Friday, January 29, 2010

KumbayAvatar

Where to begin? Here's an epic movie delivered in the most epic way currently possible. James Cameron is obviously a genius, and that this creation originated in his brain is staggering. "Avatar" will break every record imaginable. It will indeed change the way movies (not all, but some) are made. I'm an hour removed from seeing it in 3D at an IMAX theater, and it's as hard for me to return to this world as it is for Sam Worthington's character.

And yet, just as evaluating Sarah Palin requires you to first imagine that she looks like Madeleine Albright, to really evaluate "Avatar," you have to somehow, some way, look beyond the technology. (BTW, my one digital effects criticism is this: Why is there still some element of "weight" missing from all animate objects? When they run, they still seem to float.) When you do that, "Avatar" doesn't exactly crash back down to earth, but it does lose some of its "ground-breaking" street cred.

A disclaimer about the angle I'm approaching this with; even I'm not sure what it is. In some ways I'm a film snob, generally favoring Hitchcock classics, your basic Oscar-nominated foreign and indie fare, Charlie Kaufman screenplays, Christopher Guest mockumentaries and modern documentaries that truly educate. On the other hand, I despise some art-house fare (most notably "Magnolia" and "The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover"), I'm an unapologetic fan of "It's a Wonderful Life," and just yesterday I launched a defense of that other small James Cameron movie, "Titanic," that may cost me a friend or two (just kidding, Dave and Terry).

I won't criticize "Avatar" in ways that I imagine the Academic Disgruntia already are (that it patronizingly glorifies "the primitive," that its Na'vi body designs objectify women, that it ultimately seems to advocate fighting violence with violence). Nor will I look through the lens of the Reactionary Right ("it's just another Hollywood elite, anti-corporate, anti-military, anti-imperialist fairly tale about native tree-huggers beating up on an enemy that's two-dimensional even in 3D"). Nor will I point out the obvious irony that somebody used every Western tool known to man to make garbillions of dollars on a movie essentially about preserving the rain forest--that is showing all over the world in energy-sucking air-conditioned IMAX theaters (oops, I guess I just did).

I have no problem with Avatar's epic fairly tale structure. I have no problem with making good guys good and bad guys bad. I came in expecting action, and calling "Avatar" a mere "action movie" is an insult to the movie. I guess my perspective is similar to the one I recently took with "Up in the Air," that of a coach who reserves his most virulent criticism for his best player:

"Avatar, you're good. Really good. But you could be better."

All it would take is a little more care with the script. I realized with "Avatar" that there's something I miss when watching a non-Spielbergian epic. Spielberg brings a certain breeziness, wit and sense of humor to his projects. Remember Indiana Jones watching the Ninja expertly cut the air with his sword, then sighing, shrugging his shoulders blowing him away with his pistol? James Cameron wouldn't have thought of that. Remember the plane propellers approaching the unsuspecting musclehead goomba, then the cut to blood hitting the airplane? Cameron wouldn't have done that. I watched "Saving Private Ryan" again recently and was amazed at how much Spielberg revealed with only sound. In other words, Spielberg knows how to speak in visual subtext. There's a wonderful moment early in "Avatar" when a huge American tank-like machine returns to the Pandora base, and we see the tires littered with arrows. That tells you a lot, and that's what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, it's the only visual-subtastic moment in the movie.

The rest of "Avatar" is on the nose, as is much of the dialogue. Again, don't get me wrong. When a blood-thirsty marine commander says, "Let's get this over with before lunch" (or whatever he says), or a turncoat pilot shoots at said commander and says to herself, "You're not the only one with a gun, bitch!", I'm not surprised and it doesn't ruin the movie. Plus, keep in mind that one of the main reasons I'm so critical of ham-fisted dialogue is that I've written a lot of it myself. (If I wrote a script half as good as "Avatar," I'd think I was a genius.)

But when I realized that "Avatar" is pretty much devoid of any kind of subtext or sense of humor, I felt ever so slightly let down. Because while I'm being transported to this amazing, imaginative paradise of a cinematic universe, I'm still thinking about what could have been.

Introducing "No Fly Zone Fridays"

So I decided that the one thing about self-employment that messes you up (besides health insurance expenses) is the blow to balance. In some ways, self-employment enhances balance. But the cancer is the constant "working without a net" feeling. You become obsessed with working, because if you're not working, you're not making money. And if you're not making money, you're not paying the bills. And if you're not paying your bills, your son can't go to college. And then everybody dies.

The irony of being self-employed in a creative industry is that the more you work, the less space you have to do the things that helped you be creative in the first place. Things like going to a movie. Staring at art for a few hours. Walking. Reading the newspaper. Playing guitar. And blogging (which is really just the process of writing self-absorbed personal essays, but with a much better distribution method).

So a waking thought came to me in December (pay attention to the first thought you have when you wake up in the morning, it's the best one you'll have all day): No Fly Zone Fridays. The last Friday of every month is a No Fly Zone. No work. No family (for eight hours, at least). No real responsibilities. Just the space for solitary inspiration.

Today is Jan. 29, and I'm coming to the end of my first NFZF. What did I do? I went to my neighborhood Dunn Bros. I got a 12-ounce cappuccino. I read a decent chunk of the New York Times (print version). I walked over to Great Clips for a haircut. I grabbed a burrito bowl at Chipotle. I went to see Avatar in 3D at the Rosedale AMC IMAX. I stopped at Cheapo and bought two old Kinks albums. Now I'm at Kopplin's Coffee on Randolph and Hamline, and I have more than two hours to do nothing but write.

It's heaven. I'll start with my review of Avatar.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Joe Mauer Project

Just thought I'd share the Conk Creative spot with Joe Mauer for Anytime Fitness:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Up in the Air": Not on Board

I can't put my finger on it. Was it because the movie had so much hype? Was it because I liked Jason Reitman's last two movies ("Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno") so much and was bound to be let down? Whatever it was, "Up in the Air" disappointed greatly.

The opening credit sequence, and indeed the first 10 minutes of the movie, are filled with promise. Patchwork geographic images of U.S. terrain at 30,000 feet move like puzzle pieces set to music: inventive, playful, classic Reitman. Then a rapid montage of Ryan's (George Clooney's) packing habits tells you everything you need to know about his primary character traits. Excellent.


But then, something goes amiss. Actually, five things:

1. The tone never achieves balance. Both "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno" established a universe and tone that felt immediately comfortable in the dramedy genre (the hardest genre to write and direct, in my opinion). This one never quite does. Instead of feeling like a film that is both funny and tragic, it never shakes the feeling that it can't decide between the two.

2. The structure is off. What sets the movie in motion (the "inciting incident" in screenwriting jargon): Ryan meeting Alex? The introduction of the company's new methodology and the sharp young female mind behind it? Or is it the subplot with Clooney's sister's wedding? It isn't clear, and these elements don't flow logically from each other in terms of plot or theme. I imagine that Reitman sees the unifying element as "commitment" (everything is about commitment and how Ryan views it). Theoretically, that's true. In practice, the center does not hold.

3. The writing is uneven. Parts of the film were brilliant, particularly the dialogue between the two main female characters ("Don't get me wrong, I appreciate everything your generation did for women, but...") was one element of the movie's best sequence. But it's telling that the best writing doesn't involve Clooney's character. In fact, at the movie's moment of truth, when Ryan is set up to deliver a game-changing speech, the writing is absolutely pedestrian. Either you have the speech be lackluster on purpose (because that fits Clooney's character in that situation), and then the speech doesn't have its desired effect; or the speech is profound and well-written, and it does its job within the story. Instead, Ryan somehow manages to underperform and overdeliver. You can't have it both ways.

4. Clooney's character winds up feeling unbelievable, and in the end, there's no emotional moment for the viewer. It's actually rare to see a movie where you completely buy a character during the film, but then by the end think, "Really?" But this is one of those cases. Could there really be a guy who likes to travel as much as Ryan? Sure. A guy who is as obsessed with miles and elite clubs? Maybe. A guy who travels the country firing people? Could exist, maybe already does. But a guy who also gets paid lots of money to give motivational speeches about dropping all of your commitments? Sorry. There's a reason we never see the audience's reaction to the end of any of Ryan's speeches: that particular message simply doesn't inspire. Plus, no company would hire someone to deliver a message of anti-commitment, because every company wants to build loyalty, not destroy it.

5. The movie suffers from "alternative music" syndrome. I appreciate films that do the unexpected. Lord knows we have enough movies that press blunt cookie cutters into processed emotional dough. But you can't be different just to be different. Calling your music "alternative" reveals your utter dependence on the thing against which you are rebelling (if it goes away, you lose your power). Movies like "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which I watched the night before, seem completely "other." "Up in the Air" felt like it was producing a few twists just for their own sake, including the very end of the movie. It's not the Hollywood ending you would expect, and that's great. But does it ultimately make a statement outside the fact that it's "unexpected"? No.

* * *

I don't mean to pick on this movie too much. "Up in the Air" is still better than 80 percent of what's out there. But especially after seeing "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," this felt like a movie that desperately wanted to have meaning, but simply wasn't willing to do the work to achieve it. Like its main character, it marches up to the edge of profundity, and then simply escapes.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Souvenirs

Introducing the official pre-production trailer of my newest script, Souvenirs:

Friday, January 1, 2010

My Son Is Not Normal

The newspaper is not dead.