December 15, 2009

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Amreeka, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Road, and Anticipating Avatar

[Note: This series includes scattered thoughts on various movie-related topics. I was looking for a word that started with the letter "g" that means collection or assortment, but lest you think I'm some elitist wordsmith, know that I'd never heard of "gallimaufry" and I don't even know how to say it, but it was the only other option the thesaurus provided aside from "goulash" (too foody) and "garbage" (no).]

Amreeka (B)  

Amreeka doesn't show you anything you haven't seen before in the immigrant/cross-cultural dramedy genre (and it is a genre, or at least a developing one). But few immigrants' stories are identical, and dismissing Amreeka as "just another one of those immigrant movies" is about as short-sighted as, for example, assuming all Spanish-speaking immigrants are Mexicans. The fact is that Amreeka, while not entirely unique, still offers memorable insights into post-9/11 immigration in America, particularly for those families coming from the Middle East (in this case, Palestinians to Illinois).

The film was written and directed by Cherien Dabis, a young Palestinian-American filmaker recently named by Variety as one of "Ten Directors to Watch". Dabis certainly presents the film with the authority of someone who has experienced the story, and her screenplay is balanced with equal amounts of tragedy and comedy. While the narrative is somewhat inconsistent in terms of character development, you find yourself genuinely rooting for Munah and Fadi Farah from the first few minutes - a sign of thoughtful writing. I have to admit I'm a little tired of seeing Hiam Abbass worked to death as apparently the only woman of her age Hollywood ever thinks to cast as "Strong-willed Middle Eastern/Persian Woman #1", but she nonetheless delivers in her role every time.

Amreeka is a film made to evoke sympathy for the struggles of immigrants and particularly their children, but I wonder if it will reach an audience that doesn't already possess these sentiments. Either way, it's an easily digestible film and a promising sign from a director that I'll certainly be keeping an eye on going forward.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (A)

Turns out the only thing Wes Anderson had to do to get back on my good graces was apply his sardonically hip style to a familiar story. My love for his work has been sliding steadily with each consecutive film since Rushmore, primarily because I just felt like I was watching the same movie over and over with a different soundtrack. Well actually the soundtracks were pretty much the same, too.

Anyway, while Fantastic Mr. Fox bears his mark as obviously as his other films, it proved to be a perfect fit for someone who should really be considered more of a film artist than a storyteller anyway (can anybody really defend his plots as being anything other than excuses for irony?). The combination of the stop-motion animation and, perhaps more importantly, the decision to film the action on a life-size scale - zooming and panning, wide angles and perspectives - makes it a completely absorbing experience. I'm not sure if Meryl Streep was used to her full potential here, but George Clooney was predictably foxy as Fox and Jason Schwartzman was predictably petulant as Max Fischer Ash. 

Despite my love for Willa Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton's version be cursed), I'm still convinced that Roald Dahl stories are best experienced in book form. But if I'm going to watch an adaptation of a Dahl story I think I'd rather see an animated version like Fantastic Mr. Fox, because you just can't capture the Dahl magic as easily in live-action form.

The Road (B)

I haven't read Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-Winning novel, "The Road" (it sounded a little too dark for me when it was published in 2006), but I'd been anticipating the film adaptation since the early part of last year. It kept getting pushed later into 2008, then into early 2009, and then not until Thanksgiving 2009. An ironic situation for a film about people on an endless journey.

Much like I presume the book does, the film paints a horrifying portrait of despair, death, and darkness after some unknown calamity strikes the earth. For really no identifiable reason at all, the Father (Viggo Mortensen) in the story remains optimistic, just, moral, and true. He attempts to instill his relatively sunny outlook on life in his baby-faced son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who conveniently looks identical to Charlize Theron (she plays his mother). The Father talks about being a "good guy" and "keeping the fire inside" as ways to comfort his son, and without giving too much away in the story, it ultimately saves the boy.

But despite the tidy ending, one question remained for me: From where does the Father derive his spirit? What keeps him going? What motivates him? And I'm not asking a rhetorical question here - I really want to know what this father is basing his faith in humanity on. Is he religious? It doesn't appear so. Is he interested in the wellbeing of others, or only the wellbeing of his son? It's unclear. Is his character a metaphor for something that I have misunderstood, or is The Road in general a metaphor? Or this just a really bleak story about the future? Questions to consider on your next long trip.

Anticipating Avatar

A funny thing happened on the way to Avatar's release: I realized people hate James Cameron. I know the guy is difficult to work with and a bit of an egomaniac, but I don't see how that is a.) different than any other blockbuster director, and b.) relevant in any way to his ability to blow my mind. But the general response, or so it's seemed, has been that he is Michael Bay's lesser-talented cousin. I mean, really?

The way I see it, every feature film Cameron has directed in the last 30 years has been near-revolutionary (except True Lies, which I always have to exclude from that claim and always have to defend as a movie I love anyway). Aliens? Changed the outer space/science fiction genre. The Terminator? Visionary futuristic story that's actually interesting. The Abyss? I've already talked about it. T2? Liquid metal turned to human. Titanic? Already talked about it here and here. Four of those films - Aliens, T2, True Lies, and Titanic - received Oscar nominations for their visual effects; all but True Lies won (it lost to Forrest Gump, understandably, but would have swept Best Action Comedy if the category existed).

Round about last January I wrote this about Avatar: "James Cameron, please blow my mind again. The brilliant visionary...returns to the director's chair for his first major feature since Titanic. Visual effects have come a long way in the last decade so it will be interesting to see what he unveils this time around."

Having successfully avoided all trailers, advance previews, advance reviews, feature articles, behind-the-scenes clips, or even plot summaries thus far, I'm just as excited as I was a year ago.


  1. I wasn't looking forward to AVATAR really, but the word out of the advance screenings has gotten me excited. I hope I'm not disappointed.

  2. Yeah, and I haven't been quite as out of the loop with it as I claimed. I do know people basically laughed off some early preview screening this summer (I don't know if it was online or not or what), but I dismiss that pretty easily. If you're not seeing this in its finished form on the big screen (and even in 3D at that), I'm not sure what you can say about it. But that's just me.

  3. The trailers never did much for me, and was skeptical about all the talk about it being the most photo realistic CGI ever because the creatures in the trailer still looked like CG creations to me. But with all I've been hearing I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. I hope to see it in 3D this weekend.

  4. Me too - and now, for the first time, I just saw that this bad boy clocks in at nearly 3 hours. Now I don't know whether to be excited or nervous.

  5. Ahhh where to begin.

    Cameron. He's got more talent in his toenail than Michael Bay has in his whole body. Well, that's not right either. Michael Bay is very good at doing whatever it is he does, and I'm sure it's accurate to the vision he has in his adolescent brain, but it doesn't do anyting for me. Cameron at times is brilliant.

    The difference is that Bay doesn't have an armload of undeserved (my opinion) academy awards to brag about. Plus, I judge Cameron by a higher standard because of Terminator and Aliens. I expect more from him and so the disappointment of everything he's done since Aliens (again, my opinion) stings.

    Plus, when you throw 400 - 500 million at a movie screen and proclaim it's going to change cinema as we know it, my natural resistance and skepticism comes bubbling up.

    I've cleansed myself of doubt and as much expectation as I can shed and going in as open minded as possible. I will happily overlook the clunky dialogue and plot aimed at adolescents if Cameron simply makes me go "Holy crap. I haven't seen THAT before."

    What else...

    Fantastic Mr. Fox. I know you've been skeptical about later career Anderson so I'm especially happy to see you fell for Foxy. I should just say I loved it, but then I loved Darjeeling and Life Aquatic as well...I don't want to start an argument about why I'm right and everyone else is wrong on those. They're old news. Back to Fox. Regardless of whether someone thinks Anderson has been spinning his wheels, I think you have to admit there's something about the animation that sort of makes his style "ok" again. It's still very much a Wes Anderson movie in terms of style and themes and humor, yet seeing it from the perspective of a kind of childlike innocence casts it in a whole new light. It's a perspective I think more people should apply to Tennenbaums through Darjeeling, but that's just me.

    Anderson is too often dismissed as being a "hipster" but to me that implies a certain cynicism and ironic remove that doesn't apply to Anderson at all. It applies to his characters and it certainly applies to many of the genuinely hard core Anderson lovers, but I don't think it fits the films themselves. To me they're all very innocent, genuine and honest. As laden with production design as they are, they all have kind of a lonely beating heart at their center. For all their show, they're Dignan in Bottle Rocket or Max in Rushmore.

    We've already chatted about The Road and I haven't seen Amreeka (kinda want to), so I'll leave this already long winded comment at that.

  6. I thought The Road was well done. It was very faithful to the book - but it was missing McCarthy's language. McCarthy's abstractions and musings added a lot. As for the man, his motivation is that he has chosen saving his son as the only thing that has meaning anymore. In this wasteland, there is no meaning, but the meaning he finds and adheres to, to a religious zealot's extent, is preserving his son. It's what keeps the man going.

    Avatar - I am confident that Cameron will deliver an entertaining, well-made film. I just fear that it will feel like being in a computer game.

  7. Avatar - Fair analysis of Cameron's work, Craig, though I'll point out that the only Oscars he has personally won are for Titanic, and even then he wasn't on the FX team. So I guess we're splitting hairs in talking about his Oscars as being undeserved or not; I'm really meaning to point out that nearly all of his films have effects that are Oscar-worthy (and then some, in my opinion), so we should be automatically excited for Avatar. Or at least for the FX in Avatar, though as Hokahey says I hope it's not video gamey. Certainly I can't defend the stories and characters in all of his films, either, but I've been able to overlook those before.

    Either way he's really taking a risk with this in saying it's going to essentially change the game in Hollywood. It will have to be really impressive to back up both his mouth and his money. And maybe you're right, if he could make Terminator and Aliens maybe he shouldn't be given a free pass on FX alone for this one.

    Fox - I think my problem with applying childlike innocence to Tenenbaums through Darjeeling is that I feel like despite many of the characters' immaturity, they're still presented as striving adults, trying to grow up in a world that may not be prepared for them (like Max in Rushmore, well and I guess like Ash here). Maybe it was easier for me to see Fox in an innocent state because of the animation. I don't know, that's an interesting thought. And while I've heard people defend Anderson as misunderstood, even if he doesn't mean to be hip himself, I think he consciously feeds into the hipsterdom of his fans by the songs he chooses or the outfits his characters wear. In fairness I should try to separate the filmmaker from the film, though.

    The Road - Alright, Hokahey, I think that starts to makes some sense about the father's motivation...****SPOILER ALERT****But it just seemed so futile to me while I was watching, and I couldn't understand why it didn't seem futile to him while he was still alive. I'm convinced there was something innate in the father or in his past that gave him this hope that by finding others he could save his son. He had an incredibly strong conviction under the circumstances (and for that matter during the whole time he tried to convince his wife), and I didn't know where it was coming from. Is the father explored more as a character in the book?

  8. Regardless of how talented someone is or even is perceived to be, the public like humility, and Cameron shows none. This doesn't make him any less talented, but I can certainly understand why it turns people off. The same is true for myriad athletes. Anyone who's paid attention ought to know that to be that good, that successful, takes a large amount of confidence (cockiness?), but we wish for the double standard, the Joe Montana, and exact our ire upon them when we don't get it.

    I bear no ill will towards Cameron; I just think it's dumb to proclaim (directly or indirectly through marketing) that your film will change cinema. It sets you up for nothing but disappointment and leaves people looking for excuses to believe the opposite is true, even if it's not.

    I can't say that Avatar looks all that groundbreaking, but I have yet to see it, so only time will tell...

  9. Good points, but based on the guy's track record I have every reason to believe he'll be showing us something we haven't seen before. In other words, he's backed up those dumb claims before. The Abyss, T2, and Titanic were basically a shock and awe campaign on the eyes; his movies are like amusement park rides and he's always a few years ahead of everybody else.

    Now that being said, I can't defend his personality and the movie would certainly go down better if he ate a big piece of humble pie, but that's unlikely. Also, if we're speaking relatively he's not nearly as arrogant as Tarantino. ;-I


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