Archive for the 'General Film' Category

11
Jan
10

Avatar VS District 9

I’m almost an entire month late, but I finally saw Avatar. I figure you don’t need a full blown review at this point, but maybe a side by side comparison of the two biggest sci-fi movies of 2009 will be illuminating.

So let’s do this… Avatar versus District 9.

What do they have in common? Quite a bit.

Both movies have extremely impressive special effects. Avatar obviously has the bigger (much bigger) budget of the two, and is therefore able to create an entire movie made up of effect shots. It’s almost an animated feature, with a few live characters. District 9 has seamlessly integrated CG characters that all look really good for a fraction of Avatar’s money. They could both be seen purely for “eye candy” appeal.

Both Avatar and District 9 are science fiction action films that have really obvious and preachy subtexts. District 9 ties its story directly to apartheid in Johannesburg, but swaps in some aliens. Avatar takes a more general approach, pointing the finger at humans who seek only to exploit resources and destroy the environment and culture of a beautiful planet for their own personal gain. Neither one is particularly insightful or subtle.

Both of these movies will spirit you away… if you let them. District 9 uses a documentary style introduction to give you a sense of immersion and make the world of the film come to life. James Cameron and his special effects team literally created a world and brought it to life with Avatar. Of course, if you slow down and try to chew on a few of the ideas both films throw at you, you might hit a couple bumps along the way. The Aliens in District 9 have been gathering teensy drops of fuel for years and have juuust enough to get home, but even after Wickus sprays himself with it they still have enough? Wait, fuel makes you mutate into one of them? In Avatar, the Na’vi can plug their hair into trees and the various creatures that populate Pandora, making the “connection with nature” of the natives literal. Did they really need to call the ore the humans want so badly “unobtainium” ? Don’t stop and think about these things in either film, just go with it.

Lastly, neither movie is particularly unpredictable or new in terms of the story being told. Avatar is taking a ton of flak for being almost a science fiction remake of Dances with Wolves or Fern Gully, which it can absolutely be compared to in terms of the format it’s following. Avatar is pretty straightforward, especially if you have seen either of those movies that it models itself after. As I said in my District 9 review, the movie quickly scraps its “oooh new and different” documentary approach and becomes every science fiction film I’ve ever seen. Also, the documentary style opening so clearly lays out all the elements of the story (the Nigerians, how the alien weaponry works, etc) that it is very easy to see where the film is going from there. The premise of using aliens to deal with racism isn’t new either, one can point to several Twilight Zone episodes or even Alien Nation to demonstrate that.

Okay, I get it, they’re kinda similar. Which is better?

Well you know that I only kinda liked District 9, but I kinda liked Avatar more. I don’t think it’s the best movie ever, and it’s certainly not Cameron’s best movie ever, but I refuse to let District 9 take sci-fi/action movie of the year from it. Whyyy?

Both movies ask you to root against humanity and side with a bunch of aliens, but Avatar does a better job of this. In District 9, everyone is a fucking asshole, including the protagonist and the aliens, yet somehow you’re supposed to root for both of them and be really happy to see some humans get gibbed. Avatar uses the very typical archetype of the “noble savage” to portray the Na’vi as culturally superior to the invading humans, who (except for the scientists and one chopper pilot) are portrayed as nothing but trigger happy marines and greedy businessmen. That trick is really old, but y’know what, it works.

I believed the cheesy developing love story in Avatar more than the cheesy developing friendship in District 9. Once again, Avatar’s version of the story is completely run of the mill, as the outsider from the foreign land falls in love with the girl from the native tribe and needs to learn their ways and so on, but it worked well enough. District 9 has Christopher mislead Wickus about transforming him back into a human, making Wickus feel so angry and betrayed that he knocks Christopher out and tries to leave without him. Minutes later, we are expected to believe that Wickus has such a strong redemptive streak that he is willing to further risk his own life to get Christopher home. These moments come so close together towards the end of the film without much explanation, and no matter how you spin it one of them has to ring false to me. I found the developing romance in Avatar to be completely derivative, but it worked and fueled the story just fine.

Avatar has a more awesome and somehow more believable bad guy, even though he’s completely over the top. I never got the sense during District 9 that the bald marine guy would ever be able to singlehandedly stop Wickus. He just seemed to miraculously survive every scene he was in, thus appointing him villain by sheer luck alone. The Colonel in Avatar is ridiculously badass; he runs out into an unbreathable environment to kick ass several times, and even has one quick scene where his arm is just casually on fire as he loads up his battlemech. He’s not as believable as Landa from Inglorious Basterds or anything, but you do believe that this guy could do some damage when the final showdown comes around.

Oh yeah, the final showdown… District 9 had little to no tension for me as Wickus piloted his battlemech (hey both movies have those too!). He was pretty damn unstoppable for the first two thirds of the firefight. In the fight at the end of Avatar, Sully is both physically outmatched in his Na’vi avatar AND in danger of his real (handicapped) body being found or tampered with.

The last, and perhaps most petty of the comparisons… Avatar is fucking prettier. It is. 3D or no 3D, Avatar’s special effects are worth the hype, even if the story isn’t. The movie is worth seeing if you’re an effects junkie. Everyone complains about CGI and many people think 3D is gimmicky, but this movie shows how these effects can be done to make a world seem real. District 9 has damn good special effects, but towards the end of the film it seems only interested in using them to throw more human bits on the camera. I suppose this is the least fair of the comparisons, since District 9 was made for waaaaay less money, but it is worth pointing out.

I’m sorry to say, but between “the little film that could” (please, Peter Jackson threw his name on it), and the “gigantic studio popcorn film in 3D”, I’ve gotta side with Cameron for telling a better completely derivative and cliched science fiction story.

30
Sep
09

Settling nerd debates once and for all!

Since I now see my sexy geeky girlfriend on Mondays and Thursdays, it’s getting hard to get a post out on schedule. I think I’m going to try moving to sundays and wednesdays. Adjust your calendars, folks… I know this matters to you.
Today, we’re going to address some easy answers to some tough nerd debates.
Is Deckard a replicant!? I think part of the reason why Blade Runner is so beloved in nerd circles is because of this little ambiguity that completely doesn’t matter. Yeah, if he was a replicant that would be an ironic turn for the story. Yeah, there’s definitely room for that interpretation, but the point is that there’s room for it, not that you are supposed to endlessly debate it one way or the other.
As a side note, one of my current English classes has a real problem with ambiguity. Some of the people absolutely can’t tolerate it and demand one specific reading. Others languish in it and just mentally stop after saying “it’s ambiguous”. I don’t want to accidentally praise Blade Runner here, but the strength of a good ambiguity is that it lets you see multiple (often contradictory) interpretations by themselves, and then realize the beauty of the ambiguity on the whole. If you’re arguing on a scene by scene basis whether or not Deckard is a replicant, you’re missing the point.
I know I’ve said several times that I will soon go after Blade Runner on this blog. I really should at some point, but I just can’t bring myself to sit through it and outline a post.
“They’re not zombies in 28 Days Later… They’re people that are infected with the rage virus.” Sure, technically you may be right here. Although the movie doesn’t go into huge detail about how the rage virus works other than saying it works really fucking fast, the people aren’t exactly the living dead. That being said, 28 Days Later is absolutely a “zombie movie”, even if it features a slight variation on zombie lore. I Am Legend, one of the founding pieces of the zombie subgenre, features vampires, not zombies. It’s a zombie flick, okay? Stop quibbling with this.
Okay so that’s two quick answers to end nerd debate. Here’s a call to start one.
Fahrenheit 451. This book is awesome. I’m sure you know that, though. What bugs me is when people cite this as a book about government censorship, when it’s not at all. It isn’t about some oppressive force wanting to squash all provocative ideas and keeping the people down. It’s about the people themselves no longer wanting those ideas as their minds rot away, since their culture has simplified everything. Fahrenheit 451 itself has been simplified and misunderstood and changed into “that book about the government burning books”.
Now THAT is more ironic than some replicant killing other replicants.
20
Aug
09

District 9 – A mineshaft review

Okay okay.. so I took a break from the mineshaft for about 8 posts. I was falling behind on my backlog of posts and I got lazy… I do apologize, but now I’m back on track! So, my return to the mineshaft will be met with a District 9 review!

Warning : This review contains spoilers worse than the portrayal of Nigerians in this movie.

Now, District 9 is a solid movie. Due to so many summer movies completely sucking, it may still be one of the top summer movies of the year. I found it quite an entertaining “ride”, as critics say. I wasn’t really going to go after it until I saw that public opinion on this movie is COMPLETELY out of control and I feel like it’s my duty to pop up and point a thing or two out.

Good things?

The Special Effects are excellent… and I rarely say that. I’m more inclined to appreciate the special effects in something like Terminator 2 or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but the CG effects in this movie are pretty excellent. When you consider that this movie has a small fraction of the budget of most effect heavy movies, it gets even more impressive.

The guy who plays Wickus does a great job. In fact, Wickus is a pretty good character all around. He’s a bit of an ass… and a bit stupid at times, but he’s somehow sympathetic. He’s one of the more interesting action stars in recent memory.

The bad? Oh here we go…

The documentary style filming at the beginning of the film is really interesting, which is probably why it was awkwardly dropped after 15 minutes. I thought this part of the film was really cool and did a great job of “world building” and making the concept behind the film seem really convincing. It also did a great job of building tension when some of the interviews imply things that are about to unfold. Then all of a sudden in the middle of the documentary style filming, we are shown shots from other angles that obviously couldn’t be filmed by news crews or film makers. It’s completely jarring. Imagine The Blair Witch Project, but every now and then they cut away to a helicopter shot to show the witch’s position relative to the campers.

Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by Diary Of the Dead, [rec], and Cloverfield, but documentaries carry with them inherent questions about who is filming them, why, and what their agenda consists of. This movie pays no attention to any of that. In fact, we don’t even get to see the documentary style cameras in the wide shots. Eventually they drop the style completely and go for a traditional hollywood film. Which brings me in to my next point.

It’s TOTALLY a traditional hollywood film. Don’t buy all the marketing about how it’s a first time director and how it’s completely different from anything you’ve ever seen. This movie reaches a point around the middle where it’s everything you’ve ever seen. It becomes any sort of “government project gone wrong” movie… following in the footsteps of The Incredible Hulk, or X-Men Origins : Wolverine. It becomes completely predictable, and extremely cliched. Sure, it tries to snap back into the artsy documentary stuff at the end, but the bulk of this movie is a big dumb action movie. There’s nothing wrong with a big dumb action movie, but this film seems to revel in its action and gore while pretending to be subtle. Once again, master of the transition… this leads me right in…

The “clever social commentary” makes George Romero look subtle. I was worried going in that there would be too much preachy social commentary and too little attention to story. I found the commentary that was there was completely obvious… and it didn’t seem to go into much depth. I think maybe the movie is afraid to delve into the issues it wants to present. When the action really picks up, the movie abandons its ambitions for satire altogether. This movie will not generate intriguing debate about Africa afterwards, you will be talking about the alien battlemech instead.

The “villain” soldier guy sucked balls. Okay this is a minor complaint, but still. The best this movie has to throw in Wickus’ way is this bald soldier guy who only seems to be the bad guy because he miraculously survives every scene he’s in. Over the course of the film we see Wickus take down huge amounts of soldiers. The idea that this one guy could pose any threat to him is a bit of a stretch.

Overall, this movie is a very small film that collided with a very big film. It’s no surprise that the big film won, leaving bits of small film blood left all over the screen, suggesting that there once was more there.

I’ll end this review on that quippy note. District 9 fans, I urge you to disagree with me and write a comment or two. 🙂

25
May
09

The Fling – An Action Movie Cop Out

This is kind of an odd post that’s been bugging me. The urge to write this one came after watching Terminator Salvation, but it really applies to many other action films. It’s something I call “The Fling”. Let’s briefly talk about it and why it bugs me so much. 

“The Fling” is when a monster or villain that can easily defeat the hero at close range instead chooses to fling them across the room. The hero then flies into some boxes or cans or whatever, before getting back up relatively unharmed and continuing the fight. 

This was used a few times in Terminator: Salvation. Just when the Terminator towards the end of the film gets close to John, instead of strangling him or beating him to death or whatever, grabs him and flings him away. This makes very little sense in the context of Terminator, where the machines are supposed to be completely clinical. If you watch Terminator 1 and 2, they never rely on this trick once. The only time that even comes close is when one Terminator flings the other… and that is usually done to temporarily get them out of the way so they can catch up with the human.

Vampire movies tend to be really bad offenders on this one. I think this is because both vampires and vampire hunters need to be at close range in order to be effective, but a fight scene that remains close isn’t visually compelling to watch. Watch the end of Blade 3 (you know… next time you get a chance or something), after a prolonged sword fight, the big dracula baddie at the end flings Blade across the room several times, when he can easily kill him up close. In fact, at one point he actually has Blade pinned down… and he gets off him, stands him up, and then flings him. Buffy is also quite reliant on this, particularly in the early seasons.

Horror/action seems to be the worst genre for this particular move, maybe because it’s so easy to dream up villains and characters that have limitless amounts of vaguely defined powers. When it comes time to actually put that character to use in a fight scene, it would end the fight too quickly to use said powers.

So why is the fling awful? It takes me out of the movie because it NEVER feels right. It’s a way to artificially add distance between the hero and the villain so that the filmmakers can fit in more dialog or show that the hero is going through the requisite “losing stage” of the fight without taking any real damage.

This isn’t to say that all throws in movie fight scenes are bad or nonsensical. Like any action movie fan, I enjoy seeing things and people get thrown through large panes of glass and so on. I still enjoyed Terminator: Salvation (somewhat) and Blade 3 (somewhat less). I hope if we start naming “The Fling” and calling attention to it, filmmakers will realize it and become less reliant on it.

If you never really noticed or cared until now, perhaps it will irk you from now on. You can thank me for that.

04
May
09

X-men Origins : Wolverine

This review might be a little biased. In the interests of full disclosure, I WAS wearing a pretty bitchin’ Gambit costume and sitting next to a hot girl in a pretty bitchin’ Rogue costume while watching the new X-Men movie. There, that’s fully disclosed… pictures on facebook soon LOLZ!!

So how was the movie? It was okay. Nowhere near as bad as some of the early buzz would imply. It’s also not as bad as X3… and I fucking stand by that. Maybe it’s that my expectations were low since the initial reports from people who viewed the leaked version online, but I was able to enjoy the movie for what it was.

Wolverine seems to take the idea that it’s a prequel pretty seriously in some ways, but not in others. At the end of the movie, they go out of their way to give Wolverine amnesia to explain why he doesn’t know this story in the other films, but it only raises all kinds of other problems with continuity. One is Stryker, who was pretty cool in origins and pretty cool in x2, but they are NOTHING LIKE ONE ANOTHER. The actors are different, the motivations are different, even the goddamn accent is different. Also, he still has his memory… so… 

Another one is Cyclops. There’s a kid version of Cyclops in this movie, but I’m not sure why he’s there. It makes you wonder if he’s supposed to be pushing 50 by the time he’s working for Professor X. It also makes you wonder why HE doesn’t remember Wolverine. Of course, Sabretooth is also completely different between Origins and X1, though he’s way more developed in Origins. 

The moral of the story? They should have either tried harder to fit the movies together or they should have pulled a true comic book move and just declared them to be in different continuities.

So what was good? Well it had some fun action sequences and a pretty decent story. The action sequences are very “comic booky”, if that makes sense. That sounds kind of stupid to take time to say, but there’s a distinctly comic book feel to them that isn’t present in most comic comic book movies. One example is when Wolverine blocks a laser beam from Weapon XI by crossing his claws and thrusting his chest out. Another good one is when Ryan Reynolds blocks hundreds of bullets from automatic weapons by flailing two samurai swords around. I found that some of these worked and others didn’t… but the combat scenes feel more like the source material than many other comic book movies, for better or for worse.

I was happy to see Gambit on screen, but some people had objections. I don’t know a whole lot about Deadpool, but I understand fans of the character are pretty angry about his portrayal in the movie. Oh and one other observation that I don’t know where to put: Origins spends some time in the beginning setting up this kind of dark side of the force feeling with Wolverine needing to fight his urge to “give in to the beast” like Sabretooth so clearly does. They drop this idea pretty quickly, but I was glad they did.

Watchmen, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight have all really raised the bar for comic book movies. I know I spent the whole post here pointing out problems in the movie, but I somehow managed to have some fun with it. People who were fans of the other x-men movies or the comics should totally check out Wolverine, but otherwise you should probably wait for video.

I might just be a fanboy.

30
Apr
09

Let’s talk documentaries!

I don’t see a whole lot of documentaries. I think, like most people, I see a handful here and there and after each I say to myself “hm… I should watch more documentaries”. I’m also one of those assholes that watches one or two documentaries a year and has to talk about those as much as possible to everyone I know.

That’s you now, by the way.

Most people who know me know that I rant about two documentaries that both sound boring but have an innate drama and awesomeness built into them: spellbound and king of kong. Spellbound is a documentary about a bunch of really smart kids in the national spelling bee. King of Kong is about a bunch of really smart idiots that play donkey kong with a VENGEANCE.

It’s very hard to convey what it is about these two stories that is so interesting to me. It might be the sense of competition, or the fact that both of them have a great mixture of characters that run the gamut between genuinely likable and “there’s no way this person exists in real life” bizarre. The drama of it is balanced quite well too. I’m sure most viewers of both movies find themselves initially goofing on the characters, but then end up sucked into the story by the end.

They’re both awesome. See them.

Now for the second half let’s talk about a documentary that sounds boring and is. I actually took the time to watch the Helvetica movie a while ago, and it is enragingly dull. It’s a movie about the font Helvetica. Yeah. It doesn’t really have a structure, it’s kind of just a bunch of old dudes talking about the wondrousness of the world’s most perfect font. Every now and then they splice in some European dude who says it’s a shitty font.

There isn’t even a goof factor that will keep you watching. Once you realize that the director of the film has a genuine love of typeface and the movie is not made to laugh at these people in the slightest, it really loses all of its charm.

Sure, there’s some personal bias here when I say Spellbound and King of Kong rule and Helvetica is weak by comparison. I happen to think kids who can spell words that I can’t define are impressive. I happen to think dudes who play marble madness with weight lifting gloves on are hilarious. I happen to think fonts are rather uninteresting.

But the key difference between the two movies is the characters. Even the interesting German dude in the Helvetica movie didn’t have anything really interesting to say because the directors weren’t willing to show him for the oddball he clearly is. The movie assumes that you’re already hopelessly interested in fonts. If, for some reason, you are… then go for it, but it will do nothing to sell you on the idea that fonts are worthy of a 2 hour documentary.

Oh and you know what else rules? Trekkies… hahaha, nerds.

09
Apr
09

New summers… new horizons… new reviews!

I think things have gotten a little tired here on the mineshaft. I will also admit that I have little to nothing on my mind to put here today. It’s been very busy with school. So, in a mildly half assed post, here we go with a look forward towards things to come.

I’m one of those people that really can’t see the appeal of things I don’t like. This means that much of the world and the world’s culture is a complete mystery to me. The popularity of things like Twilight, Russell Peters, and Sports in general are troubling and perplexing to my mind. This summer, there are a few new things that I would like to explore through this blog… and perhaps gain an appreciation for in the process.

1) Final Fantasy (and other JRPGS of note). Yeah, there’s a major gap in my gaming appreciation and knowledge when we hit this mega franchise. I hope to play through a handful of these this summer and give my thoughts on them. I played through FF1 last summer, finding it nothing short of enraging. It’s one of those classics that everyone has learned from, but is still relevant in terms of history. Maybe I’ll jump a few games forward to the ever popular FFVI or FFVII and become one of the converted… we’ll see.

2) Bizarro Fiction. I’ve always enjoyed works of “Weird Fiction”. The obvious example of H.P. Lovecraft springs to mind. He’s a cool dude. I like the work by most of his pals and contemporaries as well. I’m also a huge fan of China Mieville (OMG HIS NEW BOOK COMES OUT NEXT MONTH), who loves to describe his work as “Weird Fiction”. Bizarro Fiction is apparently taking the term “weird” and stretching it to the limit, allowing for really shocking images and style. These books all have really provocative titles, some of which are so shocking that you can’t help but be lured in.. The authors seem to be weirdos, with the odd literary professor or two in there as well. It may not be that much of a “new movement”, even though people seem to think so, but I’m curious to take a peek at a book or two so I can figure out if it’s a worthwhile thing or not.

3) Westerns. As long as we’re filling in gaps in knowledge and pop culture history, this is a big one that I’m missing. I did really enjoy 3:10 To Yuma though … and it was mostly a shot for shot remake, or so I’m told. The only “classic westerns” that I’ve seen other than that are High Noon and Rio Bravo. I liked both of them, but I don’t enough knowledge of the western in general to make any kind of informed statement about them. This summer I plan to learn a thing or two about some of the classics of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah and so on. I might learn that I’ve been avoiding a whole genre of film for no reason at all. 

Obviously you’ll have your typical rants and reviews on here as well. I’m going to try and balance my new summer endeavors with everything else. I think just the act of putting these goals up here makes me more likely to do them though… so that’s good. 

Hope everyone is ready for summer!