halt right there, in the middle of nowhere, “on a faraway planet called Pandora.” There are characters in this film which would be of little or no consequence. There are marines wearing sleek life-support face masks, there are stoopid decision makers, there is a crippled guy, a bunch of alien-life and a DNA harvested alien ‘body’ in between. Arrange them in the proper places in the human mind’s chain of power and presto! James cameron could’ve narrated his little story through the easy vantage point of a space telescope (feasible, considering the money involved here), and we could still understand what all the bow-arrow Vs machine-warfare conflict is all about. Instead, we are put through 160 odd minutes of corny dialogues and cliched slow-mo sequences that we could lip-sync unaided. We try and mentally shoo the men, their clumsy artillery and navi away, just to take in the beauty of the backdrop locations, the floating mountains, the massive trees, the little ’spirit’ bearing forms, Tree of Souls, Tree of Voices and so on… uncluttered please.
Mr. Cameron’s aliens are designed with only one conception in mind: we humans are the inferior guys, we can never imagine aliens as anything but alike ourselves, we can never conceive of life forms in more dimensions than six, can never conceive an alien that doesn’t communicate by talking, can never accept an alien in a different mass or form. Hence, Cameron’s CG army could come up with nothing but elongated humans in a shade of gorgeous blue, who make phunny noises. They walk like humans, they talk like humans, have families like humans, cry like humans, hell even have sex like humans! Do we really need an alien to look sorrowful, scream, howl and cry transparent tears in order to make us emote? Peter Jackson brought warmth into his aliens who looked nowhere as gorgeous as these, more like interstellar prawns. Too bad he needed only 30 million, a tenth of the budget Mr. Cameron had at his command for Avatar. Probably then, District 9 would’ve had the chance to get a best pic nomination among this year’s ten golden globes nominees.
The very concept of humans making an effort to invest moolah into an expensive DNA project, just for mere socialization, in order to lay hands on the unobtanium (we dont even know why the fuck we need this mineral, just cuz it could sell at a cool 20 million a kilo?? Or make bombs, ofcourse) is plain ridiculous, especially when the typical display of menancing firepower comes and we wonder why all this ‘avatar’ effort when we’ve already harvested enough bombs to tear apart entire planets and sufficient science to dissect each rock that comes out of this mess? And no disrespect to the fairer sex, but why put in an alien woman? Why not just an asexual alien? Jst cuz we’d have a lame-ass alien-human love story?
If we were meant to feel angst at the sight of the warships felling a giant tree while a horde of aliens howled, sorry James..we know you’re just taking your time showing off.. And what’s with the metaphorical felling of the symbolic tree (monolithic) and the ‘revenge’ that the Navis take out on the men in the only way possible: by annihilating them? And what about the stupid stoopid hulking commander scar-face who seemingly takes things so personally that at one final point of time, he literally envelops the whole physiology of his army, like he’s a human Goliath? Is this all a feeble reference to the felling of the symbolic twin towers and America’s blast of fury by unleashing it’s war on terror, ultimately climaxing in the capture of the stupid stoopid dictator? Obviously these are coincidences, or a minor tweak in the American director’s psyche (like it’s okay to kill one life form, but not another). We might probably know in the collector’s edition DVD interviews.
The animals looked menacing alright, even the raptor-like birds. The moment they show some kinda mythical superior among these winged creatures, we instantly know our man is going to get that birdie and make himself warlord, and ‘protect’ these aliens. And there’s going to be that scene where he’s gonna walk among a crowd towards his alien lady-love and there are awed faces all around him, revering him blah blah..  Yeah right! Ain’t THAT subtle? Sarcasm.
Avatar was a visual feast oh yes. It’s grandeur makes you feel small, but still one with the world of immense beauty and color that is Pandora. But sorry James, you’ve just created another cliche ridden 3D fern-gully with grand views of armies charging, desperate for that earth-shattering rohirrim battle-charge effect in the return of the king. A 3D installation of Pandora alone could’ve held us in awe. You’ve just spoilt it with your unquenchable thirst for grandeur and good ol’ romance.

By Fazil (at
To view the original article, click here

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)

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He sits like a man taking a hearing test, big headphones clamped over his ears, his body and face frozen, listening for a faraway sound. His name is Gerd Wiesler, and he is a captain in the Stasi, the notorious secret police of East Germany. The year is, appropriately, 1984, and he is Big Brother, watching. He sits in an attic day after day, night after night, spying on the people in the flat below.
The flat is occupied by a playwright named Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his mistress, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe) first saw Dreyman at the opening of one of his plays, where he was informed by a colleague that Dreyman was a valuable man: "One of our only writers who is read in the West and is loyal to our government." How can that be? Wiesler wonders. Dreyman is good-looking, successful, with a beautiful lover; he must be getting away with something. Driven by suspicion, or perhaps by envy or simple curiosity, Wiesler has Dreyman's flat wired and begins an official eavesdropping inquiry.
He doesn't find a shred of evidence that Dreyman is disloyal. Not even in whispers. Not even in guarded allusions. Not even during pillow talk. The man obviously believes in the East German version of socialism, and the implication is that not even the Stasi can believe that. They are looking for dissent and subversion because, in a way, they think a man like Dreyman should be guilty of them. Perhaps they do not believe in East Germany themselves, but have simply chosen to play for the winning team.
Wiesler is a fascinating character. His face is a mask, trained by his life to reflect no emotion. Sometimes not even his eyes move. As played in Muehe's performance of infinite subtlety, he watches Dreyman as a cat awaits a mouse. And he begins to internalize their lives -- easy, because he has no life of his own, no lover, no hobby, no distraction from his single-minded job.
Although the movie won the best foreign-language film Oscar of 2006, you may not have seen it, so I will repress certain developments. I will say that Wiesler arrives at a choice, when his piggish superior officer, the government minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), develops a lust for Christa-Maria and orders Wiesler to pin something, anything, on Dreyman so that his rival will be eliminated. But there is nothing to pin on him. A loyal spy must be true to his trade, and now Wiesler is asked to be false to prove his loyalty.
The thing is, Wiesler has no one he can really talk to. He lives in a world of such paranoia that the slightest slip can be disastrous. Consider a scene in the Stasi cafeteria when a young officer unwisely cracks an anti-government joke; Wiesler goes through the motions of laughter, and then coldly asks for the man's name. The same could happen to Wiesler. So as he proceeds through his crisis, he has no one to confide in, and there is no interior monologue to inform us of his thoughts. There is only that blank face, and the smallest indications of what he might be thinking. And then instinctive decisions that choose his course for him.
The Berlin Wall falls in 1989 (the event is seen here), and the story continues for few more years to an ironic and surprisingly satisfactory conclusion. But the movie is relevant today, as our government ignores habeas corpus, practices secret torture, and asks for the right to wiretap and eavesdrop on its citizens. Such tactics did not save East Germany; they destroyed it, by making it a country its most loyal citizens could no longer believe in. Driven by the specter of aggression from without, it countered it with aggression from within, as sort of an anti-toxin. Fearing that its citizens were disloyal, it inspired them to be. True, its enemies were real. But the West never dropped the bomb, and East Germany and the other Soviet republics imploded after essentially bombing themselves.
"The Lives of Others" is a powerful but quiet film, constructed of hidden thoughts and secret desires. It begins with Wiesler teaching a class in the theory and practice of interrogation; one chilling detail is that suspects are forced to sit on their hands, so that the chair cushion can be saved for possible use by bloodhounds. It shows how the Wall finally fell, not with a bang, but because of whispers.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Zwartboek (Black Book)

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Black Book is a hard-core war film with raw violence, intense action, graphic sexuality and a twisting plot that offers a series of surprises.
Set in the Netherlands during World War II, it is a return to director Paul Verhoeven's Dutch roots after a series of American studio movies. Verhoeven, best known for such fare as Showgirls and Basic Instinct, clearly demonstrates that he is capable of more than just sexual provocation or mindless action as in his Starship Troopers, Total Recall or RoboCop.
Black Book is an agile thriller that consistently entertains. Breaking records in the Netherlands as the highest-grossing Dutch-made film, it explores underground Resistance efforts by the Dutch during the Nazi occupation. Making observations that are both political and personal, Book is almost always cynical and knowing. One disturbing sequence involving the torture of suspected traitors evokes the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
The story's focus is a Jewish woman (Carice van Houten) who forms allegiances with whomever she can in order to avoid capture by the Nazis.
Rescued by Resistance fighters, she becomes an arms smuggler, infiltrating Nazi headquarters. Abruptly seizing an opportunity, she flirts with and seduces a high-ranking Nazi soldier (The Lives of Others' dashing Sebastian Koch) in a move that changes the outcome of several lives.
Van Houten is both steely and sensual, and always convincing as the film's unflappable heroine. Koch, so terrific as the East German playwright who is targeted by the secret police in Others, further demonstrates his depth and range. His character is far more complex (and occasionally unnervingly sympathetic) than the usual cardboard-cutout Nazi officials in films.
Also excellent are Thom Hoffman as a doctor who joins the Resistance and Derek de Lint as the Resistance leader reeling from the capture of his beloved son.
Characters are refreshingly multidimensional: Protagonists are not always humane and antagonists have admirable qualities.
The film's momentum turns sluggish near the conclusion. At nearly 2½ hours, it feels a bit too long, but things are never dull. The provocatively sexual scenes, though somewhat prurient (as one might expect from Verhoeven), have an erotic charge that is startling and unusual in a war film.
Black Book's tale of espionage and uncertain alliances, with riveting performances and intriguing moral complexity, makes for an exciting and absorbing movie.

By Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Read the Original review here