Recent Viewings

Over the last 2 years here at NOFF most of my writing has been devoted to older films, while giving short shrift to newer films. At the urgent request of my readership (read: my family), today I am introducing a new series, Recent Viewings, which is intended to remedy that situation. The idea is to keep the blog current by offering some brief observations about the latest films I’ve seen. I will continue to write longer reviews, primarily of older films (next up: Once Upon a Time in the West), but that activity will now be supplemented by this ongoing series focusing exclusively on recently viewed films.

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Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

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Does Avatar mark the beginning of a new age in cinema? According to James “I’m king of the world” Cameron, yes. But he’s only partly correct. Technically, the film is a definite leap forward, as it utilizes 3D and CGI better than any film ever has. Too bad, then, that Cameron’s storytelling is as primitive as his technology is advanced. Technically, Avatar indeed represents a new age; story-wise, however, it’s stuck in the Stone Age. Cameron uses his pen like a cudgel, battering us over the head with a heavy-handed ecological message in a trite tale involving a war between the peace-loving, tree-hugging Na’vi of Pandora and an invading army of greedy earthlings. Predictably, the 10-foot, blue-skinned spiritual inhabitants of Pandora are in tune with nature and recognize the interconnectedness of all things, while the rapacious humans literally bulldoze their way through the Na’vi’s pristine habitat in search of a precious energy source. The fact that the Na’Vi blue-skins could be an alien version of the North American Indian, and that one of the humans joins their cause and carries on an obligatory (interspecies) romance with one of them, confirms that Cameron’s unimaginative script merely transplants the plot of Dances with Wolves into his futuristic sci-fi fantasy. No wonder one critic memorably dubbed the film Dances with Smurfs! If this hackneyed plot weren’t lame enough, Cameron also indulges in risible attempts to inject some modern relevance into the cornball proceedings with several oh-so-obvious references to Iraq and Afghanistan, including a hawkish General’s use of the latest military catchphrase, “shock and awe”, which is sure to get some eyeballs rolling.

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Letting Go of God (Julie Sweeney, 2008)

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I’m a non-believer, but frankly I’ve found most pro-atheist films rather distasteful, notably Bill Maher’s smug Religulous, which exhibits an arrogant, intellectually superior condescension toward believers and betrays an attitude every bit as self-righteous as the most dogmatic Bible-thumper. I suppose that’s why I found Sweeney’s one-woman monologue so refreshing. Instead of adopting a superior tone and resorting to cheap shots at easy targets like Maher does, Sweeney offers something much more interesting and substantive: a poignant, highly personal account of her emotionally conflicted transition from Christianity to atheism. Her conversion to atheism was a gut-wrenching process because, for her, letting go of God also entailed letting go of a very real part of herself and her past – which is why you get the sense that she’s mourning her loss of faith. She still wants to believe, but can’t, because the lack of evidence and her insistence on logical thinking simply won’t allow it. In the end, her heartfelt yet persuasive repudiation of God, which “attacks” theism from within, is sure to hit far closer to home of the theist than a barrage of smug-bombs tossed by an entire army of militant atheists.

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Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009)

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Eastwood has been on a downward spiral ever since his canonization following Unforgiven, and I’m afraid the spiral has reached its nadir. Last year he made two of the year’s worst films, and he’s at it again this year with Invictus, a heavily dramatized account of Nelson Mandela’s efforts to unite South Africa through rugby. The country’s rugby team, once a symbol of apartheid, has been struggling but Mandela, in his infinite wisdom, realizes how important the team’s success at the upcoming World Cup will be to the country. And so through Mandela’s encouragement the team’s captain, Matt Damon(!), leads the team to a triumphant victory in the climactic “big game” over a seemingly invincible club, bringing the entire country together in the process. In detailing the team’s stirring quest for victory Eastwood gets himself firmly stuck in inspirational goo, reducing Mandela’s story to facile melodramatics and simplistic “can’t we all just get along” sentimentality, and confirming once and for all that the canonization of Eastwood the director is one the biggest jokes in the critical community.

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It’s Complicated (Nancy Meyers, 2009)

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Were it not for Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, as a divorced couple carrying on an affair together, this uneven romantic comedy, which indulges in overly broad comedy one moment, then shamelessly tugs at your heartstrings the next, would be quite awful. But the onscreen rapport between these two consummate professionals is good enough to transform the subpar sitcomish material into something marginally palatable.

2 Responses to “Recent Viewings”

  1. Wow, you are an interesting reviewer! After reading these recent reviews I have even less interest in seeing “Avatar,” and a strong desire to see “Letting go of God.” I enjoyed “It’s Complicated,” however, agree it wasn’t much without the onscreen chemistry between Streep and Baldwin.

  2. If you think you’ll see Avatar at some point (and I’m pretty sure you’re the last person in America who hasn’t already), I strongly urge you to see it in 3D on an IMAX screen rather than wait for it to be released on DVD/Blu-ray. To get the full benefit of the groundbreaking “immersive experience” it must be viewed on the big screen. If you wait to see it at home you’ll lose out on what’s special about it and be left only with the hackneyed story.

    I saw Letting Go of God on Showtime. No word on a DVD release yet. Julie Sweeney also blogs if you’re curious: http://juliasweeney.blogspot.com/

    By the way, watch for the nominations for the 3rd Annual NOFF Awards. They’re coming soon!