'Don't Breathe' Video Review

Friends: I'm hoping to redesign this blog soon and start posting again more frequently. In the meantime, here's my video review of "Don't Breathe," a film I absolutely loved.

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.

My 10 Favorite Longreads of 2015

My reading life really took a hit this year. Between my full-time job, the release of The Primary Instinct, and the release of my cello EP, I didn't have nearly as much time to dive into online essays and investigative journalism as I wanted to (and as I have in years past).

Nonetheless, I was still able to consume a few pieces that really spoke to me. In particular, many of these pieces focused on the challenges of choosing a life in the arts, something I've struggled with mightily this year.

Anyway, here are my favorite reads of 2015, in no particular order.

Ask Polly: Should I give up on my writing? - Heather Havrilesky remains one of my favorite writers on the internet (In fact, when I first started the /Filmcast, she was one of the two people I knew wanted to get on the show. The other one: Shawn Ryan. Still gotta figure out a way to make the Havrilesky guest spot happen...). Havrilesky really has been killing it with her Ask Polly column, and this entry is no different - a beautiful essay on the limits of chasing after fame.

Get rich or die vlogging: the sad economics of internet fame - It's an act of boldness to show people your weaknesses and your balance sheet. Gaby Dunn does it here in order to reveal the trials and tribulations of being in the Internet's "middle class." Sometimes, hundreds of thousands of subscribers and followers don't convert into income cleanly, and Dunn gives voice to this anxiety.

25 Years in LA (parts 1-5) - While I don't always agree with Drew McWeeny's opinions on films or the entertainment industry, I've always found his to be an essential voice in our world. Plus, I'm fascinated by the backstories of how my favorite writers came to be who they are. Drew's "25 years in LA" series was moving and personal, and gave readers a glimpse into a time in his life (and perhaps in all our lives) when it felt like anything was possible.

Raiders of the Lost Web - The web we know is dying piece by piece. Linkrot affects all elements of our society, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Adrienne LaFrance's piece for The Atlantic about how a Pulitzer-finalist investigative series almost vanished should give any online content producers pause: we are partially responsible for preserving the work that we produce. And we must do all we can to make that happen.

The Lonely Death of George Bell - This extraordinary investigative effort documented what happens to a person when they die in New York. Most people who have friends and family have people to take care of their affairs for them. But for those who live lives of solitude, the resolution of their affairs fall to civil servants, who are brought together across time to help put this person to rest.

How Snoopy Killed Peanuts - In advance of the new Peanuts film, Kevin Wong published this loving chronicle of how Peanuts became less biting (and less intelligent) over time. This piece will make you miss the Peanuts of yesteryear.

The art of sound in movies - A fascinating behind-the-scenes look into the sound design of films like No Country for Old Men and Miles Ahead. These people are some of the many unsung heroes in the film industry.

The Last Day of Her Life - Sandy Bem knew her mind was deteriorating, and she wanted to die on her own terms. But how does one choose when it is time to die? A heartbreaking story of love, life, and loss that makes me consider how to approach the end of my own life.

The Myth of the Ethical Shopper - Buying clothing that isn't made in terrible conditions is becoming more and more challenging these days. Shopping responsibly is an intractable issue, and Michael Hobbes' piece for Huffington Post explores these problems in depth.

How to lose weight in 4 easy steps - Hilarious and touching, this piece by Aaron Bleyaert is (obviously) not just about weight-loss. It's about how to deal when your life blows up and how to reconstitute it afterwards.

'Spectre' video review


This was a tough one, folks. Also, I don't think I've ever produced a review that has gotten more negative comments on /Film and YouTube.

"The Alchemist" from The Tobolowsky Files selected for NPR's Earbud.fm


Today, NPR published earbud.fm, which is their attempt at building a database of the best podcasts on the internet. I was honored to see that Stephen Tobolowsky's "The Alchemist" (ep. 4 of The Tobolowsky Files) has been selected for inclusion.

Stephen has often described "The Alchemist" as the turning point in the history of the podcast, when it transformed from being a fun podcast about the film industry, into something that had the potential to be of lasting, cultural worth. If you who still haven't listened to the podcast yet, I hope you'll consider checking it out.

Thanks to listener Andy Koopmans for being one of the people that recommended this podcast to NPR. Listen to this episode, and more, at earbud.fm.

Steve Jobs Review


A contentious review of Steve Jobs, the newest film by Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle. What responsibility, if any, does art have to verisimilitude? We discuss.

Bridge of Spies Review


Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks reunite, for a slow burn cold war drama. Here's our /Filmcast review. 

The Walk Review


The Walk was a moving film, but unfortunately not enough to captivate mass audiences. Our review on the /Filmcast. 

The Martin Review


The Martian is a beautiful, moving film. Our /Filmcast review.

Sicario Review


An incredible film by an incredible director. Here's the /Filmcast review of Sicario