Friday, February 19, 2010

Oscar Watch Review: Avatar

FernGully: The Last RainforestImage via Wikipedia
Film: Avatar
Nominations: Art direction, Cinematography, Directing, Film editing, Original score, Best picture, Sound editing, Sound mixing, Visual effects

In our goal to give somewhat fair (we're not going to pretend to be completely unbiased here) and fully-informed coverage of the Academy Awards this March, Joey and I are determined to not only view every film up for a major award, but to review them as well.

With this in mind, it would seem a bit unfair not to mention Avatar with the others as we review them. However, our opinions have been broadcast quite clear; we have talked about the film in ad nauseum on the MovieSucktastic Podcast, and have covered it in numerous blog posts.

So, just consider this a quick recap:

Avatar is, without a doubt, the most popular film of the year, and most likely one of the most popular films of the decade. A mega-budget sci-fi fantasy space epic that takes place on a completely CGI-rendered alien planet, Avatar is filled with some of the most impressive displays of computer animation and 3D film-making to date. It is truly a stunning visual spectacle to behold.

It is also a film that features a shallow, thin, and decidedly unoriginal plot. Pointed out by many critics to be nothing more than a literal copy of Dances with WolvesPocahontas, and even Ferngully (which has seen a rocketing increase in sales and rentals due to the unfavorable comparisons), Avatar has received so much deserved criticism regarding the screenplay that director James Cameron has had to come out and publicly respond to accusations of blatant plagiarism. It is an overly simplistic plot that is more suitable for its cartoon feature predecessors, and barely manages to hold together the overly-long 162 minutes special effects extravaganza, especially considering that the PG-13 film was geared towards children and family audiences.

Avatar deserves most of its Oscar nominations. The sound, score, direction, editing and visual effects are all noteworthy for what they achieved. But primarily, all of this is driven by a film's story, the vehicle that drives everything that takes place on screen. As a whole, the excellence of what takes place on the screen in Avatar is weakened and diminished by the inadequate and generally lazy screenplay. The fact that this shallow spectacle has actually garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Picture is nothing more than an insult to all of the other films, past and present, that bothered to lend as much attention to the craft of the storytelling as they did for the visual effects utilized to enhance it.

The truly sad part of it is, Avatar might not have gotten its Best Picture nomination if the Academy hadn't bloated the size of the category to ten nominations The previously sufficient five slots wouldn't have left them enough room to also nominate District 9, so they wouldn't look like complete idiots for passing over a film that managed impressive special effects and a great screenplay (which it has also been nominated for, by the way) at a fraction of Avatar's ridiculous budget.

It is also my theory that the only reason they didn't try to nominate Avatar for screenplay isn't because it was a weak script, but because it would be hard to rationalize whether it belonged in the Original or Adapted category.

There, I think I'm done now.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Oscar Watch Review: In The Loop

Promotional poster for In the Loop parodying t...Image via Wikipedia

Film: In the Loop
Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay

A while ago, I surprised a lot of people by expressing my lack of enthusiasm for the film Superbad. My reason perplexed them even more, as it was the incessant vulgar language, which comes out of the gate at top speed in the opening scene. While being far from easily offended type, and not adverse from using my own collection of colorful language, I couldn't really find the humor of these teenagers cursing up a storm while raiding a convenience store for snacks. It just felt forced, and despite some actually humorous scenes scattered throughout the rest of the film, I couldn't get past the feeling that the film's main motivation was to shock the audience with a cacophany of cursing.

Why do I bring this up? Because In the Loop contains enough foul language to make Betty White blush, enough inventive insults to put Don Rickles to shame, and enough F-Bombs to start a war of its own.

It is fucking brilliant.

Of course, there is so much more to In the Loop than the language. This spin-off of the popular British television show The Thick of It is a political satire involving the behind-the-scenes events taking place during the run-up to the Iraq War, and the mid-level government officials in both England and America scrambling to either jump-start the war or stop it dead in its tracks. This might sound like a topic for a serious made-for-TV mini-series, but the approach that writer/director Armando Iannucci and his co-writers successfully finds the dry and abrasive humor in the origins of a war that both nations are still mired in today.

Many critics and reviewers have chosen to compare In the Loop to Dr. Strangelove, no doubt because both are political satires with a strong anti-war message (and both featured British comedic talents), but this comparison tends to ignore the vast difference between the nearly surreal slapstick comedy of Strangelove and the exceedingly dry and uncomfortably abusive humor of Loop. With this in mind, Loop would be far better described as an Anti-West Wing crossed with The Office, on crack and with Tourette Syndrome.

Did I mention the abusive language? Much like Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks or Jeremy Piven in Entourage, most of the cast of In the Loop bulldoze through their scenes verbally assaulting anything that gets in their way, while the remaining dazed and startled characters do their best to get out of the way. But unlike Superbad, here the language is not only justified, but an integral part of the atmosphere. The dog-eat-dog nature of these behind the scenes power plays and struggles are so brutal and bare-knuckled, you keep waiting, even hoping, for someone to snap and throw a punch. These profane diatribes and stinging insults are the weapons of choice for this battlefield leading up to the real battlefield, and fit right into the hectic, paranoid and franticly paced atmosphere these characters work in on a daily basis.

This might be a bit oppressive for some viewers, especially when considering that there are few if any characters worth rooting for. Armando Iannucci has a talent for presenting characters multifaceted enough to prevent them from filling the traditional roles of Heroes and Villains. Initially meek and soft-spoken characters (in comparison to others, at least) such as those played by Tom Hollander and Chris Addison are charming and likable at first, but they eventually show weaknesses and flaws that prevent you from fully feeling any real sympathy for them, while even Peter Capaldi's complete and utter bastard Malcolm Tucker (one of only two returning characters from The Thick of It) is given a moment or two of undeniable humanity. There are a couple of points in the film in which you will be unsure of who to root for, and other's still when the side you chose might shock or even shame you a little. No clear lines are really drawn here, even when it comes to where the humor stops and the serious issues begin.

It is this kind of complexity that makes In the Loop a strong contender for Best Adapted Screenplay, despite having more foul language than a double feature of Scarface and Reservoir Dogs. But you don't have to take my word for it. IFC has made the screenplay available for free download. Read it and judge for yourself.      

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