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Denny

Since 1995 we have authored a commentary on film, cinema in focus. Though we enjoy cinema as an art form, our interests lie not so much in reviewing a film as in beginning a conversation about the social and spiritual values presented. We, therefore, often rate a film higher or lower due to its message rather than its quality of acting or film-making.

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“Avatar” and the Critics

Why the fanboys are holding James Cameron to a higher standard than the highbrow critics.

Ross Douthat, New York Times, December 21

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Y'know, I was going to link to one or more of the alleged James Cameron's recent tweets, but then I came across this. Hmmm. The alleged James Cameron Twitter account only goes back to August 22, roughly three or four weeks after the interview that I just linked to, and the further back I go, the more the tweets fail to pass the smell test, for me.

Anne Thompson gets to the bottom of things:

Recently, a few of my followers asked if JFCameron was the real deal. So I asked the director himself at the Avatar premiere.

“I never twitter,” Cameron answered. . . .

So I asked the writer, who admits to being an occasional journalist based in L.A. with the last name Litcofsky, why he decided to play this game. . . .

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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David Poland on "Why Avatar Doesn’t Play Like A 'White Guy Supercedes The Natives' Movie For Me".

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Those are some good thoughts. I managed to re-watch the movie in 3D the other day, and one of the things I was watching out for this time was precisely the problem discussed in the link. I can't say I thought of (any of) Poland's points, but they help solidify my own stance. Still, even given those points (and the one about a Na'Vi

killing the big bad

is a good one) the whole storyline is very generic/standard. It's Princess of Mars without flying ships; it's Dune without sand or serious interrogation of messianic posturing (both Paul and Sully take on the mantle of some sort of messiah, though, as Poland points out,

Sully gives up his role as the Rider of Last Shadow.

I think whatever unfortunate implications that might emerge are part of it's pulp s.f. heritage, and as such it can't be faulted for them, especially since it does make an effort to avoid giving them room to breathe.

On another note, I can't see this movie performing as well on DVD as it does in the cinema. It's just too generic.

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NBooth wrote:

: On another note, I can't see this movie performing as well on DVD as it does in the cinema. It's just too generic.

That's why James Cameron is pushing to get it out on Blu-Ray 3D some time next year!

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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David Poland on "Why Avatar Doesn’t Play Like A 'White Guy Supercedes The Natives' Movie For Me".

I'm unconvinced, for reasons I'll detail later. Suffice to say Poland's musings don't quite take the sting out of MLeary's brilliant assessment that "the white boy comes in and gets the coolest ride, the best chick, and total fist bump respect."

BTW, it's "supersede," not "supercede."

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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It was a fun experience, seeing this film in 3D. It's a beautiful film, and Cameron does a great job of world-building. $300 million can buy a lot of digital wizardry, and this film really uses the 3D format effectively in creating beauty and immersing you in it.

But what a tired predictable story. This film was obviously designed to appeal to the most people possible in a non-threatening non-challenging way, especially for an overseas audience that gets the usual anti-corporate anti-empire blah blah.

And even as impressive as the visuals and colors are, I thought the color scheme in last year's Speed Racer was just as groundbreaking.

I get the feeling that we will see the law of diminshing returns, that this is as good as big-budget Hollywood filmmaking is going to get in the 3D format. It's the law of diminishing returns from here. Who besides James Cameron is going to get $300 million and ten years to make a film? I predict a bunch of stuff like the trailer for Shrek 4 that I saw before Avatar. Unless by some miracle Terry Gilliam or Jean Pierre Jeunet or Satoshi Kon got the budget to do a 3D film, that would be really cool.

Edited by Crow
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SDG wrote:

: BTW, it's "supersede," not "supercede."

First I've heard of that objection. FWIW, Merriam-Webster says: "Supercede has occurred as a spelling variant of supersede since the 17th century, and it is common in current published writing. It continues, however, to be widely regarded as an error."

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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: BTW, it's "supersede," not "supercede."

First I've heard of that objection. FWIW, Merriam-Webster says: "Supercede has occurred as a spelling variant of supersede since the 17th century, and it is common in current published writing. It continues, however, to be widely regarded as an error."

Interesting. From Wiktionary:

The form supercede is commonly considered a misspelling of supersede, since it results from confusion between Latin cedere (“‘give up, yield’”) and sedere (“‘to sit’”).[1] The original Latin word was supersedere (“‘to sit above’”), but the ‘c’ spelling began to be used in Middle French, appeared in English as early as the 1400s, and is still sometimes found. Most dictionaries do not include this spelling; a few list it as a variant, sometimes identified as a misspelling.[2] A search of general dictionaries at Onelook All Dictionaries finds 4 instances of "supercede" excluding this one (with one flagged as misspelling), and 24 of "supersede".

Orthography is descriptive, not prescriptive, so if "supercede" is as widely used as that, then fine. Certainly you can see how the mistake happened ("supercede" seems plausibly cognate to e.g., "concede," "precede," etc.). But it's basically a mistake, and still a less common variant, so I think the point is worth making.

Not like with "forte," where the two-syllable pronunciation "for-tay" is so ubiquitous that everyone thinks you're confused if you say "fort," which is the "correct" pronunciation. That's a word I've just scuttled in my own oral usage; there's no point confusing everyone by saying it "right," and I won't say it "wrong." In other words, the erroneous pronunciation has superseded the original one. "Supercede" can't say the same. :)

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Couldn't you say "for-tay" ironically, the way some people say "par-tay"?

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Orthography is descriptive, not prescriptive, so if "supercede" is as widely used as that, then fine. Certainly you can see how the mistake happened ("supercede" seems plausibly cognate to e.g., "concede," "precede," etc.). But it's basically a mistake, and still a less common variant, so I think the point is worth making.

Tangent:

I recently groaned to see signs all over SPU's campus warning people that a particular walkway under 100-year-old trees was closed during a windstorm. The signs said that the area was closed due to "inclimate weather."

I began to joke about it. But then I learned that the misunderstanding (of course, I believed the proper term was "inclement") has become so widespread that it is now widely accepted.

This really aggravates me. "Inclement" means something. "Inclimate" is being used to mean the opposite of what, if it were a word at all, it would seem to mean. I mean, if the area was closed due to conditions that were "inclimate," wouldn't it always be closed?

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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I have heard this film title pronounced avatard several times.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Great comments and reviews in this discussion from SDG, Overstreet and Chattaway. You guys make this forum the best reading on film I can find anywhere on the web.

I also absolutely identified with Doviak's comments. He nails my feelings on the film dead center. The film honestly bored me. I still like to care about developed characters in a story, but watching Avatar, you just get the feeling that "Wow, this video game has the best graphics I've ever seen in my life ... and that's about it." Lastly, say what you want about Avatar's liberal politics message - but Avatar didn't seem so much like liberal propaganda as a perfect parody of liberal propaganda ... and I mean perfect.

Scott Von Doviak @ Nerve.com:

If Avatar really is a game-changer, could someone please explain exactly which game it’s supposed to be changing? Already James Cameron’s years-in-the-making opus is shaping up as the year’s most divisive movie, with one camp proclaiming it the most awe-inspiring sensory experience ever to grace a movie theater, and the other finding it somewhat lacking in areas like story, character, pacing, dialogue, and acting… you know, the stuff that used to be considered the basic building blocks of good cinema. So how is Avatar any different than a hundred other special-effects spectaculars over the past several decades? The technology may be ever-changing, but the game remains the same. . . .

If Cameron wasn’t going to make a great movie with his rumored half-billion dollar budget, he could have at least given us an entertaining train wreck. But Avatar, which plods on for a punishing two hours and forty-two minutes, is more boring than bad. There’s no denying that the motion-capture 3D visuals are some kind of technical achievement, but after spending a while in the aquarium-like world of Pandora, I started to feel like I was staring at the world’s most expensive screensaver. . . .

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Not that anyone needs to care, but...

After ranking merely #28 on the list of all-time opening weekends (domestically, that is; worldwide, its opening weekend ranks #9), Avatar now has the 11th-highest Monday of all time and the 3rd-highest Tuesday of all time (behind The Dark Knight and Transformers, the latter of which OPENED on a Tuesday).

That's the up spin. The down spin might focus on stuff like the fact that Avatar was the only film in yesterday's Top 15 that went DOWN from the day before, however slightly, rather than UP. But anyhoo.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Avatar didn't seem so much like liberal propaganda as a perfect parody of liberal propaganda ... and I mean perfect.

Interesting you should say that; I thought a couple of times during my second viewing that the whole discussion of pantheism/cultural imperialism/what-have-you might have more weight if the big bad weren't so obviously over-the-top. Stephen Lang is chewing scenery from the moment he's introduced, and gets more hammy from there. I mean, for goodness' sake,

holding his breath one time is awesome; twice is predictable; by the time we hit three, it's a running gag, even if it isn't really funny.

The same could be said of the rest of the movie. The "noble savage" Na'vi and the evil corporation with its lampshade-bedecked Unobtanium. It's all dialed to eleven, with what I hope was deliberate intent on Cameron's part. That doesn't make the movie any better storywise, but I think this pushes Avatar away from being a "message" film and toward being an exercise in the tropes and cliches of a particular wing of the s.f. family.

Edited by NBooth
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It's all dialed to eleven, with what I hope was deliberate intent on Cameron's part. That doesn't make the movie any better storywise, but I think this pushes Avatar away from being a "message" film and toward being an exercise in the tropes and cliches of a particular wing of the s.f. family.

This is a fair assessment, but I don't think all this is intentional. The guy has whipped up some great sci-fi in the past (he even wrote Strange Days), but all the bombast in Avatar seems like an attempt to scale up the narrative. Its presentation is so stellar that it needed a set of mythic tensions and subtexts to make it worth sitting through. What we are left with is a lengthy collection of scenes that make full use of Cameron's technological vision held together by this rickety conglomerate of tropes that feels enough like an epic film to work. Harrison, Adams, Dick, these guys frequently drew on pulp sci-fi dialed up to eleven to make certain features of their stories cohere - but their stories are more well constructed, so the hokiness ends up having narrative value. One can drive red four-eyed dragons through the holes left by Cameron's hastiness, hence the issues with race, white man's guilt, etc... If you don't nail those story details down, editorial questions like this appear whether they are legitimate or not.

It is as silly to take this as a "message" film as one of the Star Wars prequels.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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MLeary wrote:

: It is as silly to take this as a "message" film as one of the Star Wars prequels.

I must admit, I'm not sure whether the fact that Lucas apparently INTENDED the Star Wars prequels to be "message" movies proves or disproves your point.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Not that anyone needs to care, but...

After ranking merely #28 on the list of all-time opening weekends (domestically, that is; worldwide, its opening weekend ranks #9), Avatar now has the 11th-highest Monday of all time and the 3rd-highest Tuesday of all time (behind The Dark Knight and Transformers, the latter of which OPENED on a Tuesday).

That's the up spin. The down spin might focus on stuff like the fact that Avatar was the only film in yesterday's Top 15 that went DOWN from the day before, however slightly, rather than UP. But anyhoo.

Return of the King did the same on its first Tuesday (in fact, it dropped harder), and it went on to gross over $370M. Very high box office levels like Avatar is getting are not sustainable; it will drop, but it should still go on to $350M to $400M or so. With a $165M international opening (5th best all-time), a worldwide total of $1B or so looks doable.

Whatever the artistic merits of the movie, its box office success is in no doubt at this point.

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FWIW, Nikki Finke is reporting that Avatar's five-day reign at the top of the box office ended today ... thanks to Alvin and the Chipmunks 2. Domestically, that is; its predecessor didn't do very well overseas.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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MLeary wrote:

: It is as silly to take this as a "message" film as one of the Star Wars prequels.

I must admit, I'm not sure whether the fact that Lucas apparently INTENDED the Star Wars prequels to be "message" movies proves or disproves your point.

That ambiguity was the point. In either case, the message is so garbled due to the bungled effort at communicating, it is silly to talk ad naseum about the actual message, intended or not. When there are clearer, more profitable things to dwell on -head that direction.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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If for no other reason than I want to get future updates to this thread via email, I'd like to link to a review by an astrophysicist who has searched for planets, worked on SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) programs, etc.

I enjoyed reading it anyway.

Copernicus Grades Cameron On The Science of AVATAR!!

http://www.aintitcool.com/node/43440

I'm preparing myself for a well deserved "ahem" if this has been posted earlier in the thread. My apologies if it is so.

regards,

-Lance

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Annalee Newitz @ io9:

In both Avatar and District 9, humans are the cause of alien oppression and distress. Then, a white man who was one of the oppressors switches sides at the last minute, assimilating into the alien culture and becoming its savior. This is also the basic story of Dune, where a member of the white royalty flees his posh palace on the planet Dune to become leader of the worm-riding native Fremen (the worm-riding rite of passage has an analog in Avatar, where Jake proves his manhood by riding a giant bird). An interesting tweak on this story can be seen in 1980s flick Enemy Mine, where a white man (Dennis Quaid) and the alien he's been battling (Louis Gossett Jr.) are stranded on a hostile planet together for years. Eventually they become best friends, and when the alien dies, the human raises the alien's child as his own. When humans arrive on the planet and try to enslave the alien child, he lays down his life to rescue it. His loyalties to an alien have become stronger than to his own species.

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it's like to be a Na'vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He's becoming alien and he can't go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he's hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a "cure" for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it's only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything. . . .

Ann Marlowe @ Forbes.com:

Cameron's new sci-fi film Avatar is exhilarating fun in the darkest days at the end of a depressing year, but it also says quite a lot, in an inchoate, American way, about the cultural moment. You should see it especially if you are "right of center" or conservative. Forget the sneering reviews--this is the most neo-con movie of 2009, or perhaps ever, because it illustrates, rather than argues, the point we neo-cons made in Iraq: that American blood is not worth more than the blood of others, and that others' freedom is not worth less than American freedom.

How universal are the values we Americans cherish? Avatar says they are completely universal--extending to another planet called Pandora. What is the responsibility of an American and how far does it reach? Avatar says, again, across the universe. Are we all brothers and sisters under the skin? Avatar answers yes, in the most concrete way, when protagonist Jake Sully decides to enter his Na'vi body permanently and stay on Pandora rather than returning to Earth. . . .

Avatar makes a similar move, but a contextually smarter one, offering us a bigger, better race to decide to join or not. Jake's metamorphosis gives flesh to what in our world must remain a metaphor. “I want you to learn these savages from the inside out,” the tough former recon Marine Colonel tells Jake. And the metaphor--entering the skin of another--couldn't be timelier, or for that matter more appropriate to the Christmas season. Much blood was spilled in centuries past about what happened in the transubstantiation of the Catholic mass. Though Avatar has been charged with "pantheism" its mythos is just as deeply Christian.

I should say that I had my doubts going in. Avatar sounded anti-military. Advance reviews were sloppy--Roger Ebert, for example, said "we ... send in the military to attack and conquer them. Gung-ho Marines employ machine guns and pilot armored hover ships on bombing runs." Who's the "we"? The movie is clear on the fact that a mining company employing mercenaries is the one doing the attacking. Jake Sully is a former Marine, now working as a security contractor on Pandora. But perhaps Ebert didn't notice the uniforms of the mercenaries on Pandora aren't U.S. Army uniforms, that the "colonel" doesn't wear the appropriate insignia, and that the men aren't all in uniform anyway. . . .

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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John Morehead (Cinefantastique Online):

In regards to Na’vi religion, some commentators have referred to it as pantheism, but this is technically inaccurate. The Na’vi believe that Eywa, the divine “All Mother,” is connected to and in some sense “in” all things, but the “things” of the planet are not identical to Eywa and the All Mother is not the only reality. AVATAR’s religion may be more properly understood then as a form of panentheism and animism, the belief that deity resides within the world, including its animals and plants, but not that deity is the only reality.

An Internet search of “AVATAR and religion” yields a variety of perspectives, including many from those unhappy with the film’s religion. In one sense, it not well received due to the current culture wars between conservatives and progressives, but even so it would appear to fit well within the context of twenty-first century “progressive spirituality,” which meets current needs, according to scholars like Gordon Lynch, such as “the need for a credible religion for the modern age; the need for religion which is truly liberating and beneficial for women; the need to reconnect religion with scientific knowledge; and the need for a spirituality that can respond to our impending ecological crisis.” Religious conservatives on the right chafe at AVATAR’s depictions of deity and nature, but they might also pause to consider that it may have arisen as a response to perceived shortcomings or deficiencies in more traditional forms of Western religiosity.

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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