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Avatar (2009)

Avatar cannot possibly meet expectations. Can it? The long-in-development pet project of director James Cameron has been dubbed as nothing short of a tectonic shift in moviemaking; it will “change movies forever.” Cameron had the idea for the movie 15 years ago but held on, waiting for the technology to catch up. After you’ve directed Titanic, the highest grossing movie in history, I suppose you have the luxury of waiting. The budget has been rumored to be wildly anywhere from $250 million to $500 million. Avatar was always planned as a 3-D experience and nothing short of the savior of modern movie and the theatrical experience. It would make going to the movies an event once again, something that could not be duplicated at home on puny TV screens. Given the reams of hype and anticipation, Avatar couldn’t possibly succeed, could it?

In the year 2154, mankind has posted a colonial base on the distant moon of Pandora. The planet orbits a gas giant and the atmosphere is deadly to humans after a few minutes exposure. The planet is inhabited by all walks of deadly, incredibly large life, including the indigenous Na’vi tribes, skinny, nine-feet tall blue aliens. The Na’vi also have connective tissues coming from their ponytails that allow them to connect with all nature by “jacking in,” so to speak. They are a relatively peaceful clan that makes sure to respectfully use every part of the space buffalo. It just so happens that they are also sitting on top of a huge enrichment of the mineral Unobtanium, which sells for a crapload of money back on Earth. A corporate exec (Giovani Ribisi) has hired a private army of mercenaries to forcefully move the natives. In the meantime, they are trying to reach a diplomatic solution. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is the head of the Avatar program, where they biologically grow Na?vi bodies with some human DNA mixed in. People can then link their brains to the giant Na?vi bodies and walk and talk among the natives.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-Marine who is living the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His twin brother was apart of the Avatar program but was murdered, and he?s signed on to take his brother’s place (the avatars, naturally, are hugely expensive). Jake will plug into his avatar body and be able to feel like he can walk again. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, superb) likes the idea of having a former Marine on the inside. He makes a deal with Sully: provide useful Intel on the Na’vi, and he’ll get his “real” legs back. Jake and his fellow avatars ingratiate themselves with the Na’vi, and Jake is taught the ways of the tribe by Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). Their teacher-student relationship transforms into a love affair, and Jake begins having second thoughts about his mission.

To the heart of the matter, the special effects are transcendent. This is one of those pinnacle moments in the advancement of special effects technology. Avatar is now the new standard. The environments are so incredibly realistic that if I were told that Cameron and his crew filmed on location in some South American jungle, I would believe it without a moment’s hesitation. But everything in this movie was filmed on a giant sound stage. The visual detail is lushly intricate and altogether astounding. The planet of Pandora feels like a living, breathing world, with a complex environmental system. Every blades of grass, every speck of dust, every living creature feels real. Cameron and his technical team have crafted an intensely immersive, photo-realistic alien world. The level of depth is unparalleled. I found myself trying to soak up the artistry in every shot, admiring a tree canopy four dimensions back. The planet has an extensive night period, which has allowed the planet to evolve with an emphasis on bio-luminescence. Everything from moss that glows from being stepped on, to dragonflies that look like spinning flames, to glow-in-the-dark freckles on the Na’vi allows the movie, and Pandora, to feel like it has a rich evolutionary history. The ecosystem makes sense given the particulars of this world. Cameron isn’t just giving an extra leg or another eye to make the wildlife alien. The special effects are so good that you can easily take them for granted, like Jake’s atrophied legs. Those were special effects as well and yet they looked so real that I never stopped to consider them.

The Na’vi don’t necessarily have the same level of photo realism, however, this is by far the greatest motion capture accomplishment of all time. The creatures don?t appear rubbery or waxy, and there is honest to God life in those eyes, the same life that is absent in Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture movies. The CGI characters have believable facial expressions, capturing subtle movements and realistically capturing emotion. I’m still not a fan of motion capture, but at least Cameron makes effective use of the technique by recording actors movements and mannerisms and transforming them into nine-foot tall blue cat people. That seems like a better use of the technology than having Tom Hanks play a mystical hobo.

The 3-D is impressive as well but not the “game-changer” it was heralded to be. This is because Cameron doesn’t want to distract the audience and make them conscious of the 3-D gimmicks. There aren’t any moments where someone just hurls something at the screen randomly. There aren’t any clumsy swordsmen jutting forward. Because the 3-D glasses naturally dim the screen and make things darker, Cameron has smartly compensated by cranking up the natural light and vivid colors on screen. Nothing ever comes across as murky or hard to distinguish. Cameron has designed a 3-D environment that spaces out the different elements of the foreground and the background. There will be floating bits like ash or water that will seem right in front of your face. Short of that, you may find yourself forgetting about the 3-D because it’s not always utilized for a 160-minute action movie. It’s more just pushing the visual planes back with your depth of field. After all the praise about Avatar being the triumphant 3-D experience, I’m surprised that the best 3-D I’ve ever seen is still Zemeckis’ Beowulf. At least you still have that laurel, Zemeckis. For now.

From a narrative standpoint, Avatar has a lot of borrowed elements. It follows the exact same plot paces as Dances with Wolves. In fact, this story is exactly Dances with Wolves in space. Like Kevin Costner’s film, we follow an injured military man find acceptance and community with a native (Pandorian?) population. He falls in love, changes his world perspective, and realizes that these dignified people of the land deserve more than to be pushed aside for the greed of the Encroaching White Man. So he bands together and leads the natives against the superior military power of the White Man (It’s also the same plot formula for 2003’s The Last Samurai too). There?s even a young native that distrusts our hero at the start but eventually comes to call him “brother.” Add a few touches from Ferngully and The Matrix and there you have it. It’s the modern tale of colonialism where we, the people in power, are the enemy, though the villains of Avatar are corporations and private military contractors. That might not sit well with certain parts of the country; the same people that blithely think America can do no wrong simply because of its name. Cameron’s politics are pretty easy to identify on screen, and it’s probably too easy to dismiss the flick as “tree-hugging” eco-worshipping prattle. However, this is the same man that wrote and directed True Lies, which is nothing but the cool allure of the military industrial complex AND the villains were Arab terrorists.

Now, the characters aren’t too deep and the love story between Jake and his blue lady seems to be missing a couple reels worth of romantic development, but the movie follows its familiar beats with ease and the last act is terrific. It’s once again one of those all-out endings that gives way to a relentless series of explosions, but Cameron brings together all the creatures and characters he has established prior, which makes for a hugely satisfying and kick-ass payoff. Cameron is one of the greatest masters when it comes to constructing an invigorating action sequence, and he pulls out some great ones in Avatar. Geography is so key to staging a compelling action sequence, utilizing the particulars of the location and having an audience familiarized with the location. By he end, Cameron has fleshed out his world so well that we recall specific locations and remember their strategic value. The assault between the giant mechanical robot suits and the noble natives is great, with different points of action on the ground and in the air. Some have complained that the action sequences of Avatar are like a video game cut scene, and so what? My one complaint about the action is that we lose perspective by being with the Na’vi for so long. The audience becomes accustomed to seeing the world from the Na’vi proportional perspective, forgetting that these creatures are nine feet tall and even they look tiny on their flying dragon creature things, so how big must those things be?

The movie is not without some level of flaws, primarily in the storytelling department. The first 90 minutes of the movie feels really solid but then the next hour kind of simplifies everything in a rush to the climactic booms. The human villains become dastardly, the Na’vi become extra noble, and the romance with Jake and his blue lady gets consummated in a sequence begging for biological questioning (Do they “jack in” to each other? Is this somehow considered bestiality?). Jake could have benefited with some more back-story as well. The earnest “I see you” Na’vi greeting can get silly after a while. The whole avatar aspect doesn’t feel fully committed and could use more explanation. The Ribisi character is a shallow glimmer of the corporate weasel that Paul Reiser played so perfectly in Aliens. Cameron never says why the Unobtanium element is so valuable in the movie; apparently, Earth is out of energy resources. There are elements that border on the ridiculous, like the giant mech robot suit having a giant Bowie knife. The end leaves the distinct impression that the defeated human beings will just come back with bigger hardware and stronger nukes. If this Unobtanium element is so valuable to the energy resources of Earth, I doubt that one butt whipping is going to stop the exploitation of Na’vi resources. The sappy end credit love song by James Horner and Leona Lewis also might elicit more than a few guffaws.

The only real groundbreaking part of Avatar is the visuals but a familiar story doesn’t stop Cameron’s technical achievement. The plot is entirely predictable, and wholly borrowed, with a crazy different environment and a fresh coat of CGI. But can a highly derivative story kill a project built upon visual wonders? Not for me. Star Wars itself was derivative of many other stories, from samurai tales like Akira Kirosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, to Westerns like The Searchers, and war movies like The Guns of Navarone and The Dam Busters. Has that hindered the lasting impact of George Lucas’s quintessential space opera? I’d doubt you?d find too many folk with nagging complaints about Star Wars being too derivative. That’s because the characters were interesting and we cared about them, the story was satisfying, and the visual techniques pushed the medium forward. I could repeat that exact same sentence, word-for-word, about Avatar. It might not change movies forever as we know it, but Avatar is a singular artistic achievement that demands to be seen at least a few times, if, for nothing else, to stare at lifelike trees some more.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek has a hold on geek culture like no other franchise. It’s lasted over forty years, sustained five television series, and ten feature films (about four of them good), and let’s not forget the plethora of fanatical merchandise that includes everything from Trek cologne to Trek coffins. Star Wars has all the box office clout, but Trek has followers so devoted that they will create and learn a separate language, Klingon, that almost assuredly will never be spoken by anyone else outside of the festival circuit (you will never see a written Klingon exam that asks you “Where the library is?”). The Star Trek fans have been a foundation of geek culture for over four decades. People take this stuff very seriously. Trek has always been a headier brand of sci-fi, more devoted to ideas and moral dilemmas than shoot-outs and space chases, though Captain Kirk did teach the universe how to love, one green-skinned buxom alien babe at a time. 2002’s abominable Star Trek: Nemesis was meant to open up the franchise to a wider audience, but the film was the low-point for a franchise that also included William Shatner writing and directing the fifth flick (Nemesis also broke the odd/even movie curse).

When director J.J. Abrams approached Star Trek with the purpose of reinvigorating the flagging film series, you would think the man would wade into such a storied franchise with trepidation. Nope. He openly said he was making a “Star Trek movie for people who weren’t fans of Star Trek.” He was even going to change Trek canon. I imagine Trekkies (and no, I will never use the preferred nomenclature “Trekkers”) were nervous about an outsider, the author of the cinematic classic Gone Fishin’, meddling with hallowed ground. As I suspected, these fears were unfounded. The newest Star Trek does more than put a new coat of paint on an old franchise. This movie boldly goes where none of the Trek movies have gone before — turning reverent geek culture into a grand populist entertainment smash.

This new incarnation looks backwards, explaining how the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise came together. The movie shows the path of Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), from troubled youth to eventual starship captain. Kirk’s father captained a starship for about 10 minutes, but he managed to save 800 lives under attack, including the birth of his son. Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) recruits Kirk to Starfleet Academy with the promise of doing something more with life. We also witness the boyhood of Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is teased for being half-Vulcan and half-human. His human mother (Winona Ryder) encouraged Spock to embrace his human emotions instead of cutting them off, Vulcan-style. Kirk and Spock clash at the Academy, and then an emergency requires all the recruits to saddle up for their first mission in space. Nero (Eric Bana) is a dastardly Romulan who has traveled back in time. In the future, he blames an older Spock (Leonard Nimoy) for the destruction of his home planet and the deaths of billions of Romulans. To ensure this does not happen, Nero is going to eradicate Starfleet home planets, starting with Vulcan and then Earth.

J.J. Abrams is a geek’s best friend. He understands geek culture, and yet the man is able to take genre concepts and make them easily accessible to the unconverted while still making a finished product that is respectful, playful, and awesome. Abrams is an expert on the pop culture catalogue, and he knows how to make genuinely entertaining productions that succeed on brains as well as brawn. He brought tired spy conventions into the twenty-first century with the cool, twisty Alias and Mission: Impossible III, which was really an extravagant two-hour episode of Alias, and I mean this in the best way. He has an innate understanding of action sequences and knows well enough that an audience needs to be engaged emotionally, so he makes the action as character-based as much as possible. Abrams has a terrific imagination behind the camera, and he reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg in his ability to marry artistic integrity with big-budget crowd pleasers. Abrams and his screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers, TV’s Fringe) have crafted a stellar Trek that will appeal to die-hards and those who couldn’t tell a Romulan from a Vulcan (I fall somewhere in between).

The time travel storyline could have used more juice, however, it serves its purpose by establishing a parallel Trek universe to work with. Beforehand, Trek had established so many previous stories that it hamstrung writing new stories because they had to be extensively researched to make sure they did not conflict with 40 years of canon. Abrams and company wrestled free from the grip of the established history and can now play around unencumbered to a degree. I mean, fans don’t want to see something radically inauthentic, but Uhura and Spock as a couple? Sure, why not? The fan favorite character catch-phrases (“She’s givin’ it all she’s got,” “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor?,” etc.) are organically worked into the story so that they don’t become falling anvils.

Star Trek‘s pacing can be whiplash inducing. It speeds through two hours of action and setup while still maintaining an emotional connection to the characters involved. The movie has a boyish enthusiasm for adventure and it’s fun watching well-known characters assemble and amble into new and interesting directions. The action is routinely thrilling and I enjoyed Abram’s small touches, like watching a crew member get sucked out into space and cutting all sound to illustrate the cold, empty vacuum. The amount of humor injected into the movie can be distracting at times, not because it isn’t funny but because of the brisk tone breaking. One second it’s a life-or-death scenario and the next Kirk is running around with giant goofy hands. Still, it’s good to see some humor in the Trek universe that isn’t related to alien culture clashes.

The young ensemble is amazingly well cast. I didn’t think a younger generation of actors would be able to step right in and play such lived-in characters, but they pull it off. The hardest shoes to fill are unquestionably Kirk’s, and Pine (Smokin’ Aces, Just My Luck) carries that same cocksure bravado without stooping to a stilted Shatner impersonation. His performance feels at times like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker rolled into one, and he’s an appealing presence that captures the essence of a dashing and rebellious scrapper. This Kirk is still an adventure-seeking, skirt-chasing 1960s kid at play. Quinto (TV’s Heroes) is blessed to look remarkably similar to Nimoy, but the actor also gets to explore the human side of Spock. He feels compelled to harness emotion, like all Vulcans, yet it’s intriguing when certain emotions slip out and build a bigger picture about what’s going inside the mind of a being dominated by logic. Quinto has less to work with by design and yet the man finds interesting ways to ensure Spock can be recognizable. Each of the supporting actors has their moment, but my biggest surprise was Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Urban has mostly been confined to lame action movies as of late, like Doom and Pathfinder. But he’s really funny and his performance captures DeForest Kelly’s mannerisms down without turning into a caricature.

If there is a main weakness to Abrams’ Trek outing it’s that it feels far more like the opening act of a larger movie. Nero is a fairly weak villain, though Bana gives him a nicely polished glower. The villain is really just a tie-in for the time travel storyline, which is also a narrative quirk to secure an open field for further stories. Meaning, that much of the movie can be seen as assembling the pieces to simply move forward on their own. It’s an expensive set-up movie, and Abrams makes sure that the audience sees every dollar of the splashy visuals onscreen. Personally, I was also getting tired of the cinematography decision to fill the screen with as many light flares as possible. It seemed like every other moment had a blast of light beam in from some direction. After a while it sort of felt like an eye exam where the optometrist shines a flashlight back and forth. And it takes far too long for Scotty (Simon Pegg) to appear in the movie.

J.J. Abrams does more than hit the restart button. He has made a Star Trek that manages to be respectfully reverent but at the same time plays along to the mainstream visual sensibilities of modern cinema. It’s fun without being campy, reverent without being slavish, and this Trek never forgets to entertain from the opening assault on a starship to the Michale Giacchino’s closing credits score. This is an enjoyable rush of sci-fi escapism. The Star Trek series was always deeply hopeful and humanistic, believing in the best for humanity and that man, in cooperation, could achieve greatness. I think further escapades with this cast and Abrams at the helm could reach greatness. For now, I’ll be happy with this rollicking first entry into a franchise that seemed adrift in space. Bring on more of the green-skinned women.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Vantage Point (2008)

Vantage Point presents a terrorist strike and a presidential assassination from six different perspectives (though the advertising credits 8 perspectives). The Rashoman-style idea presents enough intrigue to sustain viewer involvement, but then it seems like the movie gets tired of its own gimmick, throws its hands in the air after the fifth trip down memory lane, and says, “Ah, forget this. Here’s what really happened,” and spells it out. The perspectives are too short and there are frankly too many; the idea is good but the execution is flawed. I think having possibly three perspectives play out for around 40 minutes each would have beefed up the plot and allowed for more intriguing criss-crossing. Not all of the perspectives are equally compelling (Forest Whitaker as a tourist with a camera seems like a lame way to bridge plot points) but they do link together and each submits a bevy of new questions and surprises. The swift, 90-minute running time means there’s precious little screen time to be doled out to the many characters, so don’t get used to seeing most after their main appearance. Vantage Point careens toward a finish that ties everything and every perspective together with a fairly nifty car chase. The movie could use some extra time spent on the flaccid characters (I’m at a total loss as for the motivation of several of them), and the film strains credibility, and yet it works as a passable thriller with enough of an edge to pass the time agreeably.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Johnny Depp is THE MAN. But then, we already knew this. Can’t wait to see more.

Nate’s Grade: A

Crossroads (2002)

When informed that her feature film debut was receiving shrieks of laughter during advanced screenings for critics, Britney Spears said she was glad because she never likes the same films the critics do. Well Ms. Not That Innocent, the truth hurts; you’re not a girl, not yet an actress. Crossroads is really the filmic adventures of Britney Spears and her ever-present navel. The navel should get second billing, but alas, we do not live in a society of equality for navels.

The film opens up with three 10-year-old best friends burying a box of wishes and dreams and promising to be bestest friends forever and ever. They make a pact to come back and dig up the box on the night of their high school graduation. Flash to the present and the word “bestest” isn’t what it used to be. Lucy (Britney Spears) has become the virginal nerd preparing to give her speech as valedictorian. Kit (Zoe Saldana) has become the haughty popular snob, obsessed over getting married ever since she got her first Bridal Barbie. Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant and become the trailer trash girl that everyone sees fit to remind her of. Despite their growth apart they all do come together to reopen their box of dreams. Mimi informs the others that she plans to head to California to audition for a record deal in an open contest. Kit decides to use this opportunity to check up on her boyfriend at UCLA who has been strangely evasive. Lucy complains that by having her nose in a book her entire high school experience she never got to go to a football game or even “hang out.” Somewhere a small violin is playing. She decides to jump at this chance and possibly see her mother in Arizona, who ran out on Lucy and her father (Dan Akroyd) when she was only three. The wheels of their adventure are provided by guitar-playing mystery Ben (Anson Mount). He pilots them on their travels to the Pacific coast, though the girls think he might have killed someone, but oh well. Much girl power ensues.

Crossroads is filled to the brim with every imaginable road trip cliché. The girls “open up” after getting drunk, have a scuffle in a bar, reap in the sights of nature, and perhaps create some sparks of romance with their hunky heartthrob of a driver. The car also inevitably breaks down and the girls have to find a way to scrape some quick cash together. They enter in a karaoke contest and Britney proceeds to sing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” with her two gal pals providing backup. But no, this isn’t the last time you’ll hear Ms. Brit sing. In an effort to pad as well as become a showcase for its star, Crossroads gives us many scenes of the girls just singing to the radio. Besides Jett, Shania Twain’s “Man I Feel Like a Woman” and Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” are also on the chopping block. You’ll also be accosted by the movie’s single “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” several times, including one scene where Poet Britney is asked to share her poem and it ends up being the song’s lyrics.

Minus a friendly “ya’ll,” Britney really has only two limited acting styles, either her glazed over stare or her come hither smile. Saldana (Center Stage) is not given much, as the attention is always centered on Britney, so she merely comes off like a token conceited character. Only Taryn Manning (crazy/beautiful) comes away with a little dignity. She gives Mimi a lot more heart than should be there and shows some honest reflections for her character. She also, coincidentally enough, looks like a dead ringer for Joan Jett with her black bangs.

Crossroads is nothing but a star vanity project for Spears, with some not-so-subliminal Pepsi product placement here and there. This was not a script looking for a lead; this was something Britney’s management team suited for her, and Crossroads is perfectly suited for Britney. It allows for many ogling periods of booty shaking. The majority of the film’s drama doesn’t even concern her, and when she does have to act her scenes are cut short to help her when the real drama unfolds. The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes.

Crossroads coasts along on gratuitous skin shots of Spears half-naked body every 20 minutes (possibly in an effort to keep the male members of the audience awake) until it reaches its torture chamber of a final act. In this very melodramatic period we get abandonment, date rape, infidelity, and even a miscarriage in one of the film’s most shameless plot devices. Of course none of these horrors matter, especially a psychologically damaging miscarriage, because Britney has to get to her BIG audition in order to perform, yep you guessed it, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” She also has to wear what looks like kitchen drapes while she sings.

You’ll walk out of the theater wondering many things. Why does Britney wear pink in EVERY single scene she’s in? There’s even one scene where she changes from a pink top to another pink top and is FOLDING a third pink top into a suitcase. Are we to believe that Akroyd and Spears share some kind of genetics? In what high school would Britney with her head-to-toe tan, taut stomach and bleached teeth be considered a nerd?

Hopefully Crossroads will be the pop princess’ last foray into film, but I strongly doubt this is the last we’ve seen of Britney Spears. Crossroads is a terrible girl-power trip. Only Spears’ target demographic will enjoy this melodramatic mess. Truly, the two largest groups that will see this film are adolescent girls and creepy older men who fawn after adolescent girls. Crossroads is exactly everything you’d expect.

Nate’s Grade: F

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