Avatar (2009)

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James Cameron directs Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang in the epic sci-fi adventure where a disabled marine enters the cloned body of an alien species in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the native population of Pandorra. 

James Cameron only works big. Ever since The Terminator every single one of his films has been an event. Every one essential. I remember booking tickets, in advance (unheard of in 1997), to go see Titanic twice on the day of its release. Avatar, his only movie since, is the most financially successful movie ever. It contains a whole alien world and culture and biosphere realised. A traditional adventure story brimming with Cameron’s trademark warrior woman protagonist, technological boundary pushing, pure heart on his sleeve politics and IMAX scale weaponised destruction. The script is simple, once it gets a fuck ton of exposition out of the way, while the characterisation and “Oorah Marine” dialogue is lifted directly from previous blockbusters, many of them Cameron’s own. It is a bit too basic, a bit too unoriginal, a bit too self assured. It is the work of a director unfettered by budgetary concerns or studio notes. It has a draggingly baggy middle hour and a naive overriding spirit that exotic visual excess is enough to keep us engaged. The characters are too blank or repetitive to cover up this gaping flaw. Avatar, once the initial shock of its optical artistry has been spent, is too rudimentary and casual a story to fill its three hours. I was restless on my second cinema viewing in 2009 and this next, long delayed, revisit at home, saw me checking my phone frequently. Almost a decade later, with much of the film forgotten again, and there was very little to hold my attention aside from the spectacle. Now, there are three fantastic action set pieces; the taming of the sky dragons, the helicopter war among the floating mountain range and the final fight involving a mecha armoured Stephen Lang. His maniacal fanatic Colonel is one of the rare times the movie truly comes to life. He sneers, he’s scarred and he makes for a formidable antagonist in mindset and presence. But these bursts of excitement aside, Avatar is overly worthy and overly familiar. You see things you’ve never seen before but it is set dressing for a plot with very little hook. The hokey romance, the hippy dipping politicking, the industrial military conspiracies are basic. The only time Avatar explores a unique emotion is in the wonder Cameron imbues when his disabled protagonist enters an abled foreign body. We share the excitement of a man running barefoot again who had abandoned the experience. How do wheelchair users feel about these sequences? Does it deliver a rare moment of wish fulfilment? An intriguing fantasy Hollywood rarely explores because of its niche audience or potential bad taste? Cameron is too visionary a filmmaker to make wholly terrible or redundant movies and Avatar’s visual design achievements cannot be dismissed. But for entertainment purposes it is inessential. Ruining the King of the World’s perfect record. Maybe that is why it made unrepeatable amounts of cash at the multiplex. We all secretly knew this was a razzle dazzle that only works on the big screen, the viewer unjaded by return business. Like losing your virginity or life itself Avatar can and should only be experienced once.

7

Hereditary (2018)

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Ari Aster directs Toni Collette, Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne in this horror about a grief stricken family being toyed with by a supernatural force.

“The scariest horror film since The Exorcist.” “Toni Collette delivers an Oscar worthy performance.” “The opening shot where a miniature doll’s house is zoomed in on and a real person enters a room is visually stunning.” The critics sure love Hereditary. It is so-so though. Beautiful to look at and with an excellent lead but only one truly rattling scare sequence. It is overlong. The threat is too vague, made by a filmmaker in love with preserving his twist rather than instilling dread in his audience. The family is unlikeable, their actions and reactions difficult to engage or sympathise with. Byrne (and I’m a big Miller’s Crossing fan) struggles with certain line readings… “What language thatBEin?” While Wolff fails to bring any heart to a character with a lot of silent heavy lifting. There is an abundance of high camp motifs that come across as goofily annoying rather than rhythmically building – the clucking, the makeshift dolls, the excessive amounts of chopping, the closing minutes of old people nudity-O-RAMA. In fact for a film with a prestigious, quality air it swerved frequently into the cartoonishly ridiculous by the end. And not in a transgressively WTF shocking way. Just daft, mood shattering, overkill. Hereditary is not terrrible but it is hard to see where the near universal 5 star push is coming from. It exists in the rich mainstream horror era of The Conjuring, Don’t Breathe, It Follows and Green Room (all brilliantly manipulative thrillrides with no pedigree that genuinely deliver) or artier but truly affecting horrors like Get Out, The Witch, The Killing of the Sacred Deer or The Neon Demon. So to hype this messy, worthy, ambitious, unsuccessful and often inaccessible film is to emphasise a disconnection between movie critics and the general public. Audiences are leaving frustrated or ridiculing the movie, I’m merely just disappointed. I think it’s fair to say with Hereditary, reviewers are suffering from a stark case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

5

The Tin Drum (1979)

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Volker Schlöndorff directs David Bennent, Angela Winkler and Katharina Thalbach in this historical drama about Danzig in the grip of Nazism told from the point of view of a boy who refuses to grow up and objects to everything with his tin drum and shrill scream. 

An exhausting, uneasy and troubling history lesson. Epic in length it swings from grim realities to fableist fantasy sequences. There probably is a bit too much of Gunther Grass’ novel chewed off here to make a consistent whole. The ironic comeuppances of each compromised character we meet are bittersweet but often we don’t get anything more than infantile view of their lives and personalities before they go kaput. It is far too ambitious and captivating a sprawl to dismiss, there are at least a dozen visual moments that stay in the memory. Some of them quite unsettling.

7

 

The Black Hole (1979)

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Gary Nelson directs Maximilian Schell, Robert Forster and Joseph Bottoms in the sci-fi “adventure” about space explorers who find a long-lost ship orbiting a black hole. 

Middle age people talk in a variety of future caverns. And talk. And talk. Referencing degree level literature texts. Then we go to Hell. And then Heaven. Some Eighties game show mascots buzz about and these robots are the characters with most agency and personality. It can look fantastic at times, some of the set design is awe inspiring. Until those robots swing past on their fishing wire, looking like utter shit. Nothing happens, maybe everything happens, but nothing entertaining. A rubbish version of Event Horizon but… Y’know… for kids. John Barry’s ominous whirlpool of a score is the only redeeming feature.

3

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

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Stephan Elliot directs Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce in this road movie about two drag queens and a trans performer heading to a show in the outback in a big pink bus. 

Coarse, shrill and grating… but then what else would you expect? The outlandish frocks add a surreal colour to the beautiful landscapes we visit, the lessons learnt have real heart. Weaving is superb as the man at a crossroads in his life, his interactions with his estranged son are hopeful and positive about the future. Rightly so. Stamp looks more than uncomfortable in the performance sequences and the female characters get very short shrift… that aside Priscilla gets by on spirit and bluster.

6

L’Amant Double (2018)

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François Ozon directs Marine Vacth, Jérémie Renier and Jérémie Renier in this psychosexual thriller about a woman caught in an affair between two look-a-like brothers, both shrinks, who might be the same person. 

So many larks when it is a kinky mystery… a conundrum of fluid, smooth flesh conjoining and separating. Once Ozon shifts from the alluring confusion to the conclusion, the expected starts solidifying and it disappoints. Hitchcock for pervs, De Palma for nerds.

6

The Wolverine (2013)

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James Mangold directs Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima in this X-Men film where Logan goes to Japan to protect the daughter of a man he saved in WW2.

Oof… we are tantalisingly close to a great film here. There are moments of brutality, isolation and sentiment that warn us of the eventual quality of Logan. There is a prolonged chase sequence from funeral to bustling streets to bullet train that feels like a Frank Miller / Chris Claremont issue come to life. Jackman, though subdued, gets plenty of room to shine… a restrained romance and nice buddy dynamic with his psychic ward (a stand-out Rila Fukushima). We get so close to the finish line following a route of noirish intrigue and bubbling emotion that it almost looks like The Wolverine will pull it off. Wash away the bad taste of the toyified mess that was Wolverine: Origins. Jackman arrives in a picturesque Japanese town for the final showdown, ninjas anchor him in arrows and chain… and then we end up in a fucking lab with fucking robots, fucking monsters and fucking falls off endless metal balconies. The franchise reverts to its baser instincts. It doesn’t just go full comic book, it goes full shit comic book. Sacrificing atmosphere and tension for mindless, weightless clatter. We almost got there. We get there eventually.

6

Filmworker (2018)

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Tony Zierra directs Leon Vitali, Stanley Kubrick and R. Lee Ermey in this documentary about the man who gave up a promising acting career to become Stanley Kubrick’s constantly on-call assistant.

Full of fascinating late period Kubrick anecdotes and trivia this is treasure trove for fans of the master. This a portrait of a man who clearly loves Kubrick, to devotional levels, and considering we all must love the great director to some extent, it is perfectly understandable. Do we get any great new personal insight into the famous auteur? Not really. He remains the fastidious enigma he always will be. Do we get an insight into the level of commitment he demanded from his trusted allies? Yes. And that relationship, while artistically worthwhile, feels vampiric and tragic. To see where Vitali begins his career to where he ends up, reveals a man who worked hard to facilitate another’s dreams then found few continued options when the dreamer died. Corporate Hollywood has no use for him, you’d struggle to think of another director who would require his Herculean skillset. Vitali is a ghost of filmmaking past. But as footnotes go his story is compelling.

8

My Top 10 Stanley Kubrick Movies

1. The Shining (1980)
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
3. The Killing (1956)
4. Barry Lyndon (1975)
5. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
6. Paths Of Glory (1957)

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7. Spartacus (1960)
8. Lolita (1962)
9. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
10. Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Moonraker (1979)

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Lewis Gilbert directs Roger Moore, Lous Chiles and Richard Kiel in this 007 action adventure that finds Bond investigating a genocidal space program and heading beyond the stratosphere.

One of the weakest Bonds. It sells out… chasing a trendy buck by going all sci-fi for the last half hour. Yet giving us one of dullest, least convincing Bond finales ever. Extras wobble about on wires and the villian, a watery Drax, is easily defeated. It is daft. Joke heavy… but jokes that make no sense. Gondolas end up having secret weapons… Jaws goes good and all for the love of a buxom midget nerd woman… Bond shoots a man in front of witnesses and then just saunters out of a country house front gate. A PIGEON DOES A DOUBLE TAKE!!! It essentially is a tonally off retread of The Spy Who Loved Me. The action isn’t as strong, the Bond girl isn’t as memorable and Rog doesn’t seem to be having anywhere near as much fun. A watchable car crash.

4

The Kings of Summer (2013)

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Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias in this teen comedy about a group of kids who build their own home in the woods and runaway for the summer. 

Tries so hard to be stylish and affecting. Achieves the former and fails at the latter. Essentially a sexless Superbad for kids who pretend they don’t wank. Looks nice.

5