Thursday, December 31, 2015

Watching Movies Under The Influence of Nyquil (Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Avatar)

I subjected myself to a flu shot this year but I caught the flu anyway.  It didn’t really detract from my holidays since there are only two people left in my family and neither of us is exactly festive, but it made me far too stupid to deal with writing, or most other things for that matter.  Aside from obsessively playing Hearthstone. And watching some crappy movies.

I’m sort of a cinephile in recovery. I went through a period where I saw everything, and then for the last several years I’ve seen one or two movies a year, if that. If I’m going to sit through mindless cliched entertainment, I’d really prefer to have a keyboard beneath my hands and a score counter somewhere on the screen. I daydream better that way.  But when I’m running a fever, I’m able to sit and stare listlessly at a screen for hours, without even fidgeting, so that’s when I tend to watch movies. Especially colorful ones with special effects that blend well with Nyquil.

This year’s flu season film festival was especially dismal: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Avatar.

I knew Oz was a crapshoot. Positive incentive included Sam Raimi (with cameos by Ted and Bruce), excessive CGI and Oz itself. I’m an Oz fan. The reviews were bad, though, and deservedly so, because this tale of a skeevy philanderer’s redemption interlaced with what one might assume to be a kids’ movie fails hard.

First of all, what’s the whole deal with male midlife crisis movies dressed up like family entertainment?  Can anything possibly be more narcissistic than imagining an average child would be entertained by a story centered around some guy that’s possibly older than their dad, re-evaluating his life? Are these movies written by middle-aged men who spend their entire lives interacting with other middle-aged men and aren’t really aware of the existence of anyone else?  Yeah, I know what the answer to that question probably is, but I had to ask it anyway. 

The Oz movie is bracketed by some great title sequences. The part in between has to do with this unappealing fellow who is a stage magician and unrepentant womanizer. , Oscar “Oz” Baum, brother of long-suffering and abused Frank, his assistant. While fleeing from Vlad the strongman in yet another thwarted romantic triangle (this dude gets with 5 different gorgeous women in this movie, with references to more in the past), Oz is blown to Oz. Which is full of hot witches. Oz is nice to them all, in sequence, without really having to choose which ones are good or wicked; he just agrees with the most recent one and eventually he finds the blonde one, who is the true good witch (Glenda).

He also finds a Little China Girl (that’s her name, she never introduces herself) that is the entire reason I watched the whole movie. She’s a CGI porcelain doll, and I was fascinated with the lighting on her glazed hair, and her light, stiff movements. There’s also a winged monkey sidekick that’s sort of cute. And lots of callbacks to the original movie, to which this fiasco cannot hold a candle.

The plot mainly has to do with the witches bickering over who’s in charge, and who gets to score with Oz. It’s possibly a little less annoying than Wicked (didn’t like that either; read the book but haven’t seen the play) (the land of Oz is a light, crisp, airy biscuit, and smothering it with heavy handed sauce only makes it soggy and prone to collapse).  There’s lots of IMAX mania, with dueling witches flying through the air, and Oz demonstrating his wizardly supremacy with fireworks. The interrupted Munchkin musical number made me smile. Briefly.

You know what I’d really like to see next, Hollywood? A remake of Little House On The Prairie. Except instead of putting the focus on some little girl (little girls are box office poison!), you should make it be about a man, in the late afternoon of his life, wondering if he measures up, and there should be a bunch of hot women that are all focused on him and never talk about anything except him whenever he’s out of the room.  Maybe also a movie about Pippi Longstocking, except make her male, and a little older, and concerned with whether he’s made his dad proud. Maybe you could do yet another remake of Willy Wonka, except make it all about Willy Wonka, not just mostly (like the Johnny Depp remake).

Anyway, the Oz movie was pure cinematic gold compared to the one I saw before it, which I had successfully managed to avoid up until now: Avatar.

I was offended by the very concept of Avatar. I’m a gamer; I’m familiar with Night Elves and the Outlands version of Nagrand, both of which heavily influenced the design of this film. I’m also ecologically minded, and my carbon footprint is way lower than yours. And I definitely lean liberal and tend to side with indigenous people against the military industrial concept. So what’s not to like?

Basically it’s the whole idea of “let me just slip into the skin of one of these simple primitives and show them how civilized dudes kick ass and win wars, then we can kick the ass of my asshole ex-co-workers and they’ll all be my bro buddies and give me their hottest woman for a wife.” 

It’s like Dances With Wolves – if the Kevin Costner character had been a creepy mind controlling wizard who took over one of the bodies of the Native Americans and conned them into teaming up with neighboring tribes for a high-casualty-rate battle against his own former side.  It’s even more narcissistic than assuming little kids want to see movies about middle-aged men claiming their power (that’s also what Avatar is about, by the way).  Downright supremacist, if I dare say so. The alien bodies used for this mind-control experiment? Oh, they were never really alive, science figured out how to grow a bunch of viable adult bodies without giving them brains or consciousness or anything like that.  They don’t feel pain like you and I. 

Avatar is a gamer’s fantasy at heart. Both in the majestic computer-generated “natural” environment and in the idea that if you could just superimpose your will onto the leader of the Iroquois at a particular crucial point in history, colonialism would have gone a different way, because you’re extra super duper strategically smart.  And they’re NPCs.  Shells.

So yeah, call me oversensitive if you want but that’s why I didn’t want to see it. Patronizing takes on colonialism and noble savages and the like pushes my buttons. I didn’t like Billy Jack either, for similar reasons.

You want to know what movie about indigenous people I liked?  Little Big Man. It had a framing story about a white man who was raised by Sioux and drifted back and forth between the cultures depending on his circumstance. He was a humble guy played by Dustin Hoffman, not a superhero commando general leading his little red brothers to victory. There was a sequel that dealt with the boarding schools where Native American kids’ culture was erased, and with the fad in Europe for “human zoos.” I also liked Dead Man with Johnny Depp.

And, yeah, under the influence of lots of Nyquil, Avatar partially worked for me, mainly on the strength of the art. I’m a sucker for pretty pictures. It’s a pity that so many of them are cluttered up with bad writing and dorky plots and narcissism.  I must select next flu season’s film festival selection with greater care.  

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