Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar is a true cinematic event. Over the last twelve months, it has received the same levels of hype and suspicion as Mr. Cameron’s last film, a little movie called Titanic. Estimates put the cost of Avatar near $300 million, and were I a Hollywood studio executive, I’m not sure I would have financed Avatar. It’s a tough sell: a near three-hour sci-fi epic about blue-skinned, ten-foot aliens (I guess after you’ve made one of the biggest movies of all time, you can do whatever you want). I’m thrilled to announce that yet again, James Cameron has dreamt big, gambled, and delivered. Avatar is one helluva movie.

In the year 2154, humans have established bases on the alien world of Pandora. A human corporation digs up precious stones, and the military protects the advancing bulldozers against the Na’vi, the blue-skinned, indigenous aliens. Wheelchair-bound ex-Marine Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington) uses a genetically-engineered Na’vi body, called an Avatar, to explore Pandora. Sulley controls the Avatar body with his mind, and his mission is to gather reconnaissance on the Na’vi. The humans try to force the Na’vi off their land, but by the time the battle comes, Sulley finds Pandora and its people worth protecting.

I understand why Avatar hasn’t come across very well in its advertising; it’s a spectacle that builds slowly over time and that must, must be seen in 3-D. I haven’t been the biggest supporter of 3-D technology, but Avatar should not be experienced any other way. I won’t want to own the film until 3-D technology comes to home theaters in a satisfactory manner. Avatar has also been released in a traditional 2-D format, because more showings on more screens mean more money, but seeing Avatar out of 3-D would be like watching Titanic on an iPod; you’ll see something, but it won’t be the experience that James Cameron intended. Up until now, Robert Zemekis’s The Polar Express had boasted the most impressive 3-D experience, but Avatar takes it to a whole new level. Film history will remember Avatar as the film that blew the 3-D doors wide open, just as Jurassic Park is remembered as the film that really launched computer-generated imagery.

Avatar has more in common with Titanic than you might think. Both films run near three hours, both are sprawling, expensive epics, and both films devote their last third to action. I wondered if Avatar would be too long, but Cameron uses his time wisely. The huge action sequences work at the end only because of everything that comes before. We become fully immersed in the world of Pandora, and we care about the characters. If we didn’t, the action scenes would be as empty as Transformers 2, one of the biggest borefests of 2009. I think it’s important that Transformers 2 and 2012, both of which represent an outdated model, came out this same year. Avatar proves that effects-laden action still has value, but only when it serves the story and the characters.

Pandora swallows us whole almost immediately. The world is remarkably well-realized, so that even though we know intellectually that everything onscreen is CG, we don’t think about it. We’re on Pandora. The jungle shimmers and glows with vibrant colors, and the 3-D effects only enhance the immersion. When objects reach out toward us, it’s not a gratuitous effect; it helps put us in the alien world. The Na’vi have human performances at their centers, and they shine through. All of this takes some time, but it’s crucial to the film’s success. If we didn’t care, it would fall apart.

There are strong echoes of Native American culture, as well as of U.S. involvement in the Middle East (the phrase “Shock and Awe” even turns up). Mostly, Avatar is a modern retelling of the familiar story of Western civilization. Humans venture out and conquer less technologically-advanced people. We find an alien world, briefly appreciate it, then swiftly exploit it. That much at least seems realistic. Avatar is a film about foreign diplomacy, a bad economy, the vital importance of nature, and the over-consumption of precious resources. In short, it’s both timely and timeless. The science fiction setting is used to communicate classic themes, which will help bridge the gap for people who typically aren’t comfortable with sci-fi.

Avatar was advertised under the tagline, “Movies will never be the same again.” I admire Cameron’s technical breakthroughs, but I still maintain that no amount of spectacle will make a bad movie worthwhile. Avatar doesn’t deserve praise for its effects as much as for how it uses them to tell a great story. Avatar will be a smash, but it doesn’t have the same level of universal appeal as Titanic. The characters here aren’t as strong, nor are the performances. That movie truly had something for everyone in every culture, and I don’t expect Avatar to garner the high number of repeat viewings necessary to match Titanic’s ticket sales. The only reason I consider the possibility is because of the shared director. James Cameron waited twelve years before following up the biggest box office success of all time. The man knows how to generate hype, but more importantly, he knows how to deliver on it.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language, and some smoking.

Despite its blue characters, Avatar isn’t kid-friendly. The experience is just too intense for preteens, though teenagers will love it and are old enough to understand the themes. The language never gets too strong but is pervasive, and while the violence isn’t bloody, it’s still upsetting, because we care about the characters. The sensuality is nothing to worry about.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

For those viewers who regularly traverse the desert of family entertainment, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog feels like a cool drink of water. Ten years have passed since Tarzan, Disney’s last great hand-drawn musical (I’m pretending that 2004’s Home on the Range didn’t happen), and it warms my heart to see traditional animation back on the big screen. The Princess and the Frog isn’t loud, isn’t 3-D, and doesn’t resort to bodily humor. It isn’t perfect, either, but it gets the big stuff right and works as a fun reintroduction to the sort of classic entertainment that Walt Disney Studios has always done best.

The film opens with a new Disney logo, featuring a short clip of Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie (1928); this logo will apparently denote all of Disney’s hand-drawn features from now on. The film follows Tiana, a beautiful, spunky, African-American woman living in New Orleans in the 1920’s. She dreams of opening her own restaurant, but even after years of saving, Tiana still needs a bit more money. Enter Prince Naveen, a free-spirited royal who claims to be wealthy but is actually hard up for cash. Naveen falls under the dark magic of Dr. Facilier, an evil witch doctor who turns Naveen into a frog. As a frog, Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him, but far from breaking the spell, Tiana’s kiss turns her into a frog as well. The two then set off into the bayou to find the solution to their amphibious dilemma.

Pixar has done a remarkable job of keeping the Disney magic alive over the last few years, but The Princess and the Frog reminded me of why hand-drawn animation is so valuable. Traditional animation brings a type of humor that doesn’t exist in any other format; nearly every frame has some zany slapstick element. Characters fall down, bounce around, soar across the screen after taking punches, and it’s charming. There’s a special tone and pace that no other format can replicate.

Tiana makes a wonderful Disney Princess. The film never goes all the way in exploring the real difficulties of being an African-American woman in the 20’s, but if it did, it wouldn’t be a family film, now would it? Tiana is a respectable, independent woman who believes in wishful dreaming but believes even more in hard work. She’s a Disney Princess for our times, and the film’s Great Depression setting will fit modern audiences like a glove. The side characters remain humorous and lovable, fulfilling yet another Disney requirement.

Randy Newman’s musical numbers work well enough, but they aren’t particularly memorable. Had I been given the task of reviving Disney’s animated musical tradition, I would have handed the project to Alan Menken, the master composer behind such classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Menken will provide music for next year’s Rapunzel, which will apparently be a musical marriage of CGI and traditional techniques, but I would have loved for his music to have been at the heart of all of this. Still, Randy Newman’s songs get the job done and carry a jazzy flair that not only marks new territory for Disney but perfectly fits the New Orleans setting.

The movie stays light-hearted and humorous with only a few exceptions. Disney boasts a long line of great villains, and while Dr. Facilier isn’t great by any means, he is sufficiently creepy. Disney has frightened children since Snow White (“Bring me her heart”), and Dr. Facilier’s voodoo antics may scare some younger viewers. Also, the death of one beloved character feels wildly out of place, because the tone of the picture doesn’t pave the way for it. Still, these scenes are brief exceptions to the rule.

I went to a late-night showing which meant there weren’t many people in attendance (too late for the kiddos, and all), but the few of us who were there applauded at the film’s end. With The Princess and the Frog, Disney returns to its roots in admirable fashion, proving that the inkwells of old have not run dry. Through good characters, a fun story, lovable sidekicks, and an energetic, inventive presentation, Disney’s filmmakers blew the dust off of Walt’s old recipe, and the finished product tastes as sweet as ever.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated G

I think kids will love The Princess and the Frog. The characters are captivating, and the fast-paced adventure will hold everyone’s attention. Dr. Facilier does conjure evil spirits to do his bidding, which are essentially creepy-looking shadows. Kids may be frightened at times, but the film’s other virtues far outweigh the scares.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

It’s a real shame that there’s no Academy Award for “Best Title,” because I don’t think The Men Who Stare at Goats would have much competition. This dark comedy is every bit as quirky as its title suggests. It’s quite humorous but ultimately more smile-inducing than laugh-inducing. Goats boasts a star-studded cast, but maintains the tone of a quiet, low-budget picture, destined to fly under the radar. Whether or not you should see it depends largely on the degree to which you’re amused by the premise.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is supposedly based on a true story, opening with a title that reads, “More of this is true than you would believe.” Having seen the film, I’ll buy that. Goats follows Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a journalist who heads to the Middle East after his wife suddenly leaves him. Though he initially plans to cover the War on Terror, Bob finds himself caught up in a much stranger story after meeting Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney). Cassidy claims to be a member of the U.S. Army’s First Earth Battalion, a secret group of soldiers that employ the use of psychic powers. They refer to themselves as Jedi Warriors. The Jedi pride themselves on never using their powers for attack, but some of them soon turn to the Dark Side, killing goats by simply staring at them. Along the way, Bob meets other Jedi, including the devious Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) and the movement’s hippie founder, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges).

Most of the humor comes from the sheer ridiculousness of it all. The Jedi training exercises include dancing, yoga, and cloud-bursting (using concentration to break up clouds). As Django, Bridges essentially plays The Dude from The Big Lebowski, telling a room full of Army commanders, “We must become the first superpower to develop superpowers.” Questions often arise as to what exactly the Super Soldiers are capable of, leading to mumbled pseudo explanations. A classic moment comes when Ewan McGregor asks, “What’s a Jedi Warrior?” Most people in the theater got the joke. He then asks Lyn Cassidy if he can really become invisible. “Well, yeah” Cassidy says, “that was the goal, but after a while we adapted it to just finding a way of not being seen.”

While humorous, the movie never meets its full potential. It’s too goofy to be serious, but often times too sad to be funny. As Bob and Lyn roam the desert getting lost, the movie loses its way a bit. There isn’t much in the way of plot, which would be OK, except that the slow pace of the film leaves glaring holes where the plot should go. There are some hilarious moments; I quoted lines for days after seeing the film, but the laughs don’t come often enough. The dead space between laughs remains generally amusing, but it should be hysterical. More humor would have fixed most of Goats’ problems.

The cast performs well, with George Clooney being especially hilarious. Ewan McGregor plays his part adequately, but he should have been given much more material to work with. Bob is far too underwritten to be the story’s main character, and his general lack of material adds to the feeling that The Men Who Stare at Goats can’t make up its mind. It’s a funny movie, but with such an interesting premise and a tremendous cast, it could have been one of the best films of the year.

I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. Two-thirds of the way through, I wondered how there could possibly be a satisfying conclusion to the story, but a strangely inspirational ending arrived at just the right time. It’s quirky, bizarre, and if I described it here, it probably wouldn’t make much sense. But it works. In the end, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a mixed bag; if you enjoy offbeat dark comedies, you’ll likely find enough to appreciate here, as I did. However, you’ll probably also wish there had been more to appreciate. George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, and Ewan McGregor as would-be Jedi Warriors ... that movie should be more than just generally amusing.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some drug content, and brief nudity.

The Men Who Stare at Goats contains a steady stream of strong language, and the slow pace and quirky humor would likely bore most kids. I wouldn’t make this one a full family affair.