December 27, 2009

Wonder of Wonders: 'Avatar' Delights

As if I needed further proof of how wrong I can be about movies.

Avatar turned out to be quite a good show. Solid sci-fi, though the dialogue here and there was a bit expository and sometimes downright silly. And yes, it did appear to "borrow" elements from other films and literature, including Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and the Wachowski siblings' The Matrix, as well as proto-eco-pictures such as Silent Running.

Who cares, though. I had a jolly good time.

I didn't see it in 3D, in part because I wanted to see if the movie was good enough to stand on its own. It was. The theme of reality and whose it is was intriguing, and the world director James Cameron created on the fictitious moon Pandora, where Avatar was set, was straight out of the most brilliant, detailed sci-fi imaginations. Surprisingly, most of the script was on point, and the performances, especially Sam Worthington's, were strong. I kind of wanted to hate this film, but I couldn't. The world was too vivid. The themes were too prescient.

And I was just too wrong to dismiss it before seeing it. Silly me.

December 19, 2009

Yes, I Will Be Gnashing My Teeth at 'Avatar'

After all these years, I'm still not sure why I force myself to see movies that offer "spectacle"--and little else.

I have a big feeling that James Cameron's forest-fest Avatar is going to be just that. Granted, it does have an interesting subtext (the question of reality and who "owns" it) inherent in the story about the paraplegic soldier who has another, alien persona, his "avatar," while sleeping. That's the stuff of which good science-fiction is made.

Unfortunately, I'll bet a whole box of CGI effects that the script will leave a lot to be desired.

OK, so sometimes I like Cameron's style. His 1986 actioner Aliens, I believe, surpasses the original (which, in my opinion, had too much Tom Skerritt-style mumbling, despite the frightful atmosphere). And of course, 1984's The Terminator is a classic of low-budget, high-impact film making.

I think we can safely say Avatar is not cut out of that same low-budget mold.

I just worry. I worry it's going to waste a good idea and present us with woefully stupid dialogue and situations. I worry the leads are going to be wooden and uninteresting, never mind sympathetic. And I worry that the CGI effects will overwhelm the story.

I'm sure it'll be something to see. But when I see it--and that's a when, not an if--I'm sure I'll come out griping.

What else is new?

December 12, 2009

What a Surprise: Pixar's 'Up' Didn't Let Me Down

It's possible that the first 15 minutes of Pixar's latest triumph, Up, are the saddest of any animated film in history...and that includes Bambi and Watership Down.

This is no ordinary kids' movie. In fact, it's really a movie for adults disguised as a cartoon.

But it's really more than that, anyway.

Up, directed smoothly by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, is the story of an elderly widower (voiced by the amazing Ed Asner) who takes his house on a balloon trip to South America, where he yearns to see his childhood fantasyland, Paradise Falls. A significant suspension of disbelief is required when viewing this film--more so, perhaps, than any other Pixar film, even Ratatouille, which convinced me, despite my desire to resist, that rats could become great French chefs--owing to the extraordinary circumstances in the widower's life that somehow mesh together in the everyday. Still, this is a small challenge to take on...the film's rewards are much greater.

And they are myriad. A gigantic female bird named "Kevin" who squawks threateningly at anyone it dislikes but is loyal to a T. An army of "talking" dogs that serve (and eat) dinner whilst speaking in bizarre complete sentences. And, of course, the animation, as gorgeous as always, and yet highly stylized...which is part of the reason why I'm in awe of this film. This relatively "unrealistic" animation generated a movie that was much more moving than Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf or most other cartoons attempting a more fluid realism.

I'm not sure why that is, but I'll tell you: I think it has something to do with Up's initial 15 minutes.

Unpretentiously, without resorting to bathos or sentiment, this small segment tells the tale of the widower's life...and perhaps gives good reason not to judge anyone in real life by his or her cover. It's spare, sublime storytelling--much of which is done without dialogue but edited, like the great silents, with precision.

And it beats Beowulf by a mile.

I don't think Up is as structured as earlier Pixar films such as Ratatouille or Monsters, Inc.; it does feel a bit as if it's been "made up along the way" (though I suspect that's far from the truth). But its powerful sentiments and brilliant touches make it spellbinding, and I'm glad I spent the time to watch it.

I just rue the fact that I didn't bring any hankies.

December 06, 2009

Excesses Aside, 'Vikings' Proves Good Fun

Richard Fleischer's 1958 Odin-fest The Vikings should have been a piece of Hollywooden trash.

Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis as Norse half-brothers? Hardy-har-har. Ernest Borgnine as a Viking leader? Excuse me while I laugh into the recesses of my horned helmet.

But lo--a funny thing happened while Trudi and I were watching this film last night: It actually was...believe it...entertaining.

To a certain degree.

Yea, verily, Trudi fell asleep during the epic castle siege toward the end...probably the best-mounted scene in the flick, though it did appear to "borrow" quite a bit of the imagery and techniques from Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, which still, in my opinion, has the greatest battle sequences in the history of film. But then again, Trudi doesn't like battle scenes. Boring, she says.

I agree...if you're watching snoozers such as Troy or Alexander.

Look, The Vikings is no great film. It's not exactly The Seven Samurai in terms of characterization. There's too much forced rowdiness from Kirk and the gang, and some of the dialogue--especially the Christian-pagan love scene between Curtis and (supposedly) English princess Janet Leigh--is a wee bit silly. Plus, the plot, which revolves around the rivalry between the slave Curtis and the Viking heir Douglas, is convoluted to the point where it diminishes the capacity to care for the characters as much as one should.

But I was kind of surprised by the excellence of the production design, as well as some of the photography (though some murky night shots were slightly off-putting). And despite the fact that some of the costumes probably weren't around in the Dark Ages (hey, Kirk, is there any film in which your sleeves aren't cut off?), there wasn't a horned helmet in sight.

At least they got that right, huh?

Anyway, most of the time I had fun watching this movie--it was spirited entertainment, and I didn't take it too seriously. Trudi, on the other hand, had a different kind of experience, as she was able to catch some Zs during the proceedings. I can't say I blame her, however; a masterpiece this wasn't. But for some good, old-fashioned, ludicrous fun, I'd say this was a good pick.

Onward and upward...

December 02, 2009

'2012' Demolishes the Grandeur that Was Earth

Sometimes it seems Hell will freeze over before Roland Emmerich learns to focus on one character in his films.

2012, Emmerich's the-warnings-were-wrong-and-now-we're-screwed eco-disaster flick, is the most recent example of the director's tendency to think big and overlook the really, really important. Like a good script, for example. Or subtle performances.

Ah, no matter. That's not what you go to a disaster film for, right?

To be fair, 2012 wasn't as horrible as I expected...though it certainly wasn't good. It had all the usual stereotypes: the divorced dad who really cares for his family and somehow winds up back together with them (played with little nuance by John Cusack in his patented likable mode); the scientist (portrayed ably but thanklessly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who really cares for humanity and doesn't want to see them wiped out by a bad script, er, the world turning into a puddle of lava and seawater; the President (interpreted with irritating bathos by Danny Glover) who decides to remain and die with everyone else, like that's gonna happen; and the evil fundraiser (!) who basically wants everyone to die so he can, er, live or something (represented by the slumming Oliver Platt). And the special effects--the film's selling point--were generally impressive, though a few screens, uh, seams appeared to show here and there, which mitigated the impact somewhat.

But oh, the script. 'Twas yucky. And the focus, or lack thereof, on multiple characters made it impossible to care about anyone. That was a problem Emmerich faced in movies such as Independence Day, though that picture had a bit of character to go along with all the jingoistic nonsense. I'd like to see a disaster film that, for once, homes in on one protagonist, rather than a multitude.

I know, however, that'll probably only happen when Hell freezes over. I'm fine with that--I can wait.