Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mr. Potter — Cinema's Great Unsung Hero

It's about that time. You know the time: families decorate the tree, hot cocoa is poured, cheesy and overplayed yet somehow eternally comforting Christmas music wafts leisurely through the background. In the evening, everyone will gather in the family room to watch A Christmas Story or Miracle on 34th Street or Home Alone or, of course, Frank Capra's immortal 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life. Often considered the most inspirational movie ever made, it's the story of George Bailey, a generous and kindhearted family man who suffers a setback and, at the cusp of suicide, has a little divine intervention, sees how bleak his hometown of Bedford Falls would have been without him, and learns that it's a wonderful life after all.

The film's antagonist is one Henry F. Potter, the richest and meanest man in the county. He was selected by the American Film Institute as the #6 villain in all of film history and is evidently immortal, being introduced as an old man in 1919 and still alive, kicking, and scheming in 1946. His reign over Bedford Falls is one characterized by avarice and were it not for the Bailey Building and Loan Association being the perpetual thorn in his side he would have turned the town into a living hell long ago. Or so we're told, but put under scrutiny It's a Wonderful Life flunks the "show, don't tell" test of fiction, and flunks it badly. The clear-cut black and white morality with which we see the world through George Bailey's biased eyes is swirled deeply with shades of grey, and I'm forced to conclude that Mr. Potter is not only not a villain, but perhaps cinema's greatest tragic hero.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that George Bailey is necessarily a villain — his prevention of his childhood boss Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a child and his saving his brother Harry from drowning in an icy lake are objectively good things, especially since Harry would later go on to save a ship full of American soldiers during World War II. But there can be no doubt that George has it in for Mr. Potter. Numerous times throughout the film he hurls unwarranted insults at the poor old man both to his face and behind his back, while Potter is ever the better man, remaining calm and moving forward with consummate professionalism where lesser men would have just decked the little shit. George repeatedly accosts people about the shitty houses that Potter supposedly rented to them, but watch closely. Does anyone ever really jump to agree with him, or do they just stare in confusion or nod uncomfortably to end the moment with this deranged lunatic?

Yes, Mr. Potter is indisputably a ruthless and coldly analytical man, as are many who rise to the top in business, but he's ever the professional and if unable to run his competitors out of business (a skill which, if I'm not mistaken, is generally celebrated as quintessentially American) is more than willing to extend an olive branch. He even brings George Bailey in for a meeting and makes him an exceedingly, even unnecessarily generous offer, a nearly 1000% raise from what George is making at Building and Loan and the opportunity to join Potter's inner circle and perhaps even steer the town in a direction more suited to George's moral code. And what does the man do? Well, this is George Bailey we're talking about here, so we know how it goes: he responds to Potter's generous offer with a near-psychotic torrent of verbal abuse before storming out in a rage. Bedford Falls' number two business owner, ladies and gentlemen. Bravo.

But enough with the film's primary timeline. Let's hop over to the supposedly hellish alternate reality that Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody shows the despairing Mr. Bailey to reignite his Chrismas spirit and will to live, tellingly renamed Pottersville by the grateful populace. As I've acknowledged, yes, the kid with the prescription and Harry Bailey are decades deceased, which is tragic, but other than that you will never in a million years convince me that the Bedford Falls of George Bailey's 1946 is a better place to live than Pottersville. Yes, Bedford Falls is the sleepy, white bread All-American suburb of picket fences and hard work and wholesome families that old people fantasized about returning to all through Reagan's presidency; despite the film's 1946 release date, it's instantly recognizable as the contemporary fantasy version of 1950s America. And Pottersville? Well, Pottersville is (get ready for this) the sleepy, white bread All-American suburb of picket fences and hard work and wholesome families with a strip club, a casino, and a bar that serves hard liquor. Holy god, the motherfucking horror!

This isn't BiffCo from Back to the Future Part II we're dealing with here. Biff Tannen's Hill Valley was an economically devastated hellscape with through-the-roof crime and murder rates and the police functioning as Biff's fascist secret police. Pottersville, with the exception of the closed Bailey Building and Loan Association, clearly has substantially more local business and almost certainly a stronger economy than Bedford Falls. When George begins flipping his shit and harassing the locals (gee, I didn't see that one coming), the friendly police respond quickly and efficiently to the people's summons with no displays of any unnecessary brutality.

There aren't any junkies shooting up on the corner. I don't see any hookers. If anyone is going hungry we sure don't see it. In Pottersville, people work hard and families love one another just like Bedford Falls, except that in Pottersville the blue collar workers have some much-deserved nighttime entertainment. And if I lived in that dreadful boring town, I'd need to wind down with a few shots and some naked ladies too. If having a strip club makes a town evil, then America is fucked, because every town in this country with more than a few thousand people is doomed to hellfire.

But there are two symbols above all others that are meant to inform us of the pure malevolence of Pottersville. The alternate reality version of Bedford Falls' local harlot, Violet, is seen to be working as — god fucking forbid — a stripper. Which, you know, is a perfectly legitimate profession that plenty of women make a good living doing. In the real Bedford Falls Violet is a broke woman with no skills of any kind who takes off to New York with only the clothes on her back and like $20 George lends her, no doubt to die from starvation in a gutter somewhere. George sends this poor, destitute, ruined woman to her untimely death with a smile. Murderous. (Yeah, she comes back at the end, but George had no way of predicting that.) In Pottersville, she probably has thousands of bucks in the bank, hordes of admirers who pay good green cash to see her, a nice place, the works. One of these women is in a good situation, and it's not the one Frank Capra wants us to think it is.

And then there's George's wife, Mary Hatch, a woman whose real-world profession is to sit at home pumping out kid after kid that the Baileys can barely afford to feed on George's $2K salary. When interrogated about Mary's Pottersville version, Clarence reluctantly tells George that "she's an old maid. She never married," and that she's currently at work — a woman, working! — closing up the local library (an establishment never mentioned in the real Bedford Falls). George is struck numb with horror to learn that rather than pumping out children Mary has given into the blackness of books and learning and helping keep the populace well-read and educated. Not in George Bailey's America! He storms after her, flailing and grabbing and shouting like a madman, and her 100% warranted reaction of fear at being assaulted by a perfect stranger is portrayed as tragic. Also note that Clarence never said that Mary is loveless or celibate, only that she "never married." Hell, judging by the sexy librarian getup she was rocking, I bet she gets some at least once a week, and not the boring missionary style shit George is giving her. Why am I supposed to want soulless suburban drone Mary rather than awesome Pottersville Mary?

Let's look forward to 2009. Bedford Falls might still exist (then again, maybe not, with all the bad loans George was giving out undermining the town's economy), but if it does it's a sleepy, depressed armpit with good intentions and little else except some kind of hollow longing for the 1950s. And in the current financial crisis, the whole town might have just ended. And Pottersville? Well, Mr. Potter's enhancements to the local nightlife actually encouraged some new people to move in, people whose kids grew up smart thanks to Mary's work at the library. Bigger population, fresh blood, a thriving local economy, and more tax dollars to build a better hospital, a better school, and hire better teachers. Maybe Pottersville circa 2009 is even sending its kids to Ivy League schools and producing great thinkers, scientists, businessmen, artists, academics. Henry F. Potter had a grand vision for the future of Bedford Falls, not necessarily as a thriving American city, but a good place to live. George Bailey wanted to hold its hand and walk it into the abyss.

That's why I can forgive Mr. Potter's theft of $8000 from the Baileys, a desperate last-ditch effort that came so wonderfully close to driving Bailey Building and Loan under and George Bailey off a bridge. Illegal, yes, of course, but the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars was breaking the law too. This theft wasn't malicious, it was the final effort of a sad old man on the precipice of death to save his town and ensure the future. But alas, the hero could not win this battle, as the people of Bedford Falls came in throngs to bail George out of debt. Many great tales have ended in tragedy; Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and It's a Wonderful Life is one of them. But you did your best, Mr. Potter. I salute you.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

A grown-ass man I may be, but there is a specific run of Disney films I love with unapologetic glee and that still revert me back to childhood wonderment in a heartbeat: the brilliant 1989 - 1994 cycle of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. I don't know whether it's because of the impressionable age I saw them at or because they're legitimate masterpieces (probably a little of both), but I'll defend those four flicks to the death. But then came the horrible Pocahontas in 1995 to ruin all our fun, and since then, Disney's in-house, non-Pixar animated features, with the sole exception of the pretty good Mulan, have ranged from nonoffensively harmless (Tarzan, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bolt) to just awful (Dinosaur). The spark seemed gone, the shark long since jumped.

But in a retro tribute to the fairy tale flicks of old that I didn't realize the Walt Disney Company had in 'em, and more specifically and more importantly from directing duo Ron Clements and John Musker, who gave us The Little Mermaid and Aladdin nearly twenty years ago, comes The Princess and the Frog, and I'm happy to report that aside from Mulan and a couple of live-action successes (i.e. Pirates of the Caribbean and Enchanted) it's the best thing the studio has made since I was in elementary school; a flick with genuine spark and life and charm to it. Who would have thought? The trick to making a creative and rich film was, paradoxically, to fall back on the oldest clichés in the book and make something that would have fit seamlessly had it been released in the late 80s or early 90s.

The formula is clockwork: there is a "princess," in this case a hardworking lower-middle class New Orleans waitress named Tiana who dreams of opening her own restaurant, and there is a more literal prince, the stuffy and pompous Prince Naveen who is basically Aladdin when he was in disguise as Prince Ali except without the being in disguise part. Naveen is turned into a frog by a voodoo witch doctor named Dr. Facilier as part of a ploy for Facilier to get rich and entrap some souls for his hungry pagan gods, but Naveen escapes and attempts to kiss a princess to become human again. Things go awry when Naveen mistakes Tiana for a princess at a costume party and ends up turning her into a frog too, and the pair go on an adventure to revert the spell, thwart Facilier's plans, and (spoilers, but not really, if you're not an idiot) of course overcome their character flaws and fall in love along the way to the chorus of a big musical number every six to ten minutes.

Of all of Disney's fairy tale features, this might just be the one most tweaked and embellished from its source tale, which as far as I can recall starred a real, rich princess, took place in generic European-esque fantasy settings, and had no villain, let alone one who was a New Orleans witch doctor. But it works like gangbusters. Tiana is an instantly likable and relatable protagonist, an independent and spirited woman in the spirit of Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine (and far superior to the immensely overrated Cinderella). And while setting a fantasy in Louisiana may not sound appealing, the sheer novelty of it really works, not the least because of the wonderful sense of time and place the directors create, all jazz and bayous and drawling accents and good southern comfort food. You can almost feel the humidity and smell the gumbo just watching the film.

And of course there's Dr. Facilier. For me, a good Disney villain is every inch as important as a good Bond villain, and Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, and Scar are more than a little bit of why The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King rule. Dr. Facilier is flamboyant, charismatic, nasty, powerful, and has no qualms with killing or kidnapping, in short, everything a quality Disney villain should be. That he's from the same directors who gave us Aladdin isn't immensely surprising, because when it comes down to it he's strongly reminiscent of a black Jafar, but Jafar is one of my favorite baddies ever, so that's a compliment. His villain song is also pretty decent, one of the better tunes in the picture.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that this is the one area where The Princess and the Frog falters: its songs are just kind of there. There's absolutely nothing even close to on par with, well, any of the songs in the modern classics I discussed before. The best song in The Princess in the Frog is less memorable — far less memorable — than the worst song in Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. I saw the movie like two days ago and I can't remember the melody or the chorus of a single one of the ten or so showtunes that make up nearly a quarter of the film's runtime. You might be saying "But, Tim, that's because you have nostalgia for those old songs," which is true, but then again, I saw Disney's Enchanted only once over two years ago and I still remember the melody and chorus of "True Love's Kiss," "Happy Working Song," and "That's How You Know," so I'm forced to conclude that The Princess and the Frog just doesn't have particularly great tunes, which holds it back from the top echelon of Disney classics.

Nonetheless, I really liked the movie and have absolutely no hesitation recommending it to anyone who loves and misses the heyday of 2D animation, and especially anyone with specific fondness for retro Disney. I should also briefly discuss the controversy surrounding the film. As Disney's first black princess, Tiana has been something of a lightning rod for criticism, almost entirely from guilty whites, about perceived racism in the film, namely her working class job as a waitress, her spending a lot of the film in the body of an amphibian rather than her black self, the New Orleans setting dredging up memories of Katrina, the voodoo, and her love interest Prince Naveen having caucasian features. I suppose I should put my two cents into this debate: I DON'T GIVE A SHIT. I don't give a shit about this criticism coming from whites or non-whites. It's a movie, people. It's a fuckin' movie. Relax.

3 Stars out of 5

Sunday, December 20, 2009


James Cameron's Avatar sort of had the odds stacked against it from the get-go, not because of anything the film itself did right or wrong, but because it could have been the greatest movie ever made and still not measured up to sheer entertainment of the online buildup to its release. First came months of nonstop hype. Then came the backlash. Then came the counter-backlash. Then it all just descended into a months-long, hilarious and perpetually expanding flame war, with whiners bitching that the story was just "Dances With Wolves in space" (or, as I like to think of it, "The Last Samurai in space"), and nerds responding with death threats, because nerds don't cope well with contrary opinions.

But blocking all that out and sitting in the theater with mind blank, the root of the gripes certainly rings true: Avatar's story — a soldier gradually finds himself sympathizing with his less-technologically advanced but spiritually purer enemies — is one that has been told before, both in award-winning big-budget films with top stars and in probably dozens of novels, just this time on another planet and with a dash of The Matrix in the way the characters plug into their avatar aliens. But the other, more important truth is that that doesn't matter.

I'm an enormous believer in the simple philosophy that, when it comes to fiction, it's not what it's about that's important, but how it's about it. That's why one film about a mall cop can be lowest common denominator crap while another is subversive genius, one single-night comedy about high school nerds trying to get laid can be dreadful to the point of unwatchability while another is one of the funniest films of the decade, and one hard sci-fi about space travel can be a frightful bore while another is a minor masterpiece. And the reason that Avatar works fantastically even in light of its familiar story and character arcs is because in the planet of Pandora we've been given one the single best onscreen realizations of an alien planet in the history of stuff being on screens.

I've lauded many a film for raw ambition, even in light of more concrete failures. But Avatar does one better; even more important than ambition, it's constructed with genuine love. Watching the film, there can be absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that James Cameron loves Pandora, loved elaborately conceiving its flora and fauna, its people, its language, its religion, its culture, and its freaky, majestic floating mountains, and did everything in his power to bring his giddily constructed mental image to the screen. That kind of enthusiasm rubs off on me. I'm not gonna say that it's the best alien planet we'll ever seen (not even that it's the best we have seen, that's something I'd need to ponder further), but I'll go ahead and say that a possibly insurmountable bar has been set for forest / jungle-themed planets. It'll certainly make going back to the shot-in-some-California-woods forest moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi tough to get excited about again.

Of course it goes without saying that Avatar has the tiny advantage of a half-billion dollars of CGI thrown at it. Accordingly, this is one of the greatest pure visual feasts ever projected onto a screen, a constantly surprising and exotic world filled with plants and trees and mountains more gorgeous than anything that exists in our boring old real world. Old school Hollywood magic taken to the nth degree. And perhaps even more importantly, the superior quality of the CGI has allowed the digital aliens we spend most of the movie with to completely sidestep the dreaded uncanny valley: they look expressive, inquisitive, emotional, real. Like Spider-Man and most of the decade's other onscreen superheroes, there's occasionally a lack of weight when they're leaping around, but the mere fact that you can look at a tight closeup of these blue cat people and remain fully immersed in what they're saying rather than thinking about the ones and zeroes they're made up of is laudable.

As for James Cameron's slightly hyperbolic claims that Avatar was going to forever change the face of 3D... we'll see. In truth, the film doesn't do anything with the fundamentals of 3D technology that the four thousand other 3D films this year didn't, the difference is that it implements them in an actual good movie with a high budget rather than the B-horror schlock and kid's cartoon ghetto they've been segregated to until now. Time (and Avatar's box office gross) will tell what kind of impact this has on blockbuster filmmaking, but as for the film itself, the 3D definitely does help give shape to the world and helps give us arguably the most immersive giant battle scenes since the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Giant battle scenes have become a bit cliché in the seven years since Peter Jackson gave us the biblical battle at Helm's Deep — sometimes done extraordinarily well, such as in the aforementioned The Last Samurai, sometimes as yawn and glassy stare-inducing as in Troy — but Avatar takes it up to eleven with marines and mechs and gunships taking on aliens and giant birds and dragons in one hell of a war sequence. Unless you've been diagnosed with AIDS in the last 24 hours the profoundly epic scale of these battle scenes will take you straight out of all your real-world problems and leave you staring wide-eyed and struck dumb at the screen for their duration. Awesome stuff.

But what good is a wicked onscreen battle if you don't care about any of the characters engaged in the melee? I believe that in the best films (or TV shows or books or whatever), regardless of genre, story and character are in equal harmony. That is to say, it neither seems like the writer came up with a cool narrative and then thrust some meat sacks in there to carry it along (think the entire Final Destination franchise), nor does it seem like they had a few characters they liked and then wrapped a story around them rather than having it evolve from them (I love the new Star Trek movie, but no one will argue that removed from the iconic characters it's a narrative that needed telling). Avatar balances these elements skillfully.

The worldbuilding is brilliant and the story of the corporations and natives fighting over Pandora, while told in broad strokes with its messages blunt as a battleaxe, is absorbing (not to mention that it basically casts the tree-hugging environmentalists as heroes versus corporations and the military as villains, which makes me giddy with excitement to hear how angry the right-wing radio machine will become when they get wind of the film). But the character arc of the protagonist marine Jake Sully, while, yes, basically the same arc as Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, is also entertaining and moving. I wouldn't say he's my favorite sci-fi protagonist of the year — District 9's Wikus Van De Merwe was ultimately more compelling if only because he started out in a darker place than Jake, who is basically heroic from his first second onscreen — but Jake's story holds its own against the more epic tale of Pandora's fate, with neither story feeling like its sapping desired screentime from the other.

Jake is played by Terminator Salvation's Sam Worthington, who seemed to emerge from nowhere with a bunch of leading roles this year (he's also the lead in 2010's Clash of the Titans). He gets the job done, but ultimately, Avatar is not an actor's vehicle. The performances are just "there," so to speak, all good with none being outstanding (even Sigourney Weaver, although I do love seeing her onscreen again... hottest woman over 60 alive?), with one big exception: Stephen Lang is fucking great as Colonel Miles Quaritch, the head military man who would just as soon wipe all the aliens out. He embodies the ruthless professionalism of his character with such ferocity that you'll grin every time he's onscreen and be disturbed at how damn much you'll find yourself liking a genocidal madman. I'm really curious if the role was written for him, because he seems born for it. I doubt it'll happen, but I would give a hoot of approval if Lang got a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Between the great worldbuilding, staggering special effects, epic story, awesome battles, solid hero, and wickedly entertaining villain, what Avatar is above all else is space opera done right. Anyone who is even slightly a fan of genre fiction needs to see it, and it's a movie that begs to be seen on the biggest goddamn screen in town. I'm already preemptively nervous about Cameron's announced plans for two sequels, because we've all wished at some point or another that people would just leave well enough alone, but then again, Cameron did make two of the greatest sci-fi sequels of all time in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens, so who knows? That Avatar very nearly lives up to years of fever pitch hype is remarkable, and it's one I'll definitely be watching again over the years.

Alternately, you can disregard this entire review and replace it with the following: How are there waterfalls flowing off of the floating mountains? Where is the water coming from?! How are there waterfalls flowing off of the floating mountains?!!!

4 Stars out of 5