Hulu review: James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009)

Sir Alfred Hitchcock… Stanley Kubrick… Orson Welles… and James Cameron.

Although Cameron’s oeuvre is “lower” art than these other three directors’ filmographies, he is still not justly recognized as an auteur.

His masterpiece, Titanic (1997), while not free of imperfection, was the first film to gross more than a billion dollars worldwide, and is tied for first for the most Academy Awards nominations and wins for a single release, a fiscal style which continues to influence the industry at large.

His Avatar (2009), the follow-up to Titanic, pales in the shadow of its older sister.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Avatar is available to stream on Hulu. The epic science fiction film was up for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Cameron also wrote the movie, which would go on to surpass Titanic at the box office.

Set in the year 2154, humans have depleted almost all of Earth’s natural resources, leading the Resources Development Administration to mine for unobtanium on the habitable moon of Pandora, which a native species known as the Na’vi calls home.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-bound former United States Marine, is recruited to replace his deceased twin brother on a mission to explore Pandora with his genetically matched human-Na’vi hybrid, also known as an “avatar.”

Jake meets and falls for a Na’vi princess named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and finds himself torn between following the orders of the colonialist RDA and following his heart.

Avatar took home the Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Visual Effects, and, with its pioneering motion-capture as well as 3D technology, it reserves the right to rest on those photographic laurels. It still very much dictates the cinematic conversation today.

There was a time before Avatar, and, now, we live in the Year of Avatar 2020.

Dramatically, the film has its moments, too, if not with the same impact as Titanic. Even at its distended runtime, it is still a digestible romantic hero’s journey. In addition, it is a thematically well-intentioned parable against imperialism.

But the path to Hell is paved in good intentions. Like Kevin Costner’s Danes with Wolves (1990), the white-coded hero saves the day after appropriating this “exotic” culture for himself.

Plus, this reviewer watched Avatar and Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s Pocahontas (1995) back to back one time and it was four and a half hours of the same story.

The originality of Avatar has been criticized ad nauseam, but it still bears repeating. All dramatic narratives (or, at least, the well-written ones) follow a template of rules, and they do so for a reason – because the rules work.

But there is a difference between honoring the rules by writing your own which are equal to them if not better, and letting somebody else’s rules do all the work for you – the unimaginative screenplay is secondary to the exactingly detailed world-building.

Additionally, according to feminist theory, Avatar could stand some improvement. Neytiri qualifies as one of Cameron’s pseudo-feminist “strong, independent women,” who are written with such masculinity, they might as well be men.

Back to Titanic, Kate Winslet’s character is the best-written of this author’s signature trope, because her arc develops her from a damsel in distress to a rescuer to a self-preservationist without sounding like she was written by a man, and the same cannot be said for Neytiri.

Cameron’s trademark technique is to get record budgets greenlit for original properties (and then profiting off their record returns), and, for that reason, Avatar is a worthwhile lesson in cinematic history.

It to this day shapes everything to come after it, and, though not Cameron’s masterwork, it still epitomizes his boy-like wonder over unexplored universes.

Cinema, at its most “cinematic,” is dreamlike, childlike, and transporting, and, so, Avatar has colored the cinematic arts in cosmic shades of blue since its premiere more than a decade ago.

Hulu review: Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018)

Only a franchise with a set of rules written by Brian De Palma in 1996 could be this absurd and watchable at the same time.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) is available to stream on Hulu.

The action spy film is a follow-up to the fifth installment in the series, McQuarrie’s own Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), making him the first filmmaker to return and direct more than one of these movies.

McQuarrie also wrote the screenplay and co-produced alongside star Tom Cruise as well as Mission: Impossible III (2006) director J.J. Abrams.

Set two years after the events of Rogue Nation, Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is tasked with buying three stolen plutonium cores in Berlin before a terrorist group known as the Apostles can on behalf of a mysterious client known as John Lark.

The mission goes awry, so CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) assigns Special Activities Division operative August Walker (Henry Cavill) to supervise Ethan as he tracks down the plutonium.

Meanwhile, former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is hellbent on assassinating Rogue Nation villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) to prove her loyalty to the intelligence agency, even though he is the key to finding the missing plutonium.

Ethan Hunt is the American answer to England’s James Bond, and, while Bond is the more classic hero, Ethan is the more consistent.

He is not the womanizer Bond is, and, though he finds himself in “exotic” locales, his adventures are not quite as colonizing as Bond’s are, in that he is genuinely a world-saving hero, not a blunt instrument of imperialization.

The continuity between the Mission: Impossible flicks also develop his arc more, and that Cruise is the only actor to play him also further humanizes him, whereas Bond is more of an icon than a character.

As with any action picture, the staging of the set-pieces is imperative, and, in Fallout, the choreography is balletic.

Cruise prides himself on performing his own stunt work, and so the spectacle on display is more ageless than an overreliance on CGI which would become dated, not if, but when. McQuarrie has earned the right to helm the next two sequels.

As much pure dumb fun as Mission: Impossible is, it may be more “dumb” than “fun” for some. Ethan’s increasingly convoluted mission reveals can be laughable, and the longer he survives his escalating stakes (such as nuclear apocalypse), the greater the suspension of disbelief.

Then again, the ridiculousness is all part of the entertainment value, and Mission: Impossible is anything but self-serious.

In fact, it is its sillier flourishes that attract its cult following, and if you “get” it, you’re in for a ride.

Hulu review: Terence Young’s “Dr. No” (1962)

The mid-twentieth century posed an identity crisis for all of the West, but for the United Kingdom most of all. With the breakup of the British Empire following World War II and the expansion of the Soviet Union in the East, European colonialism was under attack.

It was to be expected for the white male wish-fulfillment that is James Bond to infiltrate English cinema for the next sixty years, which is why 007’s first outing is as dated as curdled milk.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Terence Young’s Dr. No (1962) is available to stream on Hulu. The spy film is an adaptation of the 1958 novel of the same name by Ian Fleming.

Since its release, it is estimated that a quarter of the world’s population has seen at least one of the twenty-four subsequent Bond pictures produced by Eon.

In Jamaica, MI6 Station Chief John Strangways (Timothy Moxon, voiced by Robert Rietty) is assassinated alongside his secretary, Mary Trueblood (Dolores Keator), by “the Three Blind Mice” (uncredited), who steal documents related to “Crab Key” and “Doctor No.”

The Head of the British Secret Service, M (Bernard Lee), dispatches Agent James Bond (Sir Sean Connery) to look into Strangways’s cooperation with the American CIA on a case of disrupted rocket launches in Cape Canaveral via radio jamming.

Bond’s investigation crosses paths with the treacherous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and the beautiful Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress, speaking voice by Nikki van der Zyl and singing voice by Diana Coupland) before leading him to the lair of Doctor No (Joseph Wiseman).

The movie is iconic for what would go on to become James Bond’s most recognizable tropes (Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme,” Maurice Binder’s gun-barrel title sequence, Connery’s line, “Bond, James Bond,” the “Bond girls,” the campy villain, et cetera).

Without it, we wouldn’t have Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) or Sam Mendes’s Skyfall (2012). But even those superior entries are still answering for the sociopolitical sins of their father.

Intersectionally, Dr. No is as insensitive with its representation as to the most toxically masculine, white supremacist Bond flick you can think of.

Marshall and Wiseman are both white actors playing Asian characters: Miss Taro fulfills the “dragon lady” stereotype of the duplicitous Asian woman seducing the white hero with her exoticism; and Doctor No, the evil Chinese genius plotting to take over the world.

The very setting of the film is symptomatic of the English filmmaker’s juxtaposition of the “civilized” British protagonist against the “barbaric” Third World.

Edward Said’s theories on orientalism state that Western thought can be traced back to René Descartes’s philosophication, “I think, therefore, I am.”

This state of “being” versus “nonbeing” can exist only in a universe of opposites, and, in such a universe, post-Descartes white culture was bound to see anything different from itself as the opposite, as the “unculture” to its “culture,” as an evil to be vanquished.

Bond’s travels to settings like Kingston mimic this invader’s narrative.

And the very casting of Connery itself turned out to be a poor choice for the film’s politics. He said during a Barbara Walters interview he condones violence against women.

As if Bond’s womanizing ways weren’t problematic enough.

And what makes it problematic is what feeds more into the white British male’s power fantasy. Bond always “gets the girl” at the end, objectifying his romantic leads into spoils of war.

The sexualization of “foreign” women is the apparatus through which white Europeans have committed their genocide-by-rape.

But, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge co-scripting Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die (2020) and with men and women of color in talks to replace Daniel Craig (who, in and of himself, is redemption for Connery’s Bond), 007 is on its way out from under the shadow of Dr. No.

But, because it’s the one that started it all, Bond will forever have to answer for it. As a (critical) fan of the character, this reviewer doesn’t even enjoy it for what it is – it is offensive, tired, and, worst of all, boring.

Hulu review: Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” (1992)

With only fifty-three percent of reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes praising Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), this Hitchcockian classic of its time is an underrated and misunderstood film.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Basic Instinct is available to stream on Hulu. The neo-noir erotic thriller was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Original Score.

It was the fourth-highest-grossing release of its year, despite a divided critical reaction and public protests from gay rights activists.

Set in San Francisco, troubled homicide detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) investigates the murder of Johnny Boz (Bill Cable), who was stabbed to death with an icepick during sex with a mysterious blonde.

The prime suspect is crime novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), Boz’s bisexual girlfriend, who wrote a book about the killing before it was committed and claims an obsessive devotee is setting her up.

As Catherine lures Nick into her world of sex and drugs and violence, his relationship with police psychiatrist Doctor Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) grows increasingly deadly.

Douglas may get top billing, but Stone is the star of the show. She carries herself with confidence and intelligence and just the right amount of danger.

The most recognition she engendered for her star-making turn was a Golden Globe nod because audiences fail to take her seriously after the infamous interrogation scene.

Like Emilia Clarke in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Stone is more talented than people are willing to give her credit for, and there’s more to her performance than the beauty that meets the eye.

This is due to Verhoeven’s direction. Stone reprises her role in Michael Canton-Jones’s Basic Instinct 2 (2006), but even though it’s the same actor playing the same part, Catherine Tramell is borderline unwatchable in the sequel.

Verhoeven characterizes Tramell as the postmodern femme fatale, who seduces and kills with no loftier motive than that she looks good doing it.

The movie was controversial upon its release for its representation of bisexual women, and while there is something to be said about Hollywood’s lengthy history of demonizing lesbians, and while Basic Instinct exploits lesbianism for the male gaze, it is still ahead of its time sexually.

Catherine and her lover, Roxy Hardy (Leilani Sarelle), are both feminine.

Conversely, in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010), not only do Annette Benning and Julianne Moore conform to “butch” and “femme” gender roles, respectively, but the more feminine of the two also is the one to have an affair with Mark Ruffalo.

Narratively, though, Basic Instinct is overlong, convoluted, and repetitive. In the end, what the central mystery boils down to is an elaborate revenge plan the villain would have had to be nigh clairvoyant to cook up.

Logically, the drama demands more than its fair share of suspension of disbelief.

But Basic Instinct is more… well… instinctual than it is rational, and, for that, it is cinema at its most dreamlike.

Hulu review: Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor” (2018)

Can you keep a secret?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (2018) is available to stream on Hulu. The black comedy mystery thriller stars Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. It is based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Darcey Bell.

Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick) is a widowed single mother who vlogs.

She befriends Emily Nelson (Lively), a fashion PR director as well as wife to English professor Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), after a playdate between their sons, Miles Smothers (Joshua Satine) and Nicky Townsend (Ian Ho).

When Emily disappears, Stephanie tries to solve the mystery.

All fictional genres are governed by their respective rules of writing, especially in film, which is edited according to an assembly-line formula as cutting as journalism, but the beats of suspense are arguably the most rhythmically drummed.

Jessica Sharzer’s script marches along its tightrope of tension with nary a misstep, a whole as much greater than the sum of its parts as a jigsaw puzzle. This female-led noir, written by two different women, feminizes a stereotypically misogynistic tradition of storytelling.

And leading the charge is Lively, the femme fatale herself. Even with a male filmmaker behind the camera, she is not objectified under the male gaze – in fact, her costumery, though sexy, is borderline androgynous, stylizing her sex appeal without exploiting it.

Through a look on her face, Lively can charge even just a line of dialogue into a livewire.

Kendrick dynamizes, too, as the unreliable narrator with secrets of her own. She chases her candy-coated vlogger persona with an ominous subtext which unsettles every foundation she lays for this closet where she hides her skeletons.

Stephanie is as psychologically complex as any noir antihero, but in a way that doesn’t masculinize her.

Now, for all the movie’s generic pleasures, its comedy dulls its sharp edges. The climactic fart joke is anticlimactic, and, as with many age-diverse casts, the child actors try too hard (which is not to judge them, but the adults who write and direct their characters).

This isn’t to say humor and crime are mutually exclusive, but, where, say, David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) satirizes the “missing white woman” media narrative ingeniously, A Simple Favor is apolitically set in white, upper-middle-class suburbia.

Still, no picture is above reproach, and while A Simple Favor isn’t perfect, like Stephanie and Emily, it’s picture perfect.

Hulu review: Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

In response to the moral panic surrounding the youth counterculture of the Cold War, with Communism threatening to indoctrinate pro-Kennedy children against their pro-Eisenhower parents, a cycle of “demonic child” films were released in the 1960s and 1970s.

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) constructed a zeitgeist around Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the last New Hollywood masterpiece.

But Carrie isn’t Satanic, and the three productions that are, are said to be cursed – indeed, the year after Rosemary’s Baby came out, the director’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult of… well… Devil-worshipping hippies.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Rosemary’s Baby is available to stream on Hulu. The psychological supernatural horror picture is the auteur’s own Academy Award-nominated  adaptation of the same-titled 1967 novel by Ira Levin.

Ruth Gordon won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of creepy neighbor Minnie Castevet.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (independent filmmaking pioneer John Cassavetes) move into an apartment in New York City.

A struggling actor, Guy befriends the elderly Minnie and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) right before he tells Rosemary he wants a baby.

Rosemary experiences a lucid nightmare about an incubus raping her in front of the Castevets and Guy the night they try to conceive, and that’s only the beginning of the the paranoid, conspiratorial dread Rosemary lives during her pregnancy.

Polanski honed the craftsmanship behind his atmospheric tension with his Nóz w wodzie (1962), one of the most impressive debuts ever put to film, a feature much like Rosemary’s Baby where the Hitchcockian terror lies not in the bang, but in the anticipation of it.

In Polanski’s and the Master of Suspense’s hands alike, the most familiar moments throughout the everyman’s day become fodder for the most cinematic anxiety (which makes it all the more real).

They are inherently European artists, learning how to do more with less on the postwar continent without all the American isolationism and atomic imperialism shielding Hollywood from such ruination.

Perhaps Polanski’s Generation X Antichrist was born from being next-door neighbors to the far-left Soviet Union.

And the both of them reached their fullest potential when they came West.

Rosemary’s Baby paved the way for Francis Ford Coppola’s Hollywood Renaissance masterwork, The Conversation (1974), the most significant sound film since Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), with its cloak-and-dagger mystery.

Carrie, too, owes its iconic twist ending to this Levin interpretation, the novelist also having written The Stepford Wives in 1972 as well as Sliver in 1991.

What keeps Polanski obsessing over these neurotic themes, notably in Repulsion (1965, which would go on to inspire Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010)) and Chinatown (1974), is his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, as expressed through The Pianist (2002).

Rosemary’s Baby is the drama of a gaslit woman who suspects she’s the target of evil incarnate and turns out to be right about the people organizing against her.

The darkness tantalizes everyone around her via their most destructive characteristics, until Rosemary herself succumbs, too.

But Polanski himself is an abusive man.

In 1977, the filmmaker was arrested and charged for drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl in Los Angeles, ultimately fleeing to France in 1978 before he could be sentenced and avoiding all countries likely to extradite him to the United States.

Whether one can support a creative’s work without condoning their behavior, is up for debate, but whichever side you land on may color your interaction with the movie.

But how horrifying it is that a Polish Jew’s family was killed by white supremacists the year after he shot Rosemary’s Baby. It makes this tale of Lucifer’s bride all the more personal for its director.

And that much more powerful for its audiences.

Hulu review: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s “Pocahontas” (1995)

Beginning with Ron Clements and John Musker’s The Little Mermaid (1989) and ending with Kevin Lima and Chris Buck’s Tarzan (1999), the Disney Renaissance is to Disney what the Hollywood Renaissance is to Golden Age Hollywood.

Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) may be the first animated film ever eligible for the Best Picture Academy Award, but Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s The Lion King (1994) is the studio’s masterstroke.

With Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s Pocahontas (1995), the overpowered media conglomerate attempts to recapture the prestige of Beauty and the Beast as well as the success of its predecessor, The Lion King, the top-grossing traditionally animated movie of all time.

Ambition paints every frame with all the colors of the wind, but ambition can also dance perilously close to pretension, and one misstep can spell disaster.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Pocahontas is available to stream on Hulu.

The animated musical romantic drama won Best Original Song for “Colors of the Wind,” and composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz were honored a second time that year with the Oscar for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score.

The eponymous hero would go on to become the first Native American Disney Princess and the first woman of color to lead a cast of Disney characters.

Set in 1607, Captain John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) sails with the Virginia Company to the New World in search of adventure.

Once landing in Tsenacommacah, he meets and falls in love with Pocahontas (Irene Bedard, with Judy Kuhn as the singing voice), the free-spirited daughter of Chief Powhatan (Russell Means, with vocals from Jim Cummings).

But the greedy, genocidal Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) is obsessed with pillaging the Powhatan tribe’s land for gold, and his conquest threatens to make a tragedy out of the star-crossed lovers’ forbidden romance.

Artistic liberties are taken in almost all works of historical fiction – to quote Sir Alfred Hitchcock, “Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out” – but the sanitization and whitewashing found in Pocahontas have aged the text poorly.

The real Pocahontas was not a “magical minority,” but, rather, a child bride, and the colonizers didn’t make peace with her people after she learned how to speak English by “listening with her heart.”

As for John Smith, his “exploration” was more correctly an “invasion,” an “imperialization,” and it shouldn’t have taken a “noble savage” like Pocahontas to humanize First Nation people in his eyes (through her sexuality, no less).

This problematic, post-Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) white savior narrative of exotification crystallizes at its most egregious in the musical number, “Savages.”

The back-and-forth parallelism of the song conflates the white supremacy of the European settlers alongside the self-defensive resistance from the indigenous groups, drawing a false equivalency between the two that the First Americans were as intolerant as the British Empire.

Intentionalism is a critical fallacy, and Disney’s white liberal, apologistic intentions here are irrelevant.

If the true story of Pocahontas is too upsetting for their key demographic to understand without reducing the Powhatan culture to something that existed only for white men to appropriate it, then it’s a story that never should be told to children.

But, for what it is within the context of the Disney canon, Pocahontas is an epic entertainment. The soundtrack raises goosebumps, and the animation is as colorful as the signature song.

Apolitically, the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas is one of the most mature and affecting in the Disney universe, and, hey, if nothing else, Ratcliffe is shown to be more villainous than Powhatan.

If your child is too young to learn the real history behind Pocahontas, then at least take care to teach them what reel history means. The insultingly oversimplified themes of the picture will be digestible enough to entertain them, but the more harmlessly so, the better.

And as far as Disney fare goes, its family-friendliness is just as accessible for adults looking to enjoy a more grownup tale of intercultural (though largely fictionalized) romance, as it is for kids looking to sing along to some catchy tunes.