AMC Stubs A-List Review

I was pleased to have the opportunity to review AMC Theatres’ exciting new service, Stubs A-List. From my written review:

So is A-List worth it? I’d say yes under certain circumstances: 1) If you have a lot of AMC theaters around you, 2) If you’re happy with AMC’s movie selection generally, and 3) If you normally pay to see at least two movies per month. If this describes your situation then I’d say it’s a really solid option. Even better, since A-List is officially sanctioned by AMC, you don’t need to deal with a bunch of the annoying things that you have to deal with when it comes to MoviePass. You don’t need to “check in” to movie showings or take photos of movie stubs to prove that you went. You also don’t need to deal with things like surge pricing, which MoviePass recently announced. It’s just a much smoother process.

However, MoviePass also has a bunch of advantages. The biggest one is, of course, price. It’s $10 per month compared to A-List’s $20. Now, I’d argue that pricing creates a lot of problems for MoviePass. AMC has called it unsustainable, and I have a lot of questions as to whether MoviePass’s long-term business model is actually a viable one for them. But for that price, you can see movies at Landmark, Regal, and Cinemark — and often those theaters will have the high-quality, up-and-coming indie films that AMC won’t have.

I’m extremely lucky because I live in a place with a bunch of AMC Theatres and my AMC theatres show a huge range of movies from the latest Avengers to obscure foreign films. But if you only have one or a few AMC Theatres near you, then I can totally understand why A-List is not a good deal for you. But for me, A-List is a fantastic option and I think it will be for a lot of people.

Black Mirror: Season 4 review

When I watch Black Mirror, I’m really only looking for the show to do the following: Take my understanding of technology, extend it to its logical conclusion, and then twist it in such a way so as to make me question all my values. By this measure, the fourth season of Black Mirror is a resounding success.

I binged the entire season on the day it was released on Netflix. Here are a few thoughts on each episode:

“USS Callister” (S4E1): This episode refines ideas from Black Mirror Christmas special (specifically, the concept of enslaved computer programs), and combines them with commentary on toxic male fandom and unsafe workplaces. I love that it captures the feel of Star Trek — both original series AND new Abrams reboot (somehow). It’s clearly made with a lot of love towards the franchise, and felt like it honored Star Trek, while adding to it. The third-act suffers from incredibly far-fetched plotting but the episode’s very last moments are great. Grade: A-

“Arkangel” (S4E2): The lesson of this episode is that you must never parent too much. But never too little either. It must be precisely the right amount, lest horrors befall you and your family. This is the kind of episode that people who dislike Black Mirror often think of it as: facile, alarmist, and moderately ridiculous. Grade: D

“Crocodile” (S4E3): This episode is insane — nearly a self-parody in how over-the-top and dark it was. The premise is ludicrous. The ending is so stupid as to be insulting. It does almost nothing to explore the inner life of the main character and as a result, ends up revealing very little about technology or human nature. That said, it is gorgeously shot on location in Iceland and I will happily watch Andrea Riseborough act the hell out of anything. Grade: F+

“Hang the DJ” (S4E4): A wonderful, heartbreaking look at the dehumanizing effects of modern dating apps (with some dystopian aspects of The Lobster mixed in for good measure). Hell is dating other people. This episode is beautiful, though, and joins “San Junipero,” “Be Right Back,” and “The Entire History of You” as part of a excellent quadrilogy of short films about how technology impacts love and relationships (Thanks to Kyle Turner for pointing this out). Grade: A

“Metalhead” (S4E5): What happens when we piss off robots one too many times? This mostly thrilling episode (shot completely in black and white) tries to answer that question. A solid modern-day riff on The Terminator, with impressive visual effects. While it’s a decent genre exercise, it’s not as thought-provoking as the best of Black MirrorGrade: B

“Black Museum” (S4E6): How would advanced technology impact the fields of medicine and crime? This mini-anthology episode tries to answer that question by masterfully weaving together three stories into a main narrative that involves a girl visiting a mysterious and horrifying museum (loaded with Black Mirror easter eggs). I loved each of the vignettes and enjoyed the broader story as well. This is as good as it gets. Grade: A

Overall thoughts: If there’s one overarching theme for this season, it’s the concept that one day, computer programs will be able to experience consciousness, and therefore, pain. Our society will be ill-equipped to deal with this when it happens.

I think we got three great episodes (USS Callister, Hang the DJ, Black Museum), one good episode (Metalhead), and two outright terrible episodes (Arkangel, Crocodile). Any show would be great to rack up numbers like this, but for a show as ambitious as Black Mirror, it’s especially impressive given that we’re already into the show’s fourth season. I’ll be crossing my fingers for a fifth.

‘Olaf’s Frozen Adventure’ Is An Abomination

I went to see Coco with my family this weekend. It’s been years since I’ve been able to watch a movie in theaters with my brother and my parents, so I was excited to be able to take them to Pixar’s sumptuous new story about an aspiring young musician trying to make his way through the Land of the Dead. The movie was great — thought-provoking, moving, and respectful of the traditions by which it was inspired. There was just one thing that marred the entire experience.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is a 21-minute “short film” that plays in front of Coco. That means that between 15 minutes of trailers and this 21-minute ABC holiday special, you’re looking at a good 35 minutes before the movie even begins.

The decision to put this special in front of Coco creates numerous externalities. First of all, it bumps a Pixar short film that would’ve otherwise gone in its place. These shorts, while hit or miss, often showcased important up-and-coming talent and were frequently nominated for “Best Animated Short Film” awards due to their quality (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Olaf’s Frozen Adventure will not land that honor). It also means there are lots of confused people in the audience of Coco, wondering whether or not they’re even in the correct theater.

But let’s put all that aside. Even if all those extremely annoying aspects of the Olaf-viewing experience weren’t present, you’d still have to contend with this: Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is a terrible piece of art represents all the worst aspects of the commercialization of Christmas. Olaf has always been an irritating character, but he’s fine in small doses — he’s the spice, not the stew. Making him the center of the story is like trying to force Captain Jack Sparrow into the protagonist role of a Pirates film (How’d that work out for Disney?).

Olaf spends the movie hunting around for more “traditions.” Songs are sung. References to Frozen are made. Suffice it to say, he comes to learn that the real tradition…was love.

The short film was constructed in a way to be the most widely appealing, least offensive reference to Christmas ever. At the end, when Elsa uses her ice powers to create a Christmas tree, there’s a Disney ornament at the top, rather than something that might actually symbolize anything other than corporate domination of the holidays.

This is the type of film people complain about when they say that Christmas is too commercial. It says nothing of value. Its execution is barely competent. It is only interested in getting you to buy more Frozen Blu-Raysor getting you to think about these characters once more during the long wait for Frozen 2.

It is a colossal waste of time whose only legacy will be that it made the magical experience of seeing the great new Pixar film just a little bit less special.

‘Nathan For You’ Season 4 Review

This week, Nathan for You concluded its fourth season with an unprecedented two-hour event entitled “Finding Frances.” I wanted to share some detailed (spoiler-y) thoughts on the finale and the season as a whole.

As we begin, it’s important to note that I am not just a Nathan for You fan; I’m a Nathan for You evangelist. Nathan Fielder’s show, which features the comedic actor suggesting and implementing ridiculous business ideas, has been a razor-sharp satire of reality TV, not to mention an occasionally thought-provoking look at the media and human nature. I not only appreciate how the show has exposed weaknesses in our institutions (as Nathan does this season when he smuggles in an elaborate chili-dispensing system into a hockey stadium with nothing more than a doctor’s note) but have also laughed heartily at the way Fielder revels in the awkwardness of humanity.

All that said, I found the fourth season overall to be a bit disappointing. Fielder’s ideas for improving businesses became increasingly outlandish, and his elaborate “side quests” often showed even less connection to the original mission than in seasons past. While Fielder has always used a local business’ problems as a jumping off point for crazier pursuits (see: Dumb Starbucks), the gulf felt especially pronounced this year — and even occasionally mean-spirited, as Fielder’s dragnet entangled everyone from a local councilman to Craigslist musicians.

When I watch Nathan For You, I want something that uncomfortably blurs the line between reality and fiction, and that makes me question the nature of my reality. The finale of season 3 broke my brain with its ambition and execution, and I was hoping for something similar to occur this season as well.

I got my wish, twice.

I always enjoy checking out Fielder’s appearances on late night television, as I find them delightfully awkward. His appearance on Kimmel (above) showed Fielder at his best, delivering a long, drawn out anecdote about a run-in with police. A few elements of the story seemed off to me (the photo of the suit seemed too perfect and also, why would someone carry their mom’s ashes in a baggy?), but hey, who doesn’t exaggerate things on late night television?

In season 4 episode 4, “The Anecdote,” Fielder reveals that the anecdote was an elaborate ruse. He had watched countless late night appearances and reverse-engineered the perfect late night anecdote, then used his extensive resources to make the anecdote’s events come true in real life. What’s great about Nathan for You is it forces us to retroactively reconsider everything that has occurred up until this point. Was Fielder pretending to bad at late night talk shows this entire time, as an elaborate set up for this episode? How much of his entire personality is a public performance? The mind reels at the possibilities.

“The Anecdote” is a brilliant examination of the performative nature of these talk shows, as well as one of the best instances of transmedia storytelling I can recall (Fielder went on to discuss the anecdote on Seth Meyers and Conan). It is, in other words, Nathan for You at its finest.

The second time the show really got to me was with its finale, “Finding Frances,” which I found to be painful, funny, and moving. Shot as a full-blown documentary, Fielder takes on the case of Bill Heath, who is regretful about Frances, an ex-girlfriend from decades ago that he believes he should have married. Nathan agrees to help track her down so that Bill can confess his love to her. Along the way, we learn that Bill’s intentions and character are not quite as sterling as we’d hope for a mission that is this ambitious.

For one of the first times ever, “Finding Frances” forces us to consider the challenge of making Nathan For You. Fielder stages elaborate schemes, such as claiming that he’s filming a sequel to the indie film Mud, or having a “57-year Reunion” at a local school, all to try and get some scraps of information about Bill’s mysterious long lost love. At one point, Fielder describes himself as wandering aimlessly through Arkansas, with hundreds of hours of footage, unsure if this would even turn into an actual episode. There’s lots of footage of Fielder falling for Maci, a local escort, who he’d originally hired to socialize (non-sexually) with Bill. It makes you wonder how many Nathan For You episodes we never actually get to see because, while expensive, they never amounted to any story worth telling.

I was profoundly uncomfortable for most of the episode, as Bill not only seemed like a compulsive liar intent on using Fielder’s resources for his own gain, but also a lecherous old man with no empathy. I questioned not only whether the already-creepy idea of tracking down someone from a past life and exposing her info to a national tv audience was worth doing, but whether this was the guy that one should do it for. In one scene, Fielder asks Bill to play act his hypothetical interactions with Frances, and Bill is creepy AF, touching the actress inappropriately and believing that he and Frances can pick up right where he left off. But through the exercise, Bill does eventually gain an understanding of why Frances left him, and even admits to cheating on her.

Eventually, they get a break in the case and discover that Frances is now married and living in Muskegon, Michigan. Fielder, Bill, and the whole camera crew drive out to the Frances’ house in Muskegon to talk to her. But after thousands of miles traveled, Bill is unable to get out of the car and go to her front door. Instead, he decides to call her from the car. As the conversation plays out, Bill realizes that Frances has moved on with her life. At first, she can’t even recognize his voice. She’s happily married with nine grandchildren. Meanwhile, Bill’s life as an actor and performer didn’t quite turn out like he’d hoped. And he realizes that he probably shouldn’t confront Frances in person after all. It is one of the most raw pieces of tape I’ve ever seen on Nathan for You, or probably anywhere.

What “Finding Frances” reveals is that everyone has a story. To paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, we are all the main character in the play of our lives. This episode pulls back the curtain on one such main character, Bill Heath, and invites us to examine his regret, his excitements, his desires, even as a 78-year old man.

“Finding Frances” ends with Fielder returning to Arkansas to meet up again with the escort Maci. The two share an impromptu moment of connection before the cameras turn off. Fielder seems to be trying to complete his character’s arc on the show — Bill regretted never marrying Frances because his family looked down on her, so Fielder is determined not to repeat the same mistakes with Maci, even as she has a profession that some might also look down upon.

In reality, we are probably watching a highly edited, controlled, purposeful interaction. In reality, Maci has signed a release form to appear in this scene, and was likely paid some kind of fee. In reality, Fielder may have no feelings for Maci whatsoever, and has scripted “Finding Frances” to end exactly where it would feel satisfying.

But we have no idea where reality ends and fiction begins with Nathan For You. And that’s what I love about it.

‘Long Shot’ is a short Netflix doc about chance and happenstance

To explain the premise of Long Shot is to basically give away the entire plot. With that in mind, here is what the movie is about: Long Shot is a new Netflix documentary about the trial of Juan Catalan, who was wrongly accused of murder in 2003. Catalan was at a Dodgers game around the time the murder was said to have taken place, but had few ways of definitively proving his whereabouts. Desperate to solidify his alibi, his lawyer turns to an unconventional place: footage from an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that just happened to be shooting at Dodgers Stadium that night.

Long Shot is that rare Netflix property that doesn’t overstay its welcome. The film, directed by Jacob LaMendola, is well shot and efficient with its interviews and b-roll. With a documentary this short (39 minutes, in this case), it can be challenging to have a broader takeaway from this story of near-catastrophe. But I did get one idea from this film that I haven’t been able to shake, and that is that we are all just one random decision away from complete and utter catastrophe befalling us.

What if Catalan had decided to watch the game at home that night? What if Curb decided to shoot only one take that night? What if the production assistant had chosen a different section of the stadium to shoot in? If any of these things had happened, Catalan might be serving a life sentence today.

It’s a mind-boggling idea to consider, and elevates this doc from “true crime” trifle to something more thought provoking.

‘mother!’ review

This week on the Slashfilmcast, we are joined by Andy Signore, one of the Emmy-nominated hosts behind Screen Junkies, one of my favorite YouTube channels in existence. I watch Screen Junkies pretty religiously, and have been inspired by them in many of my online pursuits.

For months, we’ve tried to get Andy on my show (and me onto his, Movie Fights). Last night, we finally succeeded. I’m also happy with how this review turned out. If you’re interested in a pretty intense discussion about mother!, then check out our episode.

Amanda Peet explains why she never reads reviews

Amanda Peet, writing in The New York Times, on why she never reads reviews of shows that she’s in:

When I was 26, I made the mistake of reading a review of a play I was in. “Whale Music” is a little-known gem by Anthony Minghella, and I still had three weeks left in the run. We were an all-female cast, and everyone got a nice review in The New York Times, except me.

Anita Gates wrote that I was “trying” to play my character — who was the bohemian sidekick — “as a sort of British lower-class Joan Rivers.” I love Joan Rivers, but this was an intimate English drama about 20-year-olds on the Isle of Wight…Over the next three weeks, I tried my hardest to be the opposite of Joan Rivers. By the end of the run, nobody could hear me.

A critic’s opinion had infiltrated my performance, and, as much as I resented her for making me so ashamed, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Every night, I was performing against her review — trying to prove her wrong — instead of doing my job.

I vowed never again to read another review.

Peet’s essay is a reminder that there’s always someone on the other end of that review — a person who likely worked their ass off to be there, and who has aspirations and feelings too.

It’s also a testament to the fact that, if you’re a performer, reading reviews can be a taxing and unrewarding experience. Peet hasn’t read any reviews of her work in many years, and I’m sure it hasn’t hurt her life or career one bit. In my opinion, only those who significantly benefit from intense self-examination should read their own reviews. I’m not sure I include myself in the latter category.

The new ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a disappointment

[This post contains some plot details from the new Ghost in the Shell]

I saw the new Ghost in the Shell last night, and while I don’t think a faithful adaptation of the original animated film would’ve done well in the U.S., what we ended up getting instead was a generic sci-fi action film with a cookie cutter plot and wafer-thin characters. Sure, the production design and visuals are pretty great, and there are one or two decent action scenes, but the film is otherwise completely forgettable.

And don’t even get me started on the racial issues this movie brings up.The movie takes place in a city that clearly is supposed to evoke Japan (New Port City), but most of the primary characters are white. Scarlett Johansson not only plays a role that was originally brought to life as the Japanese character Major Motoko Kusanagi, but we learn in the film that she actually has a Japanese woman’s brain inside her. Her white body is literally replacing a Japanese person’s!

There will be TAKES left and right on this one. And there should be. I just wish Ghost in the Shell felt more worth getting worked up about.

A few other notes:

  • I was occasionally impressed with how streamlined the plot felt compared to the original. Gone are the 1995 film’s references to internecine government warfare and its lengthy philosophizing about the nature of man and machine. Instead, Major is the primary character in this film, and it’s her journey that we are meant to relate to the most. For good or ill, the new film rises and falls on the characterization of Major — and I don’t think it works out super well on that front.
  • Some of the action scenes do feel, shall we say, heavily inspired by the animated film. But hey, might as well use that valuable IP to the fullest.
  • There are numerous references/easter eggs that relate to the animated film. Those who are fans of the original will find a decent amount to keep their attention here.
  • The action set pieces are pretty impressive. You get a sense of Major’s physicality and how good she is at immobilizing and killing people. But the combat always felt super brief and didn’t really build to anything satisfying. Don’t see this movie expecting a great action film.
  • The ending of the new film is drastically different from the 1995 film. I won’t say what exactly happens, but the 2017 film feels like what people are referring to when they use the term “Hollywood ending” in a derogatory fashion.
  • Kenji Kawai’s music for the Ghost in the Shell animated film is iconic and irreplaceable, but composers Clint Mansell and Loren Balfe do an admirable job translating that sensibility into this futuristic action film.

Further reading:

Brief thoughts on Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’

I had a chance to see Jordan Peele’s Get Out last night and I thought it was great. A few (non-spoilery) observations:

  • Do yourself a favor: don’t see the trailer before you see this one. I went in almost completely fresh and I think I enjoyed it much more as a result. Also: since there are a few big surprises in the film, I’m going to be as vague as possible with my thoughts below.
  • Both Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele showed on Key and Peele that they could master virtually any genre stylistically, from hard-core action film to irreverent comedy. It’s one thing to be able to imitate a style for a two-minute sketch — it’s another to be able to sustain a horror film atmosphere for a little over two hours. Peele definitely does that here. As a debut film, Get Out is stylistically solid. Thematically, it’s spectacular.
  • There are so many layers of allegory here that it’s astonishing Peele was able to fit them all in. According to Peele, the target of the film is racism. “We were living in this post-racial lie. So I wanted to call that out,” he said in an interview with CNN. I look forward to discussing this further after the movie is out in theaters.
  • There are several memorable performances here for actors that weren’t really on my radar before: Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson both have amazing moments, but LilRel Howery really steals the show.
  • A few people have asked: is the film scary? Are there a lot of jump scares? I’d say there are very few hallmarks of conventional horror films here, like gore, body horror, or jump scares, though they are there in judicious amounts. It’s not a particularly violent film (although I definitely wouldn’t take a child to see this movie, like someone did for our screening last night). Instead, what the film does well is projecting an atmosphere of menace throughout.
  • If you can, see the movie with a lively crowd. This is one of those horror films that benefits from audience participation.

I also shared some thoughts on Periscope about it last night, so do check that out as well.

‘Logan’ movie review

I had a chance to see Logan this week and review it for /Film. It’s my favorite X-Men film.  It might even be my favorite superhero film. It’s up there with The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2. I loved it:

What makes Logan special is how it effortlessly navigates different genres and tones. It’s a road movie, but it’s also an action film with ambitious set pieces. It’s a sci-fi superhero film, but it’s also infused with a lot of humor and tenderness. Most importantly, it’s a fitting conclusion for one of the most iconic comic book character portrayals of the past 20 years.

Review: Slack Threads are great, but have a few big usability issues

I’m a Slack junkie, so I was excited when they recently announced they’d finally be rolling out a Threads feature. I was particularly keen to try it out since I recently launched a Slack community for the /Filmcast podcast. Would threads make it easier or more confusing to organize conversation in a freewheeling channel with hundreds of users?

Slack threads allow users to essentially convert any message into a thread, and then add replies to that thread. Replies are only one message deep (they cannot go further), and show up on the right-hand pane, which is otherwise used for giving info on the thread as a whole.

Slack also compiles all threads into a handy “All Threads” view that lights up whenever someone responds to any of your threads.

This feature is particularly beneficial for replying to earlier messages in channels. If a message appeared hours ago and the entire channel has moved onto a different topic of conversation, it’s a lot easier to make a thread and reply — the original user gets a notification, and the conversation can continue on that topic while the channel is blissfully unaware.

Overall, I think the threads work really well and help to declutter conversations when they are used correctly. However, there are a few issues with threads right now as they are currently implemented:

Converting messages to threads – The ability to convert any message into a thread doesn’t work too well with how people typically use Slack. In many of my Slack Teams, thoughts come out in a series of incomplete messages, often with crosstalk. A single one of these messages would be inappropriate to start a thread with. Thus, being able to group multiple messages into the start of the thread would be helpful.

Moreover, it would be really useful if the user could give some kind of cue (via the UI or otherwise) when they want to start a thread. In our Slack, we’ve taken to putting “Thread: [Topic here]” or something similar. But it’s not always clear what’s better as a thread, or what’s better as further conversation in the channel. Sometimes people use both to respond, creating confusion.

Ways to resolve
– Develop some kind of usage convention, or educate users on proper etiquette when it comes to creating threads
– If possible, allow users to group multiple consecutive messages into a thread

The “Also send to #channel” button – Slack offers you the ability to send any message in a thread back to the general channel. Let me be clear: This button is an abomination and must be changed or destroyed. It’s not that the concept of sending a thread message back to the channel is a bad one; it’s more that the messaging around it is very confusing.

Most people, when they see that checkbox, are going to want to send the message back to the #channel. Why wouldn’t you? Your message is important and the channel should read it, right? We have a lot of first-time users in our Slack and initially, every single one of them clicked on this checkbox. This resulted in exchanges like the one below in the channel itself:

The threads were making the actual channel much more difficult to read. Thus, we had to lay down a ground rule about not checking that checkbox. The results have been much better since.

In short, “Also send to #channel” is terrible messaging. It should say something like, “Do you think this message is important enough that you want to barge into the main conversation with it, interrupting everything else going on over there? Then check this box.” But I understand why they didn’t put that there. Maybe a happy medium would be appropriate?

Ways to resolve
– Do more to explain the dire consequences of sending a thread reply back to the channel
– Remove the button completely

Other thoughts: In addition to blanket “no sending threads back to channel” rule, our Slack has also developed some channels that are “thread only.” This means every single message must be a thread-starting message. This has led to much more organization and readability in channels like #oldermovies, where you can just scroll up and see a bunch of movie-specific discussions to dive into. It would be ideal if there was some way to “force” people into threads for certain channels, or get them to understand that by posting a message, they are actually starting a thread.

Overall: I really like the Threads and I hope Slack continues to take steps to improve their usability. But I  think that a lot more education could have gone into the roll-out, which would’ve saved a lot of confusion and headaches.

Inkoo Kang’s Takedown of ‘Silence’

Inkoo Kang rails against Silence’s unfortunate undertones:

At my first screening of Silence, George Lucas introduced Martin Scorsese’s new Japan-set spiritual drama at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre by praising it as a film that belongs in the 20th century. Whatever Lucas meant by that, Silence feels far older, even archaic, bemoaning as it does the arduousness of European colonialism. “It’s Hard Out Here for an Imperialist,” the period piece could be subtitled. Or, perhaps: “Sympathy for the White Devil.” That Silence asks its audience to care more about the narcissistic crisis of its Portuguese protagonist than the welfare of the 17th-century Japanese populace is howlingly infuriating and racially insulting.

See also: Jen Yamato’s excellent review.

I agree with many of the issues Jen and Inkoo bring up. I was quite torn about the film myself. You can hear my thoughts on the /Filmcast.

I re-watched Avatar

Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently passed Avatar at the box office to become the number 1 domestic grossing film of all time. Upon hearing this news, a lot of people had the same reaction: “Avatar was the #1 grossing film of all time? Oh yeah…”

Listeners of the /Filmcast will know that we’ve been discussing Avatar for a few months already. Specifically: how could a film rapidly become the highest grossing film of all time and leave absolutely no cultural footprint? (Side note: hundreds of people have already sent me the link to Scott Mendelson’s piece on this topic. If I get it one more time, I fear I may have a Col. Miles Quaritch-esque freakout. That’s an Avatar reference, for those of you who have no idea what the characters’ names in Avatar are).

Awhile ago, a listener gifted me an Avatar Blu-Ray, and after all the Avatar conversation recently, I felt I should revisit the film. So yesterday I popped in the disc and tried to see it through fresh eyes. Here are a few of my reactions:

In my opinion, the CG still holds up – James Cameron pioneered some pretty amazing filmmaking techniques for this film, which allowed him to use/position a camera as he would in a conventional filmmaking environment but see a reasonable approximation of the final product on-the-fly. This allowed the film to “feel” like it was being shot with actual cameras on Pandora, with the weight movement that those cameras would bring to a real-world shoot. Moreover, while the world of Pandora is very clearly CG and a bit too shiny/clean to look totally photorealistic, the blend between the practical and the CG elements felt really seamless to me. And what never gets lost are the characters’ emotions. Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) is still this movie’s best special effect.

Everything is great except Na’vi Sigourney Weaver. She creeps me the hell out.

James Cameron still knows how to direct action like nobody else – The final hour of this film is a spectacular series of set pieces, with the destruction of Home Tree, the battle between the Na’vi and the marines, and then Quaritch’s final face-off with Jake Sully. Great sense of geography, pacing, and stakes throughout. Awesome action choreography.

 James Cameron is not subtle – The Na’vi’s connection with the forest is not just metaphorical. It’s LITERAL. As in, there’s actually a neural network IN THE ACTUAL PLANET. Oof.

The Avatar Blu-Ray is terrible – Remember when Blu-Rays used to force you to stream special features? Because they might get updated in the future? Yeah, me neither. Awful.

 The arc of the whole movie is just bizarre – It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that Avatar is an allegory about white people and Native Americans. The film invites us to relive the colonization of America, only this time, from the POV of the natives. And as Sully and the Na’vi brutally ruin and kill the appendages of the American military in the film’s final set piece, we as the audience are invited to cheer them on. It all just felt very…weird.

I was reminded of Annalee Newitz’s great piece about how Avatar and the fantasy within it is a distinctly “white” fantasy:

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.

I remember seeing The Last Samurai and how that was a movie about someone who not only adapted to the ways of the samurai; he mastered them. The same happens in Avatar. Jake Sully doesn’t just barely squeak in as a member of the tribe; he rides Toruk to victory, which is considered one of the greatest honors and almost an impossible feat within Na’vi culture.

What does it say about white culture that it seems to be the only culture producing these kinds of narratives about redemption via assimilation into and mastery of other cultures? The film made me wonder. (P.S. If there’s, say, an Asian film about a guy who not only becomes assimilated into white culture but a master within it, leading a bunch of whites into victory, please let me know).

James Horner’s score is still beautiful – Still love the work of this brilliant man. RIP.