Christopher Lee, R.I.P.


The picture above is Christopher Lee in the 1998 film Jinnah.  In this epic biopic, Lee played Muhammad Ali Jinniah, the founder of modern Pakistan.  Up until yesterday, I had never heard of Jinnah but, after news of Lee’s death broke, Jinnah was frequently cited as being Lee’s personal favorite of his many roles and films.

Consider that.  Christopher Lee began his film career in the 1940s and he worked steadily up until his death.  He played Dracula.  He played The Man with the Golden Gun.  Christopher Lee appeared, with his future best friend Peter Cushing, in Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning Hamlet.  He played Seurat in John Huston’s Moulin Rouge.  He appeared in both The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies.  He appeared in several films for Tim Burton.  He even had a small role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  He appeared in two Star Wars prequels.  He appeared in the original Wicker Man (and reportedly considered it to be his favorite of his many horror films).  He appeared in Oscar winners and box office hits.  And, out of all that, Christopher Lee’s personal favorite was Jinnah, a film that most people have never heard about.

Unless, of course, you live in Pakistan.  When I did a google search on Christopher Lee, I came across several Pakistani news sources that announced: “Christopher Lee, star of Jinnah, has died.”

And really, that somehow seems appropriate.  Christopher Lee was the epitome of an international film star.  He worked for Hammer in the UK.  He worked with Jess Franco in Spain and Mario Bava in Italy.  He appeared in several movies in the United States.  And, in Pakistan, he played Jinnah.  And I haven’t seen Jinnah but I imagine he was probably as great in that role as he was in every other role that I saw him play.  Over the course of his long career, Christopher Lee appeared in many good films but he also appeared in his share of bad ones.  But Christopher Lee was always great.

It really is hard to know where to begin with Christopher Lee.  Though his death was announced on Thursday, I haven’t gotten around to writing this tribute until Friday.  Admittedly, when I first heard that Lee had passed away, I was on a romantic mini-vacation and had promised myself that I would avoid, as much as possible, getting online for two days.  But, even more than for those personal reasons, I hesitated because I just did not know where to start when it came to talking about Christopher Lee.  He was one of those figures who overwhelmed by his very existence.

We all know that Christopher Lee was a great and iconic actor.  And I imagine that a lot of our readers know that Lee had a wonderfully idiosyncratic musical career, releasing his first heavy metal album when he was in his 80s.  Did you know that Lee also served heroically during World War II and, after the war ended, helped to track down fleeing Nazi war criminals?  Did you know that it has been speculated that Lee may have served as one of the role models for James Bond?  (Ian Fleming was a cousin of Lee’s and even tried to convince Lee to play Dr. No in the first Bond film.)  Christopher Lee lived an amazing life, both on and off the screen.

But, whenever one reads about Christopher Lee and his career or watches an interview with the man, the thing that always comes across is that, for someone who played so many evil characters, Christopher Lee appeared to be one the nicest men that you could ever hope to meet.  Somehow, it was never a shock to learn that his best friend was his frequent screen nemesis, Peter Cushing.

Christopher Lee is one of those great actors who we assumed would always be here.  The world of cinema will be a sadder world without him.

Legends together

Legends together

Here is a list of Christopher Lee films that we’ve reviewed here on the Shattered Lens.  Admittedly, not all of these reviews focus on Lee but they do provide a hint of the man’s versatility:

  1. Airport ’77
  2. Dark Shadows
  3. Dracula A.D. 1972
  4. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave
  5. Dracula, Prince of Darkness
  6. Hercules in the Haunted World
  7. The Hobbit
  8. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
  9. Horror Express
  10. The Horror of Dracula
  11. Hugo
  12. Jocks
  13. The Man With The Golden Gun
  14. The Satanic Rites of Dracula
  15. Scars of Dracula
  16. Scream and Scream Again
  17. Season of the Witch
  18. Starship Invasions
  19. Taste The Blood of Dracula
  20. The Wicker Tree

Sir Christopher Lee was 93 years old and he lived those 9 decades in the best way possible.  As long as there are film lovers, he will never be forgotten.

Opeth and Summoning: Music for October (part 7)

October has always been my favorite month. It marks the beginning of a seasonal reclamation of man by the world, in which civilization’s mask of sensibility begins to slip away. Tasteless architectural symbols of control over nature digress to their more appropriate forms, as frail refuge against forces beyond our control or comprehension. It is, to misappropriate Agalloch, “a celebration for the death of man… …and the great cold death of the Earth.”

Last year I posted a six part series on some of my favorite black metal, folk metal, and related genres for the season. I had intended to do something similar this year, but time just did not allow for it. I never got around to coming up with a central concept on which to focus. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the two bands I have listened to the most this month, Opeth and Summoning, both defy all standards of classification.

I would like to showcase both, but I can’t imagine doing so properly without embarking on a project way beyond the scope of my time and desire to write at the moment. So I will keep this short and sweet, featuring only Opeth’s Orchid (1995) and Summoning’s Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame (2001), and perhaps in the process still introduce you to some amazing music you had not heard before.

Opeth – The Apostle in Triumph

Everyone has heard Opeth, right? Their fame is fairly unprecedented among metal bands that are actually worth a damn. Yet, out of touch with what is and is not popular today as I am, I still get the impression that what I think of as Opeth is just as relatively obscure as it had been when I first heard them well over a decade ago.

Opeth as a popular band, in fact, is entirely foreign to me. Their first album to make the US charts, Damnation, came out right around the time I stopped listening to them altogether, and long after my interest had begun to wane. I was introduced to Opeth, like everyone around the turn of the century, via Demon of the Fall. My Arms Your Hearse was one of the most emotionally charged and breathtaking albums I’d ever heard. At the time, if you wanted to hear more, you had to look backwards, to Orchid and Morningrise, both of which were very different beasts. With them, if no one reminded you of the distortion and growled vocals, you might forget, amidst Akerfeldt’s soft, subtle lamentations, that you were listening to metal at all.

It took both a long time to grow on me. It’s not that they were inaccessible, but that peculiar teenage ability to focus in on a single masterpiece with no appreciation whatsoever for its surroundings had hold of me. There I was covering My Arms Your Hearse from start to finish on my new guitar (sure wish I could still do so now), and I’d listened to Morningrise maybe five times. Orchid never broke through the cellophane. I finally turned to them just barely in time to soak them up before history left them in the dust, a last minute love affair I was conscious of at the time. They ended up becoming my two favorite Opeth albums, and still are.

Even though My Arms Your Hearse was, alongside Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth, easily the most influential album in my life, Orchid and Morningrise are the two I look back on most nostalgically, and their melancholy beauty always reverberates the sensation.

Opeth – The Twilight is My Robe

So maybe Orchid isn’t really Opeth’s best album. Perhaps I am biased beyond reconciliation. But at any rate, my obsession with it certainly isn’t some subconscious desire to show I am an “old school” fan–the sort of accusation I tend to see on those rare occasions that the album is mentioned at all. Whether you find my placement of it at the top of Akerfeldt’s discography unjust or not, I encourage you to give The Apostle in Triumph and The Twilight is My Robe long hard listens. Agalloch being a decidedly winter-oriented band, I have experienced no music which captures the melancholy side of the autumnal season better than this.

Summoning – A New Power is Rising

I obsessed over The Hobbit as a child, the Lord of the Rings as a teen, and The Silmarillion in my earliest adult years. J.R.R. Tolkien pretty well haunted most of the formative years of my life, and I am forever indebted to him. A few months ago I picked up one of his books for the first time in perhaps a decade, committed to reading them all, but time simply did not allow for it. As with all undertakings though, it influenced my taste in music for the time at hand. I spent much of the summer re-exploring Summoning–a band I’d never actually encountered until Oath Bound in 2006. Thus they were readily at hand at the start of October, and since then they’ve comprised over half of everything I have listened to.

I dare say no single author has had more impact on music than Tolkien, and while I will always regard Nightfall in Middle-Earth as the greatest relevant triumph, Summoning’s discography is a close second. The one band I know of which has taken Tolkien as their lyrical and musical muse pretty much exclusively, they have forged an entirely new style of music over the years that captures that feeling I always got reading him to perfection.

Summoning – South Away

Summoning emerged from black metal, but from the very beginning they stood apart. By Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame in 2001, my favorite album of theirs, this connection had dwindled to little more than the vocals and some tremolo guitar. The constant use of keyboards (often set to replicate brass) and the heavily reverberated, slow drumming are what characterize them best, along with frequent spoken vocal loops.

Perhaps they intend to sound fairly sinister, with lyrics focused more often than not on the darker forces of Tolkien’s tales, but the effect for me is nothing of the sort. The drums paint a vast, diverse landscape of mountains, forests, rivers and plains that are entirely neutral–dangerous to be certain, but more enticing than aversive. They beckon you out to explore the unknown, steeped in mystery–a fantasy world which is here Middle-Earth, but could just as soon be your own back yard on an autumn day, when the changes at hand call on you to leave humanity behind and wander off into the amoral wilderness.

Summoning – Runes of Power

I love black metal, horror, and everything of the sort, but I think the word “neutral” best describes what I have been tapping into this Halloween season. No real glorification of evil for its own sake, nor any embrace of bygone cultures and values here. Orchid and Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame both tap into the individual’s relation to the world absent civilization’s presumptions and impositions–to the mystery of nature and the manifold possibilities within it which mundane daily life denies–be the experience melancholy or thrilling.

10 Reasons Why I Hated Avatar

(The opinions in this review are mine and mine alone.  They reflect the feelings of Lisa Marie Bowman and not the feelings of any other editor on this site.  To prove that the opinions below are solely mine, check out this very positive review of Avatar that was posted on this very site last December.)

In case you didn’t already know this from my previous reviews, I’m going to confess something here.  I hated Avatar.  It was probably my least favorite film of 2009.  How much did I hate Avatar?  Well, I didn’t care much for The Hurt Locker either but I still cheered when it won best picture because it meant that Avatar didn’t. 

Most of my friends and family loved Avatar and, I’m proud to say, that none of them have allowed our difference of opinion to effect our relationship.  Indeed, most Avatar fans have been very tolerant of my dissenting views.  However, there’s always an exception.  From the 1st time I ever openly admitted to disliking Avatar, I have had to deal with a small but vocal group of people who not only disagree but apparently feel that I’ve committed a crime against humanity.  So, why bring it up now?  Because on Thursday, Avatar is going to be released on DVD and Blu-ray.  In honor of that event, here are 10 reason why I personally hated Avatar

1) Ironically enough, most people who love Avatar will probably agree with the majority of my criticisms.  They’ll argue that yes, the story is predictable and yes, James Cameron is heavy-handed as both a writer and a director but none of that matters because of all the brilliant visual effects.  They’ll argue that Cameron made a whole different world, Pandora, come to life.  To a certain extent, they’re right.  Cameron does manage to make Pandora believable and wow, Pandora certainly turns out to be a boring planet.  Seriously, does that jungle cover the entire freaking planet?  However, regardless of my personal feelings about Pandora, James Cameron is hardly the 1st director to make an alien world believable.  Peter Jackson did it with his Lord of the Rings trilogy and the same can, arguably, be said of the Narnia films.  Even earlier, Mario Bava did it with Planet of the Vampires and he did it with a lot less money.  Of course, none of these films were in 3-D but so what?  Just because the mundane appears to be inches in front of your nose doesn’t make it any less mundane.

2) Speaking of mundane, wouldn’t you be let down if, when you first met the members of a totally alien race, they all turned out to be a bunch of movie stereotypes?  The Na’vi appear to have developed their entire culture as the result of a steady diet of Hollywood westerns, New Age self-help books, and some 16 year-old’s half-assed understanding of what it means to be a Pagan.  I remember when I first saw Avatar, it was impossible for me not to compare it unfavorably with District 9, a film that addressed many of the same themes and issues as Avatar but did it with a much lower budget and a much more intelligent script.  This was especially evident when one compares Avatar’s Na’vi with District 9’s prawns.  While the prawns were believable as both individual characters and as representatives of a totally alien race, the Na’vi are essentially the reflections of James Cameron’s sophomoric noble savage fantasies.

3) District 9 wasn’t the only great science fiction film to come out in 2009.  There was also Moon, which featured a great performance by Sam Rockwell and excellent direction from Duncan Jones.  When /Film asked Jones for his opinion of Avatar, Jones replied, “…at which point in the film did you have any doubt what was going to happen next?”  It’s a good question. 

In all honesty, I’m a horror girl.  I haven’t seen much science fiction and therefore, I’m not as well acquainted with the genre’s clichés as I am with horror.  However, I can still say that, at no point, did anything that happened in Avatar take me by surprise.

Of course, some of my favorite movies were (and are) very predictable.  Georges Polti argued that there were really only 36 basic plots available to use in fiction so its understandable that you’re going to come across the same one used several times.  However, a predictable plot can be forgiven if maybe that plot features at least a few interesting characters or maybe an occasional unexpected line of dialogue.  Avatar, however, can’t even manage this.  Our hero is an impulsive man of action.  The villains are all evil because … well, they just are.  In the manner of most oppressed races in American film, the Na’vi are noble savages who require a white guy to come save them.  The only lines of dialogue that I remember are the ones that made me roll my eyes.  I’m talking about stuff like a bunch of 22nd century marines being greeted with “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”  Well, that and “I see you,” which was apparently included in the script so that it could serve as the title of a syrupy theme song.

4) Strangely enough, even though the movie took absolutely no narrative risks, it was still full of plot holes and things that just didn’t make much sense. 

For instance, why does Quaritich promise to give Jake back his legs (“your real ones”)?  I mean, does Quaritich have them sitting in a freezer somewhere? 

As part of his deal with Quaritich, Jake agrees to make videos about the Na’vi.  Oddly enough, it appears that he’s still making the videos even after he turns against Quaritich and you have to wonder exactly why.  Also, Jake records many of these videos in an isolated, apparently one-room outpost occupied by him and two other scientists yet the scientists are later shocked and outraged when told that Jake was making the videos.  Okay, what did they think he was doing all that time?  Were they just not listening to what he was saying? 

What exactly was the backstory of Sigourney Weaver’s character and when exactly did she join Sully in the Na’vi camp?   And why were the Na’vi willing to let her into their tribe when they would only grudgingly accepted Sully even after the Goddess selected him?  I mean, if Weaver already had such a great relationship with the Na’vi, it seems like she could have saved a lot of time by just taking Sully straight to them.  (Editor’s Note: According to the comments below, this issue actually was addressed in the film. — LMB)

Sully, after the final battle, decides to stay on Pandora and he might as well since the Tree of Souls (good God!) transferred his soul into his Na’vi body.  But what’s in it for Max and Norm?  We seem them at the end (though really, Norm should be dead) standing there pointing guns at all the humans that are leaving.  Norm, at least, could still probably hang out in his avatar but what about Max?  Why is Max, who has had nothing to do with Na’vi, so quick to join the revolution?

I’m sure a lot of this is because scenes were edited out and I know that Cameron has a reputation for reinserting those scenes once his movies come out on DVD and blu-ray.  Well, more power to him.

5) The film suffers from a really bad case of the white man’s burden disease.  This is another one of those films where a caucasian character befriends an oppressed minority and, with remarkably little dissent, manages to appoint himself as the leader of that minority.  It’s a fantasy, one in which members of the bourgeoisie (like James Cameron) can live out their childhood fantasies of being outlaws without having to worry about  (unlike actual “outlaws,”) being punished for taking their stand.

Once again, it’s hard not to compare Avatar with District 9.  Both of them feature lead characters who are transformed into aliens.  The difference is that, with the exception of one brief scene, Jake Sully accomplishes the transformation rather easily and quickly becomes the best Na’vi there is while in District 9, poor Sharlto Copley is terrified by the process and, even though it does lead to him understanding the prawns (and ironically, learning how to show a little humanity), the movie never pretends that Copley isn’t losing his own individuality in the process of transforming.

6) The lead character is named Jake Sully.  Did James Cameron get frustrated and just use a Random Generic Movie Hero Name Generator to come up with that?  I wonder if Nick Sully was Cameron’s 2nd choice.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with either name.  It’s just that it feels so generic.  Of course, the leader character is going to be named Jake and, of course, he’s not going to be an intellectual and, of course, Sigourney Weaver’s going to spend the whole movie making sarcastic comments about how stupid he is.  Speaking of which…

7) Sigourney plays Dr. Grace Augustine.  Her character and her performance are typical of a rather annoying Hollywood tradition, that of portraying any “strong” female as a total and complete bitch.  If you want the audience to know they’re supposed to take a woman seriously, have that woman spend the entire movie pissed off about something, as if the only way a woman can be strong is by sacrificing anything that might make her unique.  Now, there’s a lot I could say about why, from a cultural perspective, American movies often seem to be so conflicted about how to portray any woman who is neither an Eve nor a Lillith.  But in the case of Avatar, its hard not to feel that it comes down to screenwriter Cameron’s inability to make any of his characters interesting unless something nearby is exploding.

8 ) And while we’re on the subject of misunderstood women…okay, let’s say you discover a planet and this planet is a lush, beautiful paradise.  Why the Hell would you then call it Pandora?  Yes, I understand that newly discovered planets are usually named after mythological figures.  But there’s still usually some sort of vague logic behind the names.  For instance, Mars was named after the God of War because of its red hue.  Venus was often considered to be the most beautiful star in the sky.  Mercury has the fastest orbit.  Jupiter’s the biggest planet.  Pluto (before it got downgraded) was considered the darkest and coldest of the planets.  Pandora, however, was the woman who opened up the jar that released everything terrible, evil, and destructive into the world.  Why would anyone name a planet after her?  It’s possible, of course, that all the good names were taken.  Of course, it’s also possible that this is just another example of how thuddingly obvious Avatar is in its symbolism and subtext.

9) Speaking of obvious, what about the villain played by Stephen Lang?  More specifically, what about that accent?  It’s true that Cameron doesn’t exactly encourage his villains to be subtle.  Just check out Billy Zane in Titanic.  Zane, however, at least appeared to be having a little fun at his director’s expense.  He, alone among the cast, seemed to realize that Titanic was a silly melodrama and so he gave something of a silly performance.  It’s no great secret that it’s often more important to have a good villain than to have a good hero.  A good villain usually has some sort of motivation beyond just being the villain.  This is something that Cameron has never seemed to be able to grasp.  Whenever I see a military figure show up in a James Cameron movie, I get the same feeling that I get whenever a preacher shows up in a Stephen King novel.  Automatically I know that they’re going to turn out to be evil and I find myself dreading having to even waste the time with the “shocking” discovery of that evil. 

10) Perhaps most importantly, this is a movie that wants to preach peace but celebrate war.  Avatar contains all the trendy environmental messages that you’d expect from a Hollywood film but — even though director Cameron seems to be in a state of denial about it — the film’s heart is with its villanous soldiers.  Much as how Titanic, for all the rhetoric about the passengers in third class, was really only interested in portraying the lives (and deaths) of those in first class, Avatar spends a lot of time talking about trees but is much more interested in blowing them up with the destruction of the Home Tree serving as the money shot.

To be honest, I don’t mind a little hypocrisy when it comes to movies.  Most exploitation films celebrate hypocrisy.  The filmmakers knew it and, for the most part, the audiences knew it.  The fact that a movie like Child Bride could be advertised as “an important movie every parent must see!” became something of a shared joke between the filmmaker and his audience.  Rather than being hypocritical, the exploitation filmmaker is simply inviting his audience to join in a conspiracy against the forces of dullness.

Unfortunately, Avatar is not an exploitation film.  If Avatar was simply a B-movie, none of the my previous complaints would matter.  They would add to the film’s rogue charm.  Avatar, however, is too expensive to be considered an exploitation film.  And James Cameron, as he proved when he went ballistic over Kenneth Turan’s negative review of Titanic and as he has continued to prove with his recent comments regarding global warming, does not have the sensibility of a B-movie maker.  Arguably, he once did.  This is a man who, after all, did the special effects for Galaxy of Terror and made his directorial debut with Piranha IIThe Terminator was a great B-movie, right down to the accusations of plagiarism from Harlan Ellison.  However, as he’s become the most financially succesful director in history, Cameron has lost that B-movie sensibility. 

In other words, James Cameron takes himself seriously now and that, ultimately, is the main reason I hated Avatar.  It just takes itself too damn seriously.

Yes, I’ve read quite a few favorable reviews that have argued that Avatar‘s sole purpose is to entertain and that people like me who occasionally expect unique characters and an interesting story should just lie back and enjoy it.  I’ve seen the term “popcorn epic” used in quite a few reviews. 

I’m sorry but I’m not buying it.  If Avatar was truly setting out to be a “popcorn epic,” than I’d be a lot more willing to cut it some slack.  However, when the script contains lines about how on Earth, humans have “destroyed all the green,” and when the villains are accused of launching a “shock and awe” campaign, it’s ludicrous to then argue that Avatar isn’t setting itself up to be judged by a higher standard. 

It becomes hard to escape the fact that Cameron, regardless of how well he handles the special effects, has essentially made a stupid movie about deep issues.

As I said before, the majority of the people I know love Avatar.  I don’t hold it against them or think any less of them because, ultimately, movies are a subjective experience.  Whether or not a movie is good has less to do with the actual movie and more to do with the person watching it.

It would be nice to have the same courtesy extended to me .  Since I first revealed my opinion of Avatar on a non-Avatar related message board, I have found myself frequently attacked by little fanboys who apparently cannot handle the fact that one human being didn’t enjoy Avatar.  I’ve been told that, as a female, I can’t be expected to understand Avatar.  I’ve been accused of being “unimaginative,” “a snob,” “a bitch,” and my personal favorite “the type of cunt who cried at the end of the Blind Side.” 

I realize the risk I’m taking by openly admitting my dislike of Avatar but then again, movies are supposed to inspire conversation and not just pavlovian agreement.  So, in conclusion, I’ll just admit that yes, I am female and yes, I did cry at the end of The Blind Side, and yes, I hated Avatar.