Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ category

Up With Up!

May 28, 2010

I didn’t intend for this site to become a movie review blog, honest. However, just a few days after seeing James Cameron’s visually dazzling but emotionally empty opus, Avatar, I saw another film that was everything Avatar wasn’t: Disney/Pixar’s Up. I didn’t get a chance to see Up during its theatrical run, but I heard good things about it, so I put it on my Netflix queue. When I saw the film was available in streaming format, I jumped at the chance to see it. I wasn’t disappointed.

Like Avatar, Up uses state of the art visual effects and digital animation to take movie audiences to a world they’ve never seen before. Unlike Avatar, however, Up takes viewers along for the ride with characters they can actually care about on a journey that’s fun and unpredictable, and after which, both characters and audience have actually learned something about themselves. For all their mind-blowing technical skill with animation, the Pixar gang appears to have learned a lesson that James Cameron seems to have missed: the real essentials of any movie are character and plot, just like they’ve always been. Without these, all the razzmatazz in the world won’t make a good film. The Pixar crew nearly always manages to create good stories, and they never tell the same story twice. The story of Up is no exception.

As kids in the 1930s, shy hesitant Carl (Jeremy Leary) and brash, fearless Ellie (Elie Docter) are captivated by the newsreel exploits of adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who roams the globe in his custom-built dirigible making astonishing discoveries and bringing back rare artifacts. When Muntz is accused of fabricating the skeleton of a rare bird from Paradise Falls, a beautiful and isolated region of South America, he’s drummed out of the explorers’ society in disgrace. He sets off in his dirigible, vowing never to return unless he can bring back a live specimen of the bird.

In the meantime, Carl and Ellie grow up and marry, dreaming of their own shared life of adventure. Unfortunately, these dreams are never quite realized as they face life’s more mundane challenges, but their years together are long and mostly happy until Ellie’s passing leaves the elderly Carl (now voiced by Edward Asner) lonely and sad. A city of high rises and shopping malls grows up around his little house, and life seems to be passing him by. Rather than go to a retirement community involuntarily, however, Carl unleashes one last surprise. He’s equipped his house with a steering mechanism and thousands of balloons, making the house in effect a gondola for a hot air balloon rig. He too sets off for Paradise Falls, where he and Ellie promised each other they would live one day.

Little does Carl know, however, that he has an accidental stowaway on his voyage: Russell (Jordan Nagai), a hapless but goodhearted eight-year-old, a member of a Cub Scout-like organization called the Wilderness Explorers, in search of his Assisting the Elderly badge. In spite of the curmudgeonly Carl’s best efforts to get rid of him earlier, Russell happened to be on the porch when the house took off and has unwittingly set out on the adventure of a lifetime. For all his reliance on the Wilderness Explorer’s handbook and GPS (which he accidentally tosses out a window), Russell has precious little real knowledge of the outdoors and must rely on Carl for help.

When the unlikely pair reaches their destination they find not only a jungle paradise but also, strangely enough, a lovably goofy dog named Dug with a collar that enables him to talk and a giant multicolored bird that Russell immediately (but erroneously) dubs Kevin. Turns out Kevin is a she, not a he, with a brood of nestlings to protect, and that she and her nestlings are specimens of the very bird Muntz had sworn to find at any cost. Dug is one of a pack of talking dogs belonging to Muntz, who has sat for decades in his dirigible, waiting, brooding, and searching feverishly for a way into Kevin’s inaccessible hiding place. Over Carl’s protestations that it isn’t his concern, Carl and Russell become involved in a mad scramble to defeat Muntz, keep Kevin and her brood out of his clutches, and return to civilization.

In the process, Carl and Russell bond, grow, and change. Russell learns that there’s more to a life of adventure than reading about it in a handbook and earning merit badges. Carl, for his part learns that however much he treasures his memories of the past, he can’t live in it forever. At one point he decides he’s through with adventuring and will sit quietly in the house with his memories and mementos. As he’s leafing through the photo album Ellie called her “adventure book,” he comes upon the last photo of the couple together and a note from Ellie: “Thanks for all the adventures,” it reads, “now go have a new one.” Shortly thereafter, in order to get the house airborne again, Carl has to jettison the furniture, mementos, and odds and ends he’s cluttered the house with for years. Ultimately, he has to part with the house itself. He may love the past but in order to survive in the present, he can’t allow it to weigh him down.

While letting go of his past, however, Carl also learns that he doesn’t have to face an empty future. In Carl, Russell finds the father and grandfather figure he wants so desperately, and in Russell Carl finds the son and grandson he was never able to have with Ellie.

One of the many things that impressed me about this movie was its understated approach to storytelling. For all the outstanding visual work in this movie, and in contrast to Cameron’s ham-handed style in Avatar, the approach to narrative in Up is relatively and refreshingly subtle. Much is revealed in a brief, well-staged scene or a few well chosen lines of dialogue. The silent montage, accompanied only by background music, showing Carl and Ellie’s life together, perfectly encapsulates the mixture of joy and sorrow that any married couple might experience. The brief but sensitively handled scenes revealing that Carl and Ellie cannot have children of their own and revealing Ellie’s final illness will leave a genuine lump in the viewer’s throat.

Later in the movie, Russell reveals that he doesn’t have the relationship with his father he once did. “I call him, but Phyllis says I shouldn’t bug him so much,” Russell says.

“You call your mother by her first name?” Carl asks incredulously.

“Phyllis isn’t my Mom,” Russell says, embarrassed.

“Oh,” Carl says, equally embarrassed.

What is obvious has been left unsaid. Russell’s parents are divorced, his dad has remarried, and now he can’t make time for his own son. Up is a movie that doesn’t pander to viewers, respecting our minds while it tugs at our heartstrings. If there were more movies around like it,I might go to the movies more often; I might be up for more movies.


I’ve Finally Seen Avatar. Big Whoop.

May 24, 2010

In case I wanted to watch a movie while recuperating from my aforementioned colonoscopy, my sister and brother-in-law, who brought me home from the hospital on Friday, let me borrow their DVD copy of Avatar. Their daughter, my niece, absolutely loved the movie and bought a copy as soon as it became available. Neither of her parents, however, were particularly impressed with the film but thought I might enjoy some nice brainless entertainment during my recovery. Avatar is about as brainless as it gets. The film succeeds brilliantly at using visual effects to create a gorgeous piece of eye candy and an alien world that looks and feels truly alien. It fails miserably at pretty much everything else that makes a movie worth watching: creating interesting, multidimensional characters, exploring complex ideas, or constructing a plot that has an ounce of suspense or any real surprises.

Left paralyzed from the waist down by an injury, Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) ships out to the planet Pandora, where a greedy, soulless, nameless corporation (represented by a smarmy corporate executive played by Giovanni Ribisi) is busily plundering the jungle paradise for a rare mineral called “unobtainium.” (Get it? Ah, you’re a subtle one, James Cameron). We’re never told what unobtainium is used for or what makes it so valuable, only that it fetches $20 million dollars a kilogram. The corporation needs Marines to provide security because the natives, the blue-skinned, catlike humanoids called the Na’vi, are fighting back to protect their planet.

Pandora’s atmosphere, however, is toxic to humans, so Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her colleagues have created the Avatar program, in which humans can link their minds to genetically engineered Na’vi bodies in order to interact with the locals. Jake is recruited into the Avatar program and given the task of winning the trust of a clan of Na’vi and persuading them to relocate their village, which just happens to be atop the largest deposit of unobtainium on the planet. If the Na’vi won’t move voluntarily, a detachment of Marines with gunships and heavy weapons under the command of the brutish Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is willing and all too eager to remove them by force.

On his first day in the field with his new Na’vi body, however, Jake becomes separated from Dr. Augustine and her companions and loses most of his survival gear. He’s rescued by the beautiful princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the chieftain of the Na’vi clan Jake is supposed to approach. On her father’s orders and against her own wishes, Neytiri begins teaching Jake the ways of the Na’vi.

The Na’vi are a Flower Child’s dream come true. They wear minimal clothing, hunt only with bows and arrows, and thank the animals they hunt for surrendering their life force before killing them. They have a tendril-like object on the back of their heads that allows them to connect with a similar tendril on other animals and communicate with them telepathically. They prattle on about “the energy fields that connect all living things.” Their deity, Eywa, is the planet itself, the sum total of every living thing on Pandora, and their most sacred site is a giant tree that enables them to hear the voices of their ancestors.

After several months of almost total immersion in Na’vi culture, Jake predictably “goes native” and falls in love with Neytiri, a development the audience can see coming from only about 50 miles away. The corporation, however, moves forcibly against Neytiri’s village before Jake can negotiate its voluntary relocation. Horrified by this betrayal and the brutality of the attack, Jake organizes an army of Na’vi to mount a last-ditch stand against the human invaders.

Guess how the rebellion turns out. Of Of course the Na’vi defeat the humans thanks to Jake’s courageous and inspired leadership, of course the villainous Quaritch is finally defeated in pitched battle, and of course Jake and Neytiri live happily ever after on Pandora, with Jake finally having the opportunity through a mystical ritual to become a Na’vi—not just a human mind controlling a Na’vi body, but a real live, honest-to-Eywa Na’vi.

Obviously, the complete predictability of the plot was one of the many things about this movie that really annoyed me. Except for the mind-blowing visuals, we’ve all seen every bit of this movie before. The soulless, rapacious corporations, and their soulless, rapacious corporate executives come straight out of previous leftist diatribes such as Wall Street. The trigger-happy, testosterone-fueled Marines, totally uninterested in the world around them and concerned only with what they can kill, are stolen from films such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now. The alien separated from his comrades and lost in an alien world meme goes at least as far back as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and at least as far forward as E. T. The white guy going native and adopting a bogus eco-spirituality motif comes almost directly from films such as A Man Called Horse and Dances with Wolves. And of course, the “energy fields connecting all living things,” and plucky but ill-equipped band of rebels standing up to a corrupt empire motifs are lifted straight from the Star Wars movies. Ho-hum.

Not only is there a complete lack of originality regarding the story, but there’s also a painful lack of any subtlety, ambiguity, nuance, or complexity among any of the characters. Black is black, white is white. The corporate executives, for example, are always and everywhere evil and without compassion. They cremate Jake’s dead twin brother in a cardboard box and then recruit Jake for the Avatar program because Jake is a genetic duplicate of his brother and ideally suited for the program. When corporate executive Parker Selfridge (a play on “selfish?”) watches the brutal destruction of a Na’vi village via live video, he experiences no shock and revulsion as his colleagues do, but calmly goes on as if nothing had happened. Quaritch watches the ruthless destruction of a Na’vi village while calmly sipping coffee. Quaritch’s Marines, to a man, are not portrayed as ordinary young men suddenly thrust into a strange and hostile environment and forced to survive; instead they are almost literally transformed into mindless killing machines by their oversized, mechanized body armor. The only exception is “a wise Latina woman” helicopter pilot who switches sides and fights for the Na’vi.

If the corporate executives and Marines are all darkness, the Na’vi are all light. They are peaceful and wise and spiritual and playful, in harmony with their ancestors and with every living thing on the planet. They are matriarchal where the nasty humans are patriarchal; veritable exemplars of fashionable, leftist, suitably vague New Age spirituality.

My brother-in-law remarked that he had heard or read something to the effect that James Cameron had conceived the original idea for Avatar while still in high school but only now had the resources and technology to bring his vision to the screen. If that’s true, I can believe it; the story is certainly sophomoric. It reflects an adolescent disdain for established authority and a childishly absolute refusal to even consider the possibility that complex issues might require complex solutions. No reasonable person would argue that the natural environment shouldn’t be protected or that humans shouldn’t think very carefully about how to develop natural resources with as little damage to the environment as possible; the present BP oil rig disaster taking place in the Gulf of Mexico right now is proof of that. To argue, however, as Cameron seems to do here, that humans should reject technology, industrialization, and even their humanity and go back to some nonexistent pastoral golden age, seems to be just plain silly.

Similarly, no reasonable person would argue that the United States military doesn’t have some black stains on its reputation to live down: the treatment of Native Americans during the 19th century, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and the outrages at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, for example. To suggest, however, as Cameron seems to do, that nearly everyone who serves in the military is a thug, a sadist, and a killer is an insult to the thousands of men and women who serve honorably in the military and put themselves at considerable personal risk to protect our country and continue to ensure that goofballs like James Cameron have the freedom to make expensive but trashy movies.

No, for all its eye-popping razzmatazz, this movie seems like nothing more than a laundry list of leftist gripes against capitalism, the United States in general, and the U.S. military in particular. Just think of what this movie could have been if James Cameron had bothered to craft a story and characters worthy of the amazing technology used to make the film’s special effects.

Star Trekkin,’ Across The Universe . . .

May 21, 2009

Boldly going forward, ’cause we can’t find reverse!

(with apologies to Dr. Demento)

ATTENTION: Here there be Spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and still want to, DO NOT read this review. You have been warned.

More than three years after I first heard about it, the new Star Trek movie is finally here. I’d say it was worth the wait.

I saw the movie (which is mercifully unburdened with a ponderous or pretentious subtitle) last night with some friends, and we all had a great time. Good fun for hardcore Trekkies/Trekkers and newbies alike. My friend Bill, who, of the three of us, initially seemed the most skeptical and least enthusiastic about a new Star Trek movie, was laughing and hooting delightedly at the action sequences like a kid on a roller coaster ride. Indeed, the whole film is played up like a gigantic action adventure romp, and if the story has a fault, it tends to rely a bit overmuch on eye-popping visual effects, with things crashing into other things and exploding dramatically. On the other hand, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously and has a sense of humor, which means that viewers are spared pious lectures about how “non-interference is the Prime Directive,” which was never really anything more than a plot contrivance anyway.

Speaking of the plot, it’s based on one of those temporal paradox/alternate time line thingies so beloved by Star Trek writers and fans. A renegade Romulan named Nero, who blames the elderly Spock (Leonard Nimoy) for the destruction of his home planet (don’t worry, it’s all explained in the movie), contrives to travel back in time and attempt to destroy the young Spock early in his career and eliminate Spock’s best friend, James T. Kirk, at the moment of his birth.

Nero’s first attempt at temporal mayhem fails, however, thanks to the heroic self-sacrifice of Kirk’s father, and young Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and young Spock (Zachary Quinto) meet years later, when the two of them are hotshot young punks fresh out of Starfleet Academy. At first, the two future heroes and fast friends can’t stand each other, but events soon force them to put aside their differences. Nero is still up to no good, and he’s out to turn the planets of the Federation into black holes, one by one, with the help of a monstrous “space drill.” His first target is Spock’s home planet Vulcan, followed, of course, by the Earth.

Starfleet pulls out all the stops to meet the crisis, mobilizing its new state-of-the-art flagship, called the Enterprise, and, because experienced crews are in short supply, manning her with untested young cadets. Among these are a cranky Southern surgeon named Leonard “Bones” McCoy; a brilliant young communications officer named Uhura; a nervous fencing expert named Sulu; a cheeky Russian named Chekov; and an irascible, eccentric engineer named Montgomery Scott—in short, all the beloved supporting characters from the original series. Under the wise guidance and heroic example of Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the heroes we know and love come together for the first time. When Pike is forced to put himself in jeopardy to protect the Enterprise, it’s up to his brash young first officer, Jim Kirk, and the hyper-logical Mr. Spock to devise and execute a desperate plan to save the Earth. Can they do it?

C’mon! This is Star Trek we’re talkin’ about! Of course they can! Suffice it to say that at the end of the movie, Pike recommends that Kirk replace him as Captain, the crew is assembled on the bridge with Kirk in the center seat, and Leonard Nimoy, in a husky voiceover, proclaims them ready “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” like a priest intoning a benediction. The torch has been passed from one generation to the next. The new adventures of the old heroes have begun.

The blend of new and old elements are what the movie is really about. There are many nods to the original series, from the use of the original sound effects to the retro-styled uniforms (Kirk is back in a yellow shirt, Spock and McCoy in blue, and Scotty in red, with Zoe Saldana, the new Uhura, ably filling out a miniskirt-like costume for female officers). And speaking of skirts, Chris Pine as young Jim Kirk chases more than a few of them, and tends to be the “shoot first and ask questions later” kind of captain that fans of the original show may remember. Zachary Quinto, perhaps best known as the psychotic supervillain Gabriel Sylar from the NBC show Heroes, is pitch-perfect as the young Spock. Only Karl Urban, as the younger Bones McCoy seems to be doing a bad DeForest Kelley impersonation. His obligatory, “Damnit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a physicist!” line seems a bit forced. Otherwise, it’s almost as if director J. J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman really do have a time machine and are able to show us the pasts of these characters we know so well.

However, even as Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman make it clear that they respect the broad outlines of the Star Trek mythology, they also make it clear they are going to do Star Trek their way and not be bound by a slavish obedience to any previous continuity. About halfway through the movie, young Spock observes that by traveling back in time, Nero has irrevocably altered the fates of the Enterprise crew in a way that’s impossible to predict. I take that as a message to hardcore fans that if they are looking for absolute consistency between previous versions of Star Trek and this current incarnation, they will be disappointed.

Hence, there are some new wrinkles and surprises in this new version of Star Trek even as it deliberately hearkens back to the old. Fans will be startled and perhaps saddened to learn that in this outing, the planet Vulcan is destroyed, claiming the life of Spock’s mother Amanda. Also in this version, there is an open and passionate romance between Spock and Uhura, as opposed to the clandestine and unrequited love between Spock and Nurse Chapel from the original series. Another smaller surprise is the look of the Enterprise herself. The designers and art directors have kept the classic saucer and cylinders configuration that’s become something of an icon, but the new/old Enterprise looks both sleeker and more muscular, a starship that really looks like it could kick some serious alien bad guy butt.

Overall, this is a great summer movie with plenty of action, a dash of comedy, and a new look at old friends in a science fiction universe that feels simultaneously familiar and brand new. Let’s hope the adventures continue.