MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Avatar, Princess & the Frog, The Young Victoria


Avatar (Four Stars)
U.S.; James Cameron, 2009

Avatar, James Cameron’s planet-shaking, moon-rocking, eco-worshipping, dragon-riding new science fiction fantasy epic-and-a-half, may not be a perfect movie. But it’s sure as hell an incredible experience. It’s a genre-movie knockout, a cinematic mind-blast and a technological marvel whose feats of 3D motion-capture and CGI pyrotechnics, and the spectacular and endlessly imaginative alternate world this snazzy technique helps Cameron and company create — set on a distant Alpha Centauri moon called Pandora, where the natives are blue and the zeitgeist is green — all keep blowing you away.That gargantuan dream-world inside Avatar is so marvelous, so beautiful, so popping with delights ranging all the way from gut wrenching to lyrical, and from exalting to borderline campy, that your senses and susceptibilities will probably get seduced, even as your more literary sensibilities may flinch at the usual Cameron script shortcomings: the sometimes flat, mostly humorless dialogue, and the standard-pulp characterizations.

Here, those “flaws” seem merely serviceable, while the stunning visual imagery and exploding action around them — those blue-skinned, golden-eyed, Na’vi extraterrestrials and the human-controlled Avatars or Na’vi counterfeits astride swooping semi-pterodactyls soaring above super-rain forest landscapes, in deep focus shots of astounding detail and overwhelming richness and color — are almost always transporting.

God, you think as you watch this movie’s bounteous gallery of visual wonders — its` vast luminous greenery, willow God-icons, huge stomping robo-thugs and wave upon wave of deep-focus wonders — if this man could only tell a joke, he really would be king of the world! (Yes, I have seen True Lies.)

The well-worn, well-worked, relatively humor free, but still engrossing story of Avatar hovers on what used to be deprecatingly called, in literary science fiction circles, space opera — a standard Western movie or pulp plot transplanted to other places, other worlds. And the plot isn’t just pulpy. It also recalls more adult ’50s-’60s ecological sc-fi, like Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse and ‘s Dune.

In this case, Cameron has taken the old theme of the soldier going native, the Dances with Wolves plot of the cavalryman who mingles with the Indian tribes and goes Native American, and transplanted it to his Pandora, where the aliens are tall (twice as big as an NBA shortie guard of the ’60s) and the trees are taller. There, an expedition from ecologically ravished earth, has shown up to talk the natives or Na’vi out of their most valuable resource (something called, in a moment of rare Cameronian whimsy, the old joke term unobtainium), and, if that fails, blow them off it.

Avatar is a Hindu term for a deity descended from Heaven to Earth, and the Avatar plan is the evil corporation’s brand of outreach. Here, Avatars are the go-betweens: phony Na’vis, who look like the real article, but are actually Na’vi-like beings operated by encased earthlings, who control them from afar, while the Avatar bodies are sent to the wilds to palaver with the aliens (who call the earthlings sky people).

The movie’s hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington of Terminator Salvation) is an Avatar-by-accident, a paraplegic ex-marine recruited after his twin brother, part of the program, dies and necessitates a quick DNA-matching substitution. Pulling Jake in various directions before he opens up his Pandora’s box, are the sterling, all-worlds-tolerant Stanford scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, a Cameron veteran), corporate douche bag Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, oozing sleaze) and the macho-beyond-macho, mean-multiplied-by-mean Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

Miles is the kind of steely dude who thinks Clint Eastwood is a pussy and a Carmel, California hippie, and that Arnold Schwarzenegger needs more Terminator lessons –and he recruits Jake as a spy for the cause. (As we will later learn, the cause is carnage, the goal is theft, the motive is money, and Miles is a Terminator plus testosterone.)

Avatar Jake will move in another direction. On Pandora, blue and ambulatory, he soon finds that blue is beautiful and that he loves the language (devised especially for this movie by Paul Frommer). He meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the sexiest, toughest, 12-foot tall blue gal you could ever hope to rub tendrils with, and she guides him through forest romance and becomes his Pocahontas-like partisan. So Jake joins the tribe, tries to win over doubters like Eytukan (played by Cherokee actor and former Geronimo Wes Studi) and also tries to decide whether to turn against the exploiters.

Meanwhile, Parker and Miles, twerpy sadist-boss and murderous thug deluxe, have grown tired of negotiation and diplomacy. They want to escalate into (in the movie’s own words) shock and awe. And shock and awe comes down, in this movie’s absolutely ferocious final battle, a marvel of technological mayhem, but also one which, thankfully, comes only after a lot of careful set-up — hitting harder and wounding more deeply.

Maybe Cameron is the King anyway — good lines or not, and despite the paucity of the kind of comedy that some of Avatar’s further-out scenes positively scream out for.

I resisted elevating him a little myself the other day when some friends argued that Avatar is clearly the movie of the year and the probable Oscar best picture favorite, that the dialogue deficiencies didn’t really matter, and that some bad lines won’t shoot down Avatar, just as they couldn’t sink Titanic.

Mentioning, a little testily, my own personal 2009 U. S. favorites (not Oscar predictions) Up and Bad Lieutenant (which I know don’t have a chance best picture-wise), and even bringing up the so-far critics’ choice The Hurt Locker — another, more modest and realistic anti-war saga by Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow — I also ignored the obvious financial mega-score that this movie represents. We’re talking here less about aesthetics and future classic stature, than about cultural penetration and influence.

So, yes. I was wrong, they were right, and Avatar is the movie of the year. Yes, it probably will top Hurt Locker at the Oscars. (Talk about backstage soap operas). Yes, generations of movie-going kids will clutch these hothouse images to their chests in their sleepy time dream-weavings and fantasize about Avatar affairs and adventures, and blue bombshells. (Adults, maybe not.)

And, no, I don’t think Cameron’s obvious political sentiments — against corporate mendacity and exploitation, the Iraq War, ecological damage and class and racial bigotry — are too bald or too heart-and-art-on-sleeve.

I’m just amazed he got them through Fox. How are those bellicose Fox News pro-corporate, pro-Iraq, anti-ecological, Obama-is-Osama and the-Dems-are-Commies commentators going to handle that? Or designated middle-of-the-roader Bill O’Reilly to whom ratings and financial victory are Gods? Will Glen “The Wreck” Beck uncover another Happy Feet-style eco-cinematic conspiracy and dissolve in another twitchy tantrum or dry-eyed crying jag? Will Sean “The Sham” Hammity bully another set-up liberal and toss another football to show us what a jock he is? Or will they all just shut the hell up and let Rupert Murdoch and the others laugh all the way to the bank?

Who cares? Commerce is commerce, art is art, and Avatar is Avatar. I disagree with the Village Voice’s Jim Hoberman that Avatar could have been Metropolis and got too silly in the middle. Remember, Metropolis, great as it is, gets pretty silly too. And it even had a future Nazi, Fritz Lang’s scenarist wife, Thea von Harbou, as a screenwriter.

Still, as I watched Avatar, I felt a little sad, because, much as I love great genre movies, and much as I was entertained by Cameron’s phantasmagorical knockout of a show, I’d still like to see virtuosity like this more often deployed at the service of an adult story. Something richer, denser, more real and more human. Something like, more recently, The Aviator. Or like the Citizen Kanes, Godfathers, Schindler’s Lists, Casablancas or even Gone with the Winds that still top moviemakers’ and experts’ all time greatest lists.

That’s not a knock on Avatar, but simply on the culture that tends to spend almost all its money and invest its most massive cinematic resources on the kind of pop dream-weaving that most twelve year olds cherish.

Where’s our modern movie Shakespeare? (Now that Welles is long dead.) Our Tolstoy? Our Dostoyevsky? Our Dickens? Where’s even our modern Ben Hecht? (A few today can match Hecht for wit, but none for volume.) Hey, I was twelve when I first saw Citizen Kane, and had my life changed forever. Avatar might have changed it too, but not in the same way. Why not give the smarter, less video-game oriented twelve year olds of today, and more importantly, the adults, something to dream about too?

We know where our modern master of sci-fi super-melodrama is. He’s no Fritz Lang, and he’s no avatar either, but he puts on one hell of a dragon ride. Memo to James Cameron: If you get the Oscar next year, say something nice about your ex-wife and her movie. Or at least crack a joke. Remember: It’s good to be the king.


The Princess and the Frog (Three Stars)
U.S.; John Musker & Ron Clements, 2009

Where have John Musker and Ron Clements been all these years? (Check Imdb.) There have been few feature cartoons in the current, resurgent animation era I’ve enjoyed as much as I did Musker and Clements’ The Little Mermaid, (1989) with its buoyant ocean-floor showstopper “Under the Sea,” and Aladdin, (1992) with its take-no-prisoners comic turn as the genie by a blazing Robin Williams. Both those movies also (mostly) had neato Howard Ashman-Alan Menken song scores, and we forget how dominant that pair seemed before Ashman’s death.

Since then, Musker and Clements have done a couple of so-so films, Hercules and Treasure Planet. But they’ve been relatively low-profile, even as the form they revived and mastered in Little Mermaid has become to seem more and more passed by. The old-fashioned 2D animation style, complete with an original Snow White-style song score, has been increasingly replaced by computer animation, with minimal or no songs. Still, the witty, lively memory of Mermaid and Aladdin lingered on.

Now comes The Princess and the Frog, which I really enjoyed. Musker and Clements co-write (with others), as well as co-direct their movies, and that’s what make the best of them snap, crackle. They have real comic/verbal style. The characters are pungent. The dialogue is crisp and fast and funny. And the old-style flat animation doesn’t jazz you up or wear out your eyes, the way non-Pixar computer stuff often seems to.

This is a good show, alive in all areas, including Randy Newman’s unjustly dissed, in some circles, score. One day we won’t have Newman around anymore to do funny, ironic, catchy stuff, and we’ll miss the dude. And his car. (Santa Monica! We love it!) If Ashman and Menken were the Cole Porters, or the Rodgers and Harts, of feature cartoon songwriters, Newman is the Johnny Mercer. Hey, if the cat’s name was Dandy Klewman, they might be hailing him as a bright new discovery now, instead of calling him tired.

Of course, the movie also gets a big plus, because, without condescension or fuss, it puts a black heroine and her family at the center of the story: plucky Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), who wants to run a post-WW1 New Orleans restaurant in remembrance of her late gumbo virtuoso dad, and who kisses a frog in order to turn the pesky amphibian into her benefactor, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos).

Bad move, Tiana. The catch-22 is that Naveen has been hoodooed by the perfidious Dr. Facilier (Keith David, smoking), and Naveen doesn’t turn back into a prince; she turns into a frog. And that throws her and Naveen into a swampy odyssey where they run across trumpet-blowing alligator Louis (Michael Leon Wooley, who makes up for the absence of either Louis Armstrong or Louis Prima), wise little firefly Ray (Jim Cummings) and witchy Mama Odey (Jennifer Lewis). All these characters have more life and sass than the average live action movie gives you, and better dialogue and songs to boot.

Of course, using African-American principals in a cartoon opens you up to the scourge of political correctness, even when they’re as positively, affectionately portrayed as the human ones here and as vibrantly funny and up-tempo as the swamp critters. Political correctness, get thee hence! I happen to love the much-dumped-on Disney crows of Dumbo, one of whom is actually called Jim Crow (and played by Cliff “Jiminy Cricket” Edwards), as I did few cartoon characters of my youth.

Those crows! They were cool. They were savvy. They were preternaturally hip. They saved Dumbo. They were the jazzbo, trucking, swinging bunch that sang But I believe I’ve seen about ever’thing, when I see an elephant fly! They gave Dumbo the magic feather that carried him up, up, up. Now, they’re often attacked as stereotypes, but, in fact, many ideologically screened and purified characters are stereotypes in reverse.

In any case, I found the opening scenes of The Princess and the Frog a little sappy and frenetic. But then it took off, specially when David, a great actor and a great voice man, takes over as the elegantly sinister hex-master Facilier. Musker and Clements, welcome back. Randy Newman, step on the gas. And you snobby old Jiminy critics, you leave my crows and my frogs and my alligator and my people alone. You hear? (Bourbon Street! We love it! We love it!)


The Young Victoria (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S-U.K..; Jean-Marc Valee, 2009

I confess to a personal prejudice. I’m not much interested in most serious movies these days about British Kings and Queens, unless they were written by William Shakespeare, or directed with the Ernst Lubitsch touch: lightly, irreverently. This opulent and aggressively glamorous portrayal of Vicky and Albert (Emily Blunt and the unfortunate Rupert Friend) and their days of youth, privilege and royal intrigue flitted by so swiftly and unmemorably that it seemed like a tense game of royal croquet. I remember one scene with pleasure: Jim Broadbent as King William blowing his gasket at a royal banquet. The rest of the movie might as well have been bon-bon day in the local bank.

Jean-Marc Valee is the director of a much-awarded Canadian movie called C.R.A.Z.Y. that I’d really like to see. But for me (and remember I’m prejudiced), this Valee film, which was produced by, among others, Martin Scorsese, could only have been saved if it were rethought as a Monty Python sketch, or if Scorsese had taken a real chance and cast Robert De Niro as Young Victoria and Harvey Keitel as Prince Albert, and let them improvise for the whole movie. while the rest of the cast (a good one, including Paul Bettany and Miranda Richardson) recited Julian Fellowes’ lines, as written.

Broadbent alone, as a reward, would be allowed to expand his part by adding bits of Joe Pesci’s Ray-Liotta-agitation scene in Goodfellas. (“You think I’m funny? You think I’m funny! I appear to you to be funny?”) That sounds to me like interesting cinema — with an opportunity for the most memorable of all Keitel nude scenes, and a great spellbinding reprise, at a royal ball, of De Niro’s “Who you talking to? You talking to me?” scene, delivered to a cowering Duchess of Kent (Richardson), a cringing Duke of Wellington (Julian Glover) and a craven King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann).

– Michael Wilmington
December 17, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon