The Movie Club

The Ultimate Critical Insult

Hello, everyone—
There’s still a lot more that we could, and maybe should, say about Precious. Wesley, I think you’re right about the “throwaway leisure-time details,” and I confess I loved some of the secondary characters even more than the leads: for example, the student who declared her favorite color “fluorescent beige”—that’s its own kind of poetry.

But my mind keeps drifting to Avatar.Now you know, even if I couldn’t get totally immersed in the immersive immersiveness of Avatar,I do recognize the degree of discipline and care that went into making it. And some of the effects were gorgeous: I loved those pinkish-brown mushroomy things and the way they shrank away, so shyly, from Jake’s touch. That image was Fantasia-caliber beautiful.

Rio Bravo

But Dana, you wrote that “it’s not fair to hold [ Avatar’s] dialogue and character development to the standard of a character-driven dramatic film.” Why? I would have been perfectly willing to treat Avatar as a fun, inventive, Saturday-matinee entertainment, if only Cameron himself were willing to see it that way. Instead, he’s been touting it—for years now—as an industry-changing, technologically earth-shattering, culture-redefining event. We’re not talking Flash Gordon here. Or even trash-o fun like The Scorpion King. Cameron has been selling this thing as a serious epic, and a lot of people have been buying: We have David Denby, a critic I respect, going on Charlie Rose and comparing Avatar, as a spectacle, to the movies of D.W. Griffith in terms of the sheer awe they inspired in audiences.

I know what David’s getting at: I’ve heard all the stories about people taking their kids to Avatar, marveling at how filled with wonder they are and how the little tykes are chattering away about it as the best movie ever. And every generation has to choose its own “best movie ever”—that’s not for me or for any other critic to decide. Most important of all, I realize that people are finding pure movie pleasure in Avatar, and even though the movie didn’t do it for me, I’m all for pure movie pleasure—find it where you can get it, I say!

But if we’ve really gotten to the point where technology only—with almost zero focus on acting or actors, or basic storytelling—is being hailed as the wave of the future, then I think it’s more crucial than ever to stand up for the basics of character development and dialogue. Why can’t we just name the things Avatar does well and admit that the story is lame, the characters are dorky, and the dialogue is stooooopid, instead of saying, “Wow! Pandora just looks so awesome through these 3-D glasses! My life will never be the same!” Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of that response. Dana, I know what you’re saying when you wonder why Avatar can’t just be treated like LOTR-style fun. But the LOTR movies did have a great deal of character development and grand, sweeping stories that were worked out well, along with stunning visuals.

OK, now that we’ve established that James Cameron is the reincarnation of Orson Welles—he certainly thinks so—let’s move on to a cheerier subject: horror! Both Dan and Dana brought up the idea that we had quite a few smarter-than-usual genre movies this year, and while I’m not really sure that’s evidence, as Dan suggests, that Hollywood is finally “getting it”—right now, I’m afraid the Hollywood fat cats are all scrambling to figure out how they’re going to make the next Avatar, for less than, oh, $400 million—it does give us at least some hope for the future of enjoyable, not-brain-dead, mainstream entertainment. I was thrilled that 2009 gave us so many nonsadistic horror movies, pictures that were heavy on craftsmanship and scary stuff and laughs, instead of just leaving us to wonder whose fingers were going to be snipped off next. Dana and Dan, you both mentioned Drag Me to Hell, which I, too, was nuts about. That Lorna Raver! One of my favorite supporting performances of the year: Not many people can spew goo with so much savoir faire. I was also delighted by House of the Devila bit disappointed with the sub-Rosemary’s Baby finale, maybe, but in the end, that didn’t matter so much. The picture was so affectionate, almost wistful—instead of just asking, “Why can’t movies still be like this?” Ti West went ahead and made one that is like that. Good for him.

And before I sign off, here’s a curious little thing that I just can’t allow to pass without comment. As we’ve all heard, the critic Robin Wood passed away a few weeks ago. You may also have heard, as Jonathan Rosenbaum details on his blog, that in the days before Wood died, he dictated a list of his favorite movies to a friend: Rio Bravo was at the top of that list. And so over at Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeffrey Wells recently decided to take Wood to task for not choosing what is in his view the better movie, High Noon.

I don’t know about you guys, but I sure hope that when the Grim Reaper comes for me and I mouth through parched lips the title of my favorite movie of all time—”What was that? What did she say? Why, I believe her last words were—Pootie Tang!”—there’s an astute critic around to make his case for how, oh, I don’t know, White Chicks is the superior work. None of us likes it when the general public accuses movie critics of having their heads up their asses. But it kills me even more to have to admit, when I hear stories like this one, that sometimes they’re right.

Should we all switch over to raising ostriches or something?

Hope that somewhere out there Ricky Nelson is crooning to Wood even as we speak.