Decent Films Blog

Avatar, the Golden Globes … and the Vatican

Posted Jan 19th 2010, 11:50 AM

Haiti guilt competed with self-congratulation at Sunday’s Golden Globes, which started with Nicole Kidman highlighting “Ribbons for Haiti” and George Clooney’s “Hope for Haiti” telethon, and wound up with James Cameron speaking in the invented Na’vi language from his film Avatar and repeatedly telling the audience to “give it up for yourselves.”

Host Ricky Gervais set a low tone early in the evening with obscene humor, and took a couple of pokes at Mel Gibson’s drinking, possibly getting his biggest laughs from Gibson himself. Meryl Streep was classy and humble accepting her award for Julie & Julia. Jeff Bridges scored points when he “complained” about his Golden Globe for Crazy Heart, protesting that the Hollywood Foreign Press was messing up his “underappreciated status.”

Robert Downey Jr. had one of the night’s best lines when started by thanking his wife Susan “for telling me that Matt Damon was going to win so ‘don’t bother to prepare a speech.’” The sentiment was less convincing when Cameron recycled it for his Best Director award, acknowledging his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, also a contender for directing The Hurt Locker. “Frankly, I thought Kathryn was going to get this. She richly deserves it,” Cameron said.

The double triumph of Avatar’s Golden Globes for best director and picture establish it as the clear favorite for the Academy Awards. While Avatar will likely not match the number of Oscar nominations or awards achieved by Cameron’s last feature film, Titanic, Avatar may well result in back-to-back best film and director Oscars for Cameron (if a lacuna of a dozen years can still be called back to back).

Powering Avatar’s sense of inevitability is the film’s, yes, titanic box-office performance. This past weekend Avatar ruled domestic and global box office for its fifth straight week, picking up steam and toppling records that seemed untouchable just earlier this month. Avatar is poised to take the #1 global spot from Titanic before long, and could push Titanic to #2 domestically as well. After the irrelevance of last year’s Oscar race, which snubbed popular and critical favorites like Wall-E and The Dark Knight while lavishing attention on films that neither audiences nor critics were crazy about (e.g., Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Doubt), the Academy may well be ready to embrace a popular and critical front-runner.

In spite of all the hype, critical praise for Avatar has been tempered by acknowledgments of its weaknesses, including its derivative storyline, cardboard characters and lame dialogue. One critic spoke for many (including me) when he wrote, “Is it a great movie? Maybe not. But it is a great step forward in moviemaking.”

Curiously, similar sentiments recently expressed in L’Osservatore Romano and on Vatican Radio have attracted rather prickly mainstream media coverage.

“Unlike much of the world, the Vatican is not awed by the film ‘Avatar’” was the lede on a recent AP story that went on to note that the film received “lukewarm reviews by both the Vatican newspaper and its radio station, which say the movie is simplistic in its plot is superficial in its eco-message, despite groundbreaking visual effects.” Owen Gleiberman wrote more or less the same thing in Entertainment Weekly, but never mind.

Looking a bit closer, the Christian Science Monitor wondered in a recent headline, “Why is Vatican paper reviewing Avatar, the Simpsons?” Noting significant shifts in editorial policy under new editor in chief Giovanni Maria Vian, the story called the Avatar review “part of L’Osservatore Romano’s efforts to shrug off its previously staid, stuffy image and strike a more contemporary tone.”

In other recent Avatar news, a CNN.com story talked about what could be called “post-Avatar depression” among extreme fans lamenting the “intangibility” of Cameron’s fantasy world. For more, see “Avatar and the Meaning of Life.”

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