Category Archives: Films & Television

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Strangely enough, I first discovered the existence of this film while browsing through a video rental store in the Solomon Islands. There was no way in hell that any of my colleagues would be the least interested in it so I didn’t manage to watch it then but I do wonder sometimes at whoever thought to bring it into that country. Since my wife recently procured a Chinese version of Atlas Shrugged from Taiwan and read it, I thought it would be a good idea to finally get around and watch this film.

First of all, there’s nothing that’s really new to me in this film as I’ve long known how much of a mess Ayn Rand’s life was. Michael Shermer’s article The Unlikeliest Cult in History is a pretty good summary. The main thing about this account that particularly stood out for me is how sympathetically it portrays Barbara Branden’s role in the events. This is hardly surprising as the film was based on the book by Barbara Branden but it’s notable how manipulative and cynical both Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand are shown to be while Frank O’ ConnorĀ  is a doddering hanger on who’s too stupid to understand anything. Barbara Branden by contrast is shown as an intelligent woman who simply makes the mistake of allowing herself to be dragged along by the odd ideas of her husband and Rand.

Another thing is how astonishingly different Helen Mirren looks in this film compared to say, her performance that is probably best known today as the title character in The Queen. Everything about her including her demeanor, her accent and the way her hair curls at one side, combine perfectly to make her a believable Ayn Rand. In fact, all of the actors do a great job and names like Peter Fonda and Julie Delpy are hardly run of the mill television fare. It’s a made for tv movie but its production values are high enough that it could almost pass as film made for theatrical release.

Still, the subject matter is so esoteric that I can’t really imagine it being the least interesting to anyone who doesn’t already know about Ayn Rand and her work. The film makes no attempt to explain Rand’s philosophy so I would imagine that the motivations and rationale of the different characters must have been mystifying to those unfamiliar with it. Where it does succeed is in communicating that Ayn Rand was indeed a woman and a fiercely passionate one at that. It also shows how difficult it was for her to finish writing Atlas Shrugged and implies that her relationship with Nathaniel Branden was instrumental towards that end.

Overall, this film probably isn’t worth watching unless, like me, you’re one of those whose lives have been greatly impacted by reading her work. Even so, I think I would have preferred to watch a film of her early life, detailing her flight from the Soviet Union to her early success with The Fountainhead. The Passion of Ayn Rand begins with her as a writer who is already established and successful and focuses exclusively on the unconventional relationship between the four main characters. As an author whose work continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year even today, I think her life deserves a more complete and complex film than this one.

Avatar fans upset that Pandora isn’t real

Avatar is currently well on its way to becoming the highest grossing film of all time, proving that James Cameron still has the magic touch. Part of it might be because of unusually high numbers of repeat viewers. Just as Titanic inspired legions of teenaged girls to sit through the ill fated romance again and again, Avatar is inspiring its own fans to do the same thing. As this CNN article explains, fans become so immersed in and enchanted by the idealistic planet of Pandora that they feel depressed when the movie ends and they need to come back to dreary, meaningless Earth. So they go back to watch the movie again. One even claimed to be contemplating suicide in the hopes of being reborn on Pandora. You can read the original forum thread where the fans share their woes here.

I think these people need to be reminded that Avatar is a commercial movie made for the purpose of earning money. This being so, buying into the whole thing would be contrary to the ideals of the simplistic, communitarian way of the life of the Na’vi. Not that the ideals made much sense or were even coherent anyway. Did anyone notice that for all the talk of hunting in the movie, you never actually see any of the Na’vi eat anything? I think Cameron knew very well that showing the Na’vi barbecuing the wildlife and chomping into them, animal juices flowing from their lips and chins, would not mesh with the overall pro-environmental message. These people just need to grow up and solve their own problems instead of thinking that running away would make the problems go away magically.

Anyway, while movies have preyed on the white man’s guilt before and made viewers wish they belonged to another ethnic group, such as the Native Americans in Dances with Wolves or the noble Japanese of The Last Samurai, I think Avatar is the first movie to make people wish to be a different species entirely!

Avatar

As usual when I write about films, spoilers abound so you might want to hold off on reading this until after you’ve watched it yourself. However, the plot is so cliche-ridden and so predictable that it’s pretty hard to spoil the film. It’s basically Dances with Wolves in space and all the pertinent plot points are clearly telegraphed from the first moment that you see the planet Pandora. Having only recently rewatched Aliens, I was also struck by how many themes and ideas were re-used. Over the top gung-ho soldier? Check. Greedy corporation exec who cares only about the bottom line? Check. Even the military vehicles and mechs look vaguely familiar.

The wonder of the film is that it all works, which says a lot about James Cameron’s directing skills. The film is genuinely breathtaking and spectacular, so much so that when you see it for the first time you simply know that this is something that you have never seen before. In that sense, it’s every bit as iconic and singular an experience as watching Star Wars or Jurassic Park for the very first time. It’s the same kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience that just blows you away.

It’s when you walk out of the cinema that all of the plot holes and flaws catch up with you. How do the human controllers connect with the avatar bodies? It must be magic because it seems to be unaffected by range or electromagnetic interference and the avatar bodies don’t seem to come with electronics. Why was the human ground force fooling around in the jungle for when the mission was to bomb the Tree of Souls? How ludicrous is it that no animals come to eat the avatar bodies when the human controllers are disconnected, especially after the film has established how hostile the jungle is? How come if the rocks float, the water still falls from it? And if they are made of the magical anti-gravity mineral, why don’t the humans just tow those away instead of trying to mine it from underground?

It’s common knowledge that Cameron wrote the original script for Avatar not long after he finished Titanic, so the script is still floating around the Internet. This website has a good comparison of the differences between the original scriptment and the film that ended up being made. It’s apparent that the original script was more subtle and less filled with cliches but a great deal more bloated. For example, in the original script the Na’vi that Jake falls in love with isn’t the first one that he meets, the research team is being helped by a Na’vi guide and Grace is secretly sleeping with him, there’s a previous human controller who fell in love with a Na’vi girl but she was killed by the military and he committed suicide etc. It all makes the Jake character less unique and less like a superhero who came out of nowhere to save the world.

For all these reasons, while watching Avatar once is practically mandatory, I doubt that the film stands up to repeated viewings. Even the technology will eventually look dated. But for now, it’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful things ever put on film.

The Storm Warriors

First off, don’t watch this. It’s terrible and you’d only be wasting your money. That said, I expected it before I went in and still dragged my wife into the cinema with me. This is because the original film The Storm Riders from 1998 is a huge guilty pleasure for me. This old review from LoveHKFilm.com (who still haven’t posted their review of the sequel yet!) put it best by calling it the Hong Kong version of Star Wars. As the reviewer Kozo noted, the original film, for all its cheap CGI effects, poor acting and hackneyed plot, successfully transported the viewer into a fantasy version of a mythical China that never actually existed but is clearly drawn from and inspired by Chinese themes and legends.

For my part, I immediately recognized The Storm Riders when I first watched it as the Chinese analogue of the many Western fantasy worlds I knew so much, Tolkien’s Middle Earth being the most iconic example. Of course, it wasn’t the only Chinese fantasy world. The version of China that Louis Cha’s novels are set in is unarguably more famous and celebrated, but it didn’t really feel fantastical enough for me. Come on, The Storm Riders even has a freaking dragon in it! Considering The Journey to the West as being fantasy is a bit unfair too. It would be like calling The Bible a fantasy novel.

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Most self-indulgent film ever

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I must confess that I have an irrational attraction to all screenplays written by Charlie Kaufman. Being John Malkovich was weird and silly but a complete delight all the same. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is nothing less than one of my favorite films ever. So it was inevitable that I would eventually get around to watching Adaptation, even though it isn’t generally considered to be one of his better efforts. Please note that this post will be chockful of spoilers because it simply isn’t possible to discuss the film in sufficient detail otherwise.

Adaptation is very generally a film whose story is about the story of the film itself as it is being created. As such it is intensely self-referential. The main character of the film is a fictionalized version of Charlie Kaufman himself, played by Nicolas Cage, trying to write the screenplay of the film that would become Adaptation. In the film, Kaufman, following the success of Being John Malkovich, has been hired to write the screenplay for a film adaptation of Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief.

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Up: wonderfully sincere and heartfelt film

Up_Poster

At the risk of sounding terribly emotional and crossing the line into my private life, I have to say that I found the wordless montage near the beginning of Up showing Carl and Ellie’s marriage to be one of the saddest scenes I have ever seen in any film ever. The adventure parts were more conventional and nothing that we haven’t already seen a thousand times before, but as usual Pixar pulls it off competently and with aplomb.

I’m not going to spend too much time writing an extended review on this one, but I will say that one of the things I liked best about was how dark and honest it seemed for what is still ostensibly a child oriented cartoon. One scene where Carl talks with Russell about his parents ends on a awkward note just as he realizes that his parents are divorced. In most Disney-style fare, it would have been avoided entirely or brushed off in a lighthearted manner, but Up treats it in a much more mature and realistic way.

I’m also curious about how much children will like this film. The overarching theme is loss, including learning to accept it and move on. That’s not going to be something that most children are going to be able to understand. It’s not just the loss from the opening montage either. The great explorer Muntz has become warped because he refuses to give up on his obsessions while Carl and Ellie both ended up sacrificing their dreams and lived a normal life. But it is still a normal life that is fully, happily and meaningfully lived. Even Russell seems to lose his father at the end and learns to be happy despite it. For the strength of that theme alone, Up deserves to be treated as an adult film.

Fun bit of trivia: co-director Bob Peterson provided the voice for both Dug (“I have just met you, and I love you”) and Alpha.

District 9: sci-fi action at its best

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I pretty much had to drag my wife to the cinema for this one after reading rave reviews of it on QT3. Peter Jackson’s involvement in the film, after what he gave us in the King Kong remake, was not a glowing endorsement to us. Luckily for me, both of us enjoyed it thoroughly and I recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys action films that don’t try to treat their audience as if they were 5 year-olds. The rest of this post will be chockful of spoilers so if you haven’t watched it yet, please go away and come back later.

District 9 opens using a mockumentary format that combined with its South African setting, draws us into a realistic depiction of a world in which a gigantic alien ship has mysteriously appeared overnight. However, the aliens the ship disgorges turn out to be neither enlightened beings here to lead humanity to a brighter future nor nefarious conquerors bent on world domination. Instead they are nothing more than starving and desperate refugees. Not since Alien Nation has a major film treated the issue of first contact with extraterrestrials in as mature and serious a manner.

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