Thursday, February 11, 2010


It's a risky business, panning a movie before one sees it. The honest truth is that at this stage of my life, I have less discretionary time to journey out to theaters in an experimental mode. The same is true as far as renting DVD's via NetFlix. Consequently, I rely heavily on reviews and my own steel-trap mind with its iron-clad judgments.

Sometimes, under the pressure of impending Oscar (and others) Awards , I defy both critics and my intuition and take on a sure loser, as I did recently with Inglorious Basterds. That pathetic experience reinforced confidence in my own infallible judgment. I won't make the same mistake - going against my expectations and critics' judgment - on Avatar. I don't have to see this "epic" to know how modest I will find its marrow.

Lara Gardner, an attorney and critic in Portland, recently published her review of Avatar, Not the Best Picture. Excerpts flow below:

. . . . Why is it that if a movie is filled with spectacular special effects it is considered a best picture candidate?

Asking this question is some evidence that I think a best picture is one that actually contains characters who show some complexity, or a story that is unique in some way beyond what the film looks like. I simply do not consider as best picture a movie that is unique only on a visual scale. There were so many deliciously brilliant films this year, I'm frustrated that a film whose only merit is visual is sweeping the awards yet again.

If Avatar had been set on earth, with humans riding horses in their beautifully lush jungle, the imperialists coming to destroy the land for profit, it simply would not have been possible best-picture fodder. I doubt it would barely climb out of B-movie-land. The story has been told, and it has been told better. The Mission comes to mind. Even Australia, which had some predictability and overwrought elements, but visually stunning panoramas, was a better film. At least it attempted character development.

However, Avatar is a visually stunning movie, and for that reason alone, everyone is going to see it and it is winning awards. Give us a few years and its effects will not be quite so grand after we've seen the same sort of thing a few hundred times. Remember Jurassic Park? The first time I saw that movie I was awestruck. I saw it again recently and while it is moderately entertaining, the dinosaurs are no longer quite so spectacular because I have seen giant CGI creatures so often, I am used to them. Not such a thrill these days.

Halfway through Avatar I was already frustrated by its bland formula and dialogue. The characters on Pandora lacked anything unusual other than what they looked like. Sure, James Cameron spent years creating this "other world," but that world certainly looked awfully earth-like to me. The characters were prototypical natives, down to their bare feet, the beads in their hair, and feathers in their arrows. There is the tribal chief queen and the royal children destined for marriage. There is the natives' intrinsic harmony with that land. And let's not forget their natural-world deity (native Americans, anyone?). Even their alien steeds, both land and air versions, look like horses -- albeit with some extra legs and wings, and reins that could connect to their riders' minds. Yes, in some of the details, the Na'vi were clearly aliens, but nothing about them was unique to the point they were unrecognizable as fundamentally human, something one might expect would occur on a planet somewhere far from earth.

And the human characters, don't even get me started. They were such caricatures, I could hardly stand to watch some of them. The bad guys were Very Bad. We knew they would be Very Bad the moment they showed up onscreen. The early dialogue in the film was unrealistic, managing to give us all the background we needed in the span of ten minutes. Hyper bad Marine colonel. Check. Scientist who wants to save Pandora and empathizes with the natives. Check. Evil corporate greedy guy. Check. Main character who will save the day. Check. Sexy native woman who is won over by main character. Check. And on and on. None of them had any depth beyond a mud puddle.

I suppose I should not be surprised that a picture so visually breathtaking while simultaneously lacking any depth is considered by many to be the best picture of the year. Spectacle seems to be the theme in so much of America these days. Rather than intelligent debate regarding complex issues, politics has been reduced to screaming sound bites and accusations. The worse the behavior, the more attention it gets. Reality television has mostly replaced anything resembling more complex programming. Spectacularly bad behavior replays constantly where the most loud and obnoxious wins, at least to the extent that the winner gets their face plastered all over the tabloids, their hideous behavior played out ad nauseam.

I liked Avatar. I did. I was moderately entertained when I wasn't squirming in my seat at the made-for-t.v. movie dialogue. The visual effects were cool. But I just can't see it as a best-picture candidate. Best means superlative of good, surpassing all others in excellence. Avatar may be the best today for visual effects, but in all other areas it was barely average. No matter how you cut it this just isn't what a best picture should be.
That's what a great review should be. That, and my infallible judgment, tells me to wait - several years even - for the DVD.


  1. Damn Vigil, don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Anything that sends republicans into a whining rage over how unfair they are protrayed can't be all bad. If the bad guy caricatures didn't contain some truth they could see they would just blow the movie off.

  2. I understand the critic...but it all depends on what you want or expect from the movie...
    I wanted a movie that I could carry my 18yr old son and have some kind of enjoyable time with him on his level...I rated that movie day 100%

    Same thing happened with my 16yr old daughter...quality time with daddy...100%

    Thirdly... took wifey to see it in 3D...she loved it...even tho it wasn't her thing...100% quality time with wifey on movie night (tuesdays half price...$6)

    So for me...I got my money's worth...3 times.

    P.S. the critic should go with a man...she might enjoy some quality time with her man...or her kids...

    Transformers also did it for me and the kids...

  3. Can't remember if I got lucky with wifey that night...

  4. I nodded off watching the trailers.....must be an age thing

  5. I had very much the same reaction to Avatar (reviewed January 4). One of my main misgivings was the sheer amount of resources used to create this "other-world", and the lengths to which demand was manufactured to see the film. I've derived child-like pleasure from movies far less pretentious and elaborate. And our earth has not run out of material worth exploring with the same fervor, money and labor that were committed to this project. A whole lot of talented artists and craftsmen have done little more than fashioned the world's most elaborate (and expensive) toybox.

  6. Vig,
    the review is absolutely accurate. South Park dubbed it "Dances with Smurfs". It's Dances with Wolves with Blue people, but with zero character development. The characters are so paper thin that you can practically see through them. Oh, it is nice to look at though.

  7. Yeah, Guys, yeah yeah, okay. You have convinced me that I should rent the DVD as soon as it comes out whenever I'm due to baby sit my grand children. Point taken. (Of course, they've already seen it!)

  8. Vigil there is no way you are going to like this movie. I loved it and have already pre-ordered the DVD. I don't make cinematic distinctions. I go to be entertained, and Avatar was entertaining. Were there parts I didn't necessarily like? Of course but they did not distract from the overall experience. By the way I loved Titanic also, which you hated, and that tells me you are NOT going to like Avatar, especially on DVD and without the 3D effects.

  9. P.S. There is probably a reason this movie is now the highest grossing film of all time, unless one assumes that billions of people worldwide are complete idiots. One of my closest friends is a distinguished heart surgeon and he saw it three times, in both I-Max and 3D. We both agree that we are not snobs when it comes to the movies. This movie is just a helluva lot of fun. Over-thinking kills that fun.

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  11. Mike,
    There is a reason why this is the highest grossing film of all time. It's the most expensive average ticket price of all time. In adjusted gross dollars, the Sound of Music made $450 million more than Avatar. Hell, in adjusted gross Titanic made $300 million more than Avatar. Liking or disliking this movie has nothing to do with being a movie snob. I think my tastes are pretty diverse (Pootie Tang to The Godfather with many stops in between). This movie is like going to see a band and the only thing you remember is how awesome the light show was.

  12. If the story had been stronger and more original it would have been a tremendous achievement for the director/producer/writer, same guy I think. It made me think back to what my parents told me when I was a boy on how they felt back in 1939 when they saw "Gone With The Wind" and "The Wizard Of Oz" they said it changed to way they saw films from then on. It's the way I felt about Avatar, technologically the bar is raised, very high. The story owes a lot to Dances With Wolves; Hawkeye and the Last of The Mohicans and a lot of history about the crushing of indigenous peoples, far from original, but still appropriate. Well worth a look in 3D on the big screen, with popcorn cost you $20. Pretty good experience.

  13. I like 'Watership Down'

    I'm pissed again.


  14. Earthlings go to a planet called Pandora for something called Unobtainium. I had to know that little to determine this isn't a truly great film.

    James Cameron is given enormous budgets to make spectacles, not great films. Titanic was a Harlequin romance set on a historic vessel. It looks like Avatar's story isn't any better. My list of great directors would include Scorsese, Eastwood and possibly Jason Reitman (who's batting a thousand with the three features he's directed so far), but not Cameron.

  15. Battle of Algiers. Now THAT was a movie. Saw it when I was 19 years old and came out too devastated to think about girls or getting high the rest of the night. Powerful.

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  17. MyCue I didn't mean to imply that you were a movie "snob." My apologies. I am simply trying to say that the special effects are more effective than the story. That doesn't make it a bad movie, IMHO. Again, I go to be entertained, and Avatar entertained me with the FX, the I-max, and the 3D. Apparently there are a lot of people who agree with me :-) :-) As to the ticket price...I pay $8.50 for a ticket to a "normal" movie. I paid $11.50 for Avatar in i-Max and 3D, with lounge type seating. I grant that I paid a few dollars more but given the margins I still find it hard to believe that the only reason this movie is on top is because of the higher prices.

  18. Yeah. The Battle of Algiers.... That was a cinematic experience.....