Thursday, December 24, 2009



James Cameron set out to create an epic that rivaled Star Wars. He succeeded. Avatar already has the largest opening for an original film (not a sequel or adaptation), and will keep climbing through the holiday season. I got to see it in IMax 3D, which was phenomenal being that the picture was crystal clear and sound was explosive.

The Story:

The story was a mix of Dances with Wolves and Aliens. There is a colonial force trying to subjugate a population of natives for a resource. A few people start to see the evil and destructive nature of colonialism and imperialism and side with the underdog. Enter Aliens where it becomes about the failures of human technologies against a so called "primitive" weaponry. Despite the technology difference the Na'vi (alien race) have something to fight for. By today's standards the story nothing exciting, but that's not what the film is about. Its about taking a universal story, (sadly the horrors colonial rule are universal now) and bringing it to life with spirit and heart.

The heart and spirit:

I have been beat into a stupor over big budget action films. None of them have heart. Michael Bay's take over of mega-budget films (to my demise) has been a scar on cinema for the past decade. Even Lucas and Spielberg have been making heartless garbage. Look at the latest Indiana Jones or the last three Star Wars films. The only success in moving the human psyche besides something violent or sexual was Lord of the Rings. Avatar has a heart and soul unlike Bay's films. When one watches Avatar they can feel Cameron's love for the story and characters. The love story was beautifully done between Jake Sulley and Neytiri. Even though they are animated you still feel the emotion and nuances in their performances to pull off the exposition of love between the two. I was surprised about the many spiritual themes in the film. They used the Zen story of a person being like a filled cup so nothing else can be taught to them. The cup thing was a little too much for me since I have been exposed to Zen quite a bit, but others who don't have that experience won't think it is as corny as I did. The real spirit comes through in another Buddhist theme (also Hindu) which is the interconnectedness of all things. Cameron uses a beautiful way to communicate this truth through metaphor in the film. I won't give away how things are bound and what role it plays, but it takes a seemingly "eastern" idea of ecology and makes it easy for audiences in the west to understand. Overall it's not a hollow in your face spamfest of special effects.

The Effects:

Wow. If this film takes an Oscar it will be in effects! There is just nothing to compare it to. The bio luminescent plant life on Pandora is fantastic. The environment was computer generated, but was photo realistic. I was blow away. The lighting was perfect, the trees and leaves swayed naturally, and movement never looked unnatural. The na'vi facial expressions were better than any motion capture work I have seen. As I mentioned before you can FEEL their performances behind the animation it is hard to explain since there is not much to compare it to. The end battle is one of the most epic and dynamic fights in film history. There are giant lizards dog fighting with huge gunships. 6 foot long arrows smash through the glass of cock pits, while machine gunners tear down Na'vi from the top of a flying aircraft carrier. On the ground mech suits rip the jungle apart with machine guns and flamethrowers, while na'vi and native animals are trying to destroy the human invaders. Its magnificent.

The Actors:

Worthington did a great job as usually. I was impressed with Weaver and Joel David Moore. The best performance came from Stephan Lang, playing Quaritch. He will go done as one of the biggest hard-asses in cinema. He drinks coffee while he slaughters na'vi. He doesn't realize hes on fire for at least 40 seconds then with little effort bats it out. He goes into Pandora's atmosphere to kick ass without an o2 mask... and holds his breath. He means business and wants to kill everything that moves. By no means it he a hero, but you have to hand it to the guy he know how to play a bad ass.

The music:

Meh.... Horner recycles his work on Titanic, Aliens, and Wolfen, which wasn't anything special. Don't expect to see trailers cut together using Avatar music in the future. I wish he wasn't so lazy. Cameron really should have got a different composer. The song at the end of the credits is full of cheese and felt out of place. Maybe just thrown in to put Avatar up for another "best song" nomination... I guess. They should have ended it with rock music or something cooler than a Celine Dion sound alike.

The Score:


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Kilometre Zero: My first Kurdish film related to Iraqi history

Kurdish filmmaker Hiner Saleem's Kilometre Zero is a tale about a Kurdish man's journey across a war-torn Iraq. Zero takes place weeks before the chemical bombings in Iraqi-Kurdistan in the culmination of the al-Anfal operation. The film exposes the fission between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq through the relationship of the protagonist, Ako, and his Arab driver. This relationship is portrayed in a comical manner, showing that the disconnect between the two ethnic groups is much-a-do-about-nothing. The exposition of historical events in the story is sometimes executed through radio reports, but most of the history is insinuated as the narrative unfolds.

Saleem's story is experienced through Kurdish eyes. The Kurds are located primarily in the North of Iraq, which was "created by Britain," with "an enormously diverse population."[1] This diversity among the population was ignored since Iraq's creation, leading to a Kurdish striving for an independent state separate from the Arab majority. The Iraqi government saw this as a problem because they wanted a centralized state, which would exist under the banner of "Arab nationalism."[2] Conflict erupted between the two groups throughout the 1970's. The conflict usually ended in stalemates because Iraqi forces could do little against Kurds in the mountainous regions. The militants were also receiving significant amount of support from Iran. The Kurdish relationship with Iran would become a chief reason for Saddam Hussein to conduct ethnic cleansing through a reign of chemical terror on Iraqi-Kurdistan. This relationship was put on hold by a deal brokered between Iraq and Iran over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which caused Iran to shut its borders to the Kurdish peshmerga, or militia, which caused the Kurds to be "decimated by the Iraqi air force."[3] A ceasefire was later forced on the Kurds and Hussein "uprooted as many as 250,000 Kurds" then "forced large numbers of Arabs to move to Kurdish territory" to dilute the population.[4] Despite Hussein's attempts, the Kurds were able to organize small pockets of resistance and keep the peshmerga in operation until the Iran-Iraq War, which dealt a devastating blow to Iraqi-Kurdistan.

The film focuses on the weeks before the Iraqi destruction of the Kurdish communities in the North. In 1987, Hussein became nervous about his stalemate on the Iranian front so narrowed his forces on the Kurdish territories. Hussein did this because he wanted to crush the peshmerga for sharing intelligence with the Iranians.[5] Ako, the main character, is introduced as a reluctant army reservist afraid of being sent to fight Iran for a country he cares little about. His feelings towards Iraq are illustrated by an early scene of the film where Kurdish men are rounded up and taken to a fortress for no reason other than to humiliate or kill. An obese man, Sami, is stripped to his underwear and told to run around and dance for the pleasure of Iraqi officers. Furthermore, there is an impromptu interview process where Kurds are asked about their profession and what they thought of President Hussein. If the answers are not sufficient, they are walked to a steep ledge and executed. This highlights the culture of fear the Iraqi government used to dominate any dissenting factions. This is accomplished by reinforcing an Arab identity and turning the Kurds into the binary opposite of Arabs. One way the Iraqi state achieved this state of fear can be seen in the film when Kurds are lined up and proclaimed agents of Iran, which is an agent of Imperialism. They are then shot in front of the predominantly Arab troops.

The binary is expressed in Ako's relationship with his Arab driver. Ako is sent to deliver a body in Iraqi-Kurdistan, only after a few days of fighting near Basra in the South. The driver and Ako rarely talk and when they do, it usually expresses an aggressive, yet comedic, disdain for each other. The driver does not hide the fact that he thinks Kurds are the source of Iraq's problems throughout the entirety of its national history. The filmmaker sets this hatred up, then has it climax when the two men get out of the truck in the middle of streets to talk about "Iraqis and Kurds." This is meant to finally set the story straight and explain the hatred between the two. Ako and the driver both tell each other to "say something," but neither says anything. This is the writer/director's way of saying the hatred is nonsense and irrational, because neither man can create a rational argument and make sense of the fractured relationship.

Another historical nuance in the film is expressed when the Iraqi check point officers want Ako to keep off the road during the day to hide the amount of causalities wreaked by Iran. This was characteristic of Hussein's policy during the war. He wanted to hide failures far away from the people, because he was afraid of losing support when his subjects saw the amount of loss inflicted by the Iranian neighbors.[6] The losses are seen when Ako's makeshift hearse pulls behind a wall and over fifty other cars carrying coffins are revealed. This exposes the extreme number of casualties that Iraq was experiencing during the war—a war that Hussein mistakenly thought would be a quick success.

By the end of the film, Ako returns to his beloved Kurdistan, which was deserted as a result of Kurds trying to escape the Iraqi bombings. After Ako is reunited with his family, director Hiner Saleem tries to paint the screen with terror. Ako and his family run for their lives as a jovial afternoon is turned into a war zone. The Iraqi jets pound the region without pause. The excessive bombing was commonplace in the al-Anfal operation. This is translated as the "spoils of war," which was largely a scorched earth policy against Kurdish territories.[7] In 1988, this culminated in the chemical slaughter of Halabja, where 5000 people were killed. The attack is referenced when Ako listens to the radio by an abandoned home.

The film ends on a positive note for Kurds. Ako and his wife, Selma, listen to another radio report in the 2003 at the time of Baghdad's fall. When they hear this, they exclaim, "We are free, our people are free!" The celebration is justified because Hussein's al-Anfal and ethnic cleansing of Kurds resulted in 80% of Kurdish villages destroyed and countless dead.[8] After Iraq's war with Iran, the Kurds constantly experienced forceful treatment and oppressive laws. One law even outlawed the Kurds from farming. This destroyed any form of self-sufficiency for the Kurdish population. With Saddam Hussein gone, Ako believes the Kurds are finally free.

[1] Cleveland, William L., and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. Fourth Edition. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2009. Pg. 410.

[2] A History of the Modern Middle East. Pg. 410.

[3] A History of the Modern Middle East. Pg. 411.

[4]A History of the Modern Middle East. Pg. 411.

[5] Maher IV, Liam. Kurd's In Iraq Lecture (December 2, 2009).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Aliens is my favorite movie. There is too much I could write about it... Instead of doing a small review I will just post a paper I wrote about Aliens and how it has inspired me. Please enjoy.

Next is the Abyss in the countdown to Avatar.

Sweat surges from my forehead, as I huddle in a gloomy corner like a prey awaiting the opportunity to escape. My only salvation is the pulse rifle pressed against my chest—held with white, trembling knuckles. I want to close my sagging eyelids, as I see the glossy-black, banana-shaped head round the curved corridor. My adrenaline swells, as my brain becomes a piston.

Thump! Thump!

I snap the rifle to my shoulder and discharge a burst of molten-cased rounds. The ammunition dives through the creature’s exoskeleton, as skin-shredding acid sputters from its body.

Thump! Thump!

“Nick, come get something to eat,” my mom yells as she pounds on the door. The claustrophobic corridors melt away, revealing a ten-year-old boy’s cluttered bedroom.

Every child fantasizes about hunting a fearful beast or adventuring with a favorite superhero. My enemy just so happened to be the extraterrestrials from the film Aliens, and my heroes were of course the elite squad of United Space Marines featured in the movie. After seeing Aliens at the age of ten, I felt more than an urge to become an Alien-fighting marine—I wanted to capture these dreams and create my own films.

What makes the film Aliens great enough to influence my future? Every aspect of this phenomenon of cinema inspires me, so much that I could write a doctorial thesis on the infinite qualities that make this movie special. When I was younger, the atmosphere, characters, and creatures intrigued my adolescent mind. Now, with a wiser eye, I see what a true prodigy in film Aliens is, as it has not allowed time to deplete its worth.

The atmosphere for the science-fiction masterpiece follows the intimidating, claustrophobic ambience of its predecessor, Alien directed by Ridley Scott. James Cameron, the writer and director of the sequel, takes Ridley Scott’s terror tactics and perfects them by creating an environment even more menacing. With a feeling of ultimate seclusion, an alien creature brings down a marine transport, leaving the troops with very little exits from the planet LV426. For me, the setting alone created tremendous tension. As a child, I was terrified by the images of marines cramming inside a small corridor, only to become reproductive necessities to a bug-like, yet perfect organism.

The design of this ultimate organism also inspired my love for science fiction. No movie monster can out-scare or out-battle H.G. Giger’s basic design of the majestic, biomechanical alien. The elusiveness of the creature stirred curiosity and an obsession with its every feature. What is more mystifying than an eyeless, elongated, ebony head resembling more of a shield than an animal? What is more terrifying than a silent killer creeping across ceilings and walls with soundless speed? What is more threatening than a thrashing, daggered tail and a vicious second mouth, ready to cocoon victims who will become hosts for another ugly alien?

A unique feature of Aliens is the patient method of revealing the space monster; the viewer cannot see it, but he or she feels the presence of an Alien army ready to destroy. Cameron’s greatest display of skill was his ability to foreshadow the ominous Queen Alien. When filming the original Alien, Ridley Scott used a deliberate pace, building up to the alien’s first appearance. Cameron, however, hinted at the Queen throughout the entire movie. He tricks the audience into forgetting the Queen when the human characters seize the forefront of the story. Then, abruptly, a character finds herself standing inside an egg-scattered nest, as the Queen leers over her. It is this ingenious writing that continually places Cameron as a leading member of the film industry.

The characterization in Aliens has influenced much of the ways I reveal the strengths and weaknesses of characters in my writing. The character Private Hudson, played by Bill Paxton, is one example. Hudson begins as a cocky, smart-mouthed joker, but when the aliens begin attacking, he becomes a whining pessimist with little hope for survival. In contrast, Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, enters the film as a woman broken by nightmares of her first encounter with the beast. By the end of the movie, she demolishes the Queen Alien with a piece of warehouse machinery. Through the skillful building of Ripley’s character, Cameron demonstrates a person’s ability to transition from fragile to strong. When she finds an orphaned girl with tattered clothing and dirt-smeared skin, Ripley acts as her protective mother and valiantly faces the aliens that once petrified her in order to protect the child. With Hudson and Ripley, Cameron realistically portrayed the positive and negative human reactions to unthinkable situations.

Aliens is the first movie that taught me to notice atmosphere, detail, and dramatics. Aliens’ influence has increased with my age, rather than becoming obsolete over time. With advancements in computer graphics and special effects, older films seem outdated and “corny” at times. Aliens, though, is still an amazing piece of cinematic history because its effect is comparable to the films of today. Aliens inspires me to create motion pictures equally as timeless so that someone else can write an entrance essay for a film school, hailing my movie for its inspiration.

Today, another marine stoops with a rifle in his clutch, awaiting the assault of a gruesome beast. Meanwhile, I capture frames of drama, as the alien rounds the corner.

Thump! Thump!

“Nick, you need to get ready for work,” my wife yells, as I stop envisioning the future and smile.

Rocky II

It took me a while to get into Rock II. Compared to the first film it seemed to lack heart and motivation. The vanity of Rocky leads to his downfall, so he ends up having to get a shit job. The personal story in all this wasn't really communicated. I just didn't care. There are a few heart warming scenes (like those that made the first film) but they are two few to count. It is most likely because Stallone was budding as a young director and hadn't had much experience in the craft.

The high point of the film is of course the end fight. I wouldn't say it is as vicious the first Rocky v. Apollo, but it was shot pretty cool. There is a priceless hit for hit slowmotion sequence that should be revisited on youtube if you can find it. They also an interesting thing for the end of the fight where Rocky and Apollo both fall down and the fight is won by who can get up first, instead of who gets knocked down.

Overall I would say this one did very little for me. Rocky IV's shitty 80's feel at least kept me entertained.