January 31, 2010

Avatar (2009)

SO, I HAVEN’T BEEN to the theater to see a movie in a while. Anything out there making waves?

Oh yeah, that movie from that director. The movie that just became the highest grossing film of all time, toppling…the previous movie from that same director.

I know I’m probably late to the game with my review of James Cameron’s Avatar, even if it’s only been in theaters for barely six weeks. And I initially wasn’t going to review it, but just see it to be part of what’s being called cinematic history by some.

But then I left the theater, came right home, and started typing…

On the planet Pandora, a native race of blue, ten-foot-tall, human-esque creatures called the Na’vi live in a giant tree atop the planet’s largest (and only) deposit of the rich, valuable mineral Unobtainium. A team of humans from Earth have descended on Pandora to mine the Unobtainium, but the Na’vi have refused to move or cooperate. Instead, a dedicated scientist (Sigourney Weaver) is heading up a peaceful solution: creating life-size Na’vi “avatars” from their DNA, then having humans bond with the avatars via brainwaves and enter the Na’vi world to communicate with them. Bristling at the chance to resolve the standoff a lot quicker (read: more violently) are a gung-ho, bloodthirsty colonel (Stephen Lang) and an all-about-numbers bureaucrat (Giovanni Ribisi) running the operation.

One of the people enrolled in the Avatar program is paralyzed Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) – who, upon entering the world of the Na’vi, is guided and taught by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a female Na’vi member and daughter of their tribal leaders. Sully’s orders are to infiltrate the Na’vi and learn their ways so the Marines can launch a successful strike if needed, but as his feelings grow for the Neytiri and the Na’vi way of life, where will his loyalties lie?


There seem to be three main things people talk about regarding Avatar, so I’ll address them first:

1. The 3-D experience. The 3-D aspect is quite compelling (though admittedly, my only basis for comparison for movie theater 3-D is 1983’s Jaws 3-D). While not critical to viewing the film, it provides both subtle and grandiose levels of depth, from Marines getting a lecture in a mess hall to the action sequences on Pandora.

2. The special effects. Believe what you’ve heard about Avatar’s FX: They’re truly phenomenal. The scenery is awe-inspiring, providing an alternate world that’s rich in color and design. The Na’vi are a milestone in moviemaking: Every body movement, every facial expression and tic, is truly lifelike. (Cameron had the actors wear motion capture devices, including high-tech cameras capturing every move of their face.)

3. The environmental message. Cameron is a self-described treehugger, and it’s impossible to ignore that label as Avatar unfolds. Many of the creatures on Pandora are deliberate derivatives of creatures on Earth (no doubt to make us relate to the similar animals here at home). And when Neytiri teaches Sully how to tame and ride the wild animals of Pandora, she speaks of the literal “bond” one must make with their animal, where a Na’vi intertwines part of its body with that of the creature. (This “bond with nature” metaphor is impossible to miss.) And c’mon, the place the Na’vi call home is a giant, iconic tree, for Pete’s sake.

With Avatar, Cameron once again creates strong female characters in his film – the fearless Neytiri, her mother and Na’vi spiritual leader Moat (CCH Pounder), head scientist Weaver, and Marine chopper pilot Michelle Rodriguez.

Like other Cameron films, the quality of his script trails that of his direction: It’s very good, but some of Worthington’s narrative sounds like it comes from a dime-store pulp novel, and Cameron has characters say clichéd lines like “I didn’t sign up for this sh*t” and, when a main character is gravely wounded, declares, “Well, that’s going to ruin my day.” Also, the precious mineral the humans want under the Na’vi home tree is called Unobtainium – because it’s so unobtainable, get it?

In addition, several aspects of Avatar’s plot and framework seem cribbed from other films, including Cameron’s own body of work. The plot largely resembles Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas (Native American actor Wes Studi even plays the strongest Na’vi warrior), and the story structure is nothing new: It’s the old “I came to your world to do something evil, but then I fell in love with you and even though I ruined everything, you have to believe I have true feelings for you” story. (That architecture can be found anywhere from the latest ho-hum romantic comedy to a Very Special Episode of a sitcom.) Regarding Cameron’s own films, you can see shades of The Abyss (scientists want to communicate with a life form, military guys want to destroy it) and Aliens (Avatar’s giant military robots commandeered by the Marines are simply the next generation of the robo-forklifts Weaver’s Ripley used to defeat the alien queen bee).

Despite these debits, Cameron does offer a couple of twists you don’t expect. Some things you think are “givens” are not – and to Cameron’s credit he pushes them through, taking you out of your comfort zone and gearing you up for the climactic battle sequence, which truly has to be seen to be believed.

Avatar is essential viewing for anyone who takes their movies seriously. Whether you love it, like it, hate it, think it’s too long or too preachy, you’ll be a better film-goer from the experience.


Is it suitable for your kids?
Avatar is rated PG-13: There are many profanities (no F-bombs), some intense action and war sequences, and the body count rises substantially during the final battle. I saw a mother in the theater with three kids – I’m guessing ages 10, 8, and 6 – and the 6-year-old girl sat curled up in her mother’s lap the whole time, not even bothering to put on the 3-D glasses. I’d say tweens and older should be okay (tween boys will probably eat up all the fantasyland action and Marine weaponry).

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Like I said earlier: If you’re a true movie fan, Avatar is essential viewing. Even if it doesn’t become one of her all-time favorite films, you owe it to her to make sure she sees it at least once.

Man...I hope my HMO covers this.

* Director: James Cameron
* Screenwriter: James Cameron
* Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez
* MPAA Rating: PG-13

January 25, 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

I ADMIT IT: I’m a Pixar snob.

For me, Pixar can do no wrong when it comes to animated films. (Well, nearly any wrong; A Bug’s Life was too “shouty” for me, and I still feel let down by Ratatouille.) So when Sony Animation Studios released Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs last year, I brushed it off with the belief of, “Whatever, faceless global conglomerate; you don’t have the heart, the Pixar touch, to make me want to see your silly little film.”

Fast forward to this month, where I decided to rent Meatballs in the interest of fairness – and made it family viewing at our home. Accompanying Dash and I were our own FilmMother and a special guest critic: Dash’s 3-year-old little brother, Jack-Jack.

The little island town of Swallow Falls has a major export (heck, it’s their only export): sardines. But when the rest of the world realizes that sardines are gross, no one buys them anymore – causing Swallow Falls to suffer its own unique recession/depression. That is, until young inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) creates a machine that turns rain water into food. As Flint becomes famously popular for his creation, he faces two foes: a doubting father (James Caan) who thinks Flint should stop before things get out of control; and a greedy, gluttonous mayor (Bruce Campbell) who wants to exploit Flint’s work for his own gain. All the while, Flint tries to score with an on-the-scene weather girl (Anna Faris) who may not be as scientifically challenged as she seems.


Going into Meatballs, I wasn’t familiar with the source material: the children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett. I consider that to be a good thing, because any familiarity with the book would have clouded (pun intended) my enjoyment of this fantastic film.

I was either smiling or laughing nearly the entire time I watched Meatballs. Its humor is inspired and rapid-fire, and the animation is both nimble and gorgeous – truly a feast for the eyes. And it’s all accompanied by a majestic musical score from veteran composer and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. (Side note: I defy you to get the closing song, Miranda Cosgrove’s “Raining Sunshine,” out of your head; it’s just so damn happy.)

And just when I thought writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were spending too much time on laughs and not enough on character, they evolve Flint, Sam, and Flint’s father into fully fleshed out people (animatedly speaking).

A large portion of that fleshing-out comes from Meatballs’ theme of the fragile father-son relationship so many men deal with in their lives: Trying to please a father without being stuck in his old-fashioned ways, yet hoping for love and approval from him at the same time…and ultimately living up to your potential, no matter what anybody says.

Watch your back, Pixar – if Sony Animation and/or the team of Lord and Miller make another film as great as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, your spot as king of motion picture animation may have a worthy challenger to the throne.


What did Dash think?
Dash thoroughly enjoyed Meatballs. He was laughing and talking at the screen the whole time. And he has watched some or all of the film every day since then. But while Dash enjoyed Meatballs as a whole, it’s Jack-Jack who provides the pull-quotes for this review:
"It’s the food-maker maked it!” [“Food-maker” = Flint]
“The food-maker was funny.”
And for posterity’s sake, Jack-Jack even took a picture of the TV screen with his camera while we paused the film for a popcorn refill.

Is it suitable for your kids?
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is rated PG for “brief mild language,” but aside from “lame,” “nerd,” and Flint muttering something like “holy crapples” when being attacked by a horde of plucked chickens,* there wasn’t anything offensive in Meatballs that would make it unsuitable to children of any age.
* I took this scene back three times and still couldn’t figure out what he said, so I doubt any child would pick up on it.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Absolutely. And if she doesn’t, make her anyway. She’ll thank you when it’s over.

Do you see what I see?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
* Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
* Screenwriters: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
* Stars: Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Bruce Campbell, Mr. T, Andy Samberg
* MPAA Rating: PG (brief mild language)

January 20, 2010

Isn't me lovely...

FILMFATHER WELCOMES THE NEW YEAR with two award nods from fellow bloggers - Chris at When Is Evil Cool? and Geof at Enter The Man-Cave - who have both given me the award for being One Lovely Blog! I graciously accept, thanks guys.

Rules for accepting the award are that I must bestow the One Lovely Blog Award to 15 fellow bloggers I think are lovely as well. I've already given awards to most of my favorite blogs in past "ceremonies" (see here and here), but there are other blogs I've discovered or overlooked since then that are also worthy.

Here are my fantastic 15. If you're on this list and you've already received the One Lovely Blog award from someone else, a) congratulations; and b) sorry, I'm too lazy to check.

On a side note, sorry about the lack of reviews lately. I was laid off from my paying job the day after I posted my review for The Korean. However, I just landed a new job, so things seem to be looking up. PLUS, I vow I will be back with a bounty of fresh reviews in the immediate future. Check back soon, check back often...

January 6, 2010

The Korean (2008)

I’VE STATED BEFORE THAT I have a love for films with a revenge or payback angle. So I checked out the independent film The Korean to see if it would satisfy my craving for some retribution.

Four criminals betray a big-time mobster (Harry O’Toole) and disappear – with one of the criminals (John Yost), a dirty cop, planning to have him busted. With only hours until his arrest, the mobster calls in a deadly "cleaner" known as The Korean (Josiah D. Lee) to track down the backstabbing criminals and finish them.


The Korean's story is told largely in flashback and out of sequence, tossing the viewer from present to past to recent past to concurrent action for nearly all of its 98 minutes. And during these jarring shifts in storytelling, it seems like almost every encounter between the characters is a double-cross or payback for one, making it difficult to keep track. Who’s who? Who knows? After an hour I asked, “Who cares?”

The film also suffers from by-the-numbers dialogue and iffy acting. Regarding the latter, the weakest link is ironically Lee in the title role. He tries to play The Korean as cold and methodical, but his soft voice and monotone delivery make it sound like he’s shyly auditioning for the part. (The only bright spot is Jack Erdie, who’s entertainingly evil and witty as Lee’s protégé Ray.)

With The Korean, writer-director Thomas Dixon seems to be striving for something Tarantino-esque or in the vein of Rashomon, but all he succeeds in doing with the jump-around narrative is frustrate the viewer.


Is it suitable for your kids?
The Korean isn’t rated, but features several disrobing makeout scenes (though no nudity), some bloody gunplay and knifings, and one scene of torture. It should be okay for teens, and maybe even tweens with adult supervision.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Unless she knows someone involved in the production, I doubt it.

Y'know, it's not nice to point...

The Korean
* Director: Thomas Dixon
* Screenwriter: Thomas Dixon
* Stars: Josiah D. Lee, Jennifer Voss, John Yost, Jack Erdie, Rik Billok, Rose Smith
* MPAA Rating: N/A

Rent The Korean from Netflix >>


Related Posts with Thumbnails