Holidays at the movies
Avatar: A wonder to behold, a story to forget
I had more than a few reservations going into James Cameron’s Avatar. It wasn’t the hype so much (“the most expensive film ever made!”) that made me leery – we’ve been down that road before with the writer-director and that flick he made about the big boat turned out all right. No, it was the fact that the trailers and nearly all of the press failed to shed any light on what the plot of the film was. Yep, those weird blue creatures look neat and the planet they inhabit is certainly a place I’d willingly spend a weekend. But just exactly what is happening there?
The folks at 20th Century-Fox, who bankrolled this extravaganza to the tune of either $250 or $350 million depending on who you believe, are no dummies. They’re leading with their strong suit where Avatar is concerned and that surely is its visuals. Without question, Cameron is one of film’s great visual stylists and he proves it again as he takes us to the moon Pandora, a lush wonderland inhabited by majestic blue creatures known as Na’vi. They live in perfect harmony with their environment and Cameron and his special effects crew bring all of this to wondrous life. Whether hunting, bounding through trees or simply conversing against a gorgeous background, the Na’vi and their world is a visual knockout, far more vibrant than any other setting created for the screen. There’s the potential for Pandora to be referred to in the same reverential tones as Oz, Hogwart’s or the varied worlds in George Lucas’ Star Wars films. It’s that memorable.
Too bad the story isn’t as groundbreaking, or at the very least, edgy. Paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is promised a radical spinal cord surgery if he’ll infiltrate the Na’vi, using an avatar that will make him appear to be one of them, and send back intel to the powers that be, who have dubious intentions. Seems they want to mine a rare mineral that can be used to generate energy and they want to “relocate” the Na’vi in order to do so. However, once Sully falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and recognizes the purity of her race, he begins to have second thoughts about his mission.
Dances with Wolves told this story much better. It becomes apparent, once we’ve gotten over the film’s “wow” factor, that the plot is secondary for the director, nothing more than a clothesline for him to pin his visuals on. I wouldn’t object so much, but the film’s bloated running time (nearly three hours) makes for tedious going because the story holds no surprises. The military skirmishes that ensue become repetitious and numbing. That being said, Avatar should be seen on the big screen and in 3-D. Without question, it’s a marvel that in the end can’t be undone by its pedestrian narrative. For good or ill, much like Transformers, this is the future of mainstream cinema.
Grueling Road worth traveling
John Hillcoat’s The Road has been sitting on the shelf for more than a year and it’s no wonder. This is hardly a reflection on the film itself, but rather the difficulty in marketing such a challenging piece of cinema. How do you go about selling an end-of-the-world movie with few special effects based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy? While 2012 and adaptations of Stephen King’s books practically sell themselves, this tale of a father and his son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) attempting to survive in a desolate world is another thing altogether.
That’s too bad because this is a very good film, an unrelenting look at the best and worst sides of human nature that emerge when society has collapsed. To be sure, McCarthy’s vision is bleak and Hillcoat captures it perfectly. While there are some special effect shots used at times, this certainly is not a computer-generated post-apocalyptic world.
Using a palette suffused in shades of gray and shooting in the barren wilds of Pennsylvania, this vision of the end of days is chilling because of its organic nature.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee take a similar approach to their roles, generating a realistic bond as father and son. Their trial is arduous as they press towards the ocean, sensing some hope exists there. As they make their way through the barren landscape and do their best to avoid clans that have resorted to cannibalism, the love between these two grows, though the bond between them is in danger of breaking at any time. Danger and hard choices lurk around every bend in the road. The father is resistant to trust or help anyone, while the boy’s inherent nature tells him to share whatever they have and help in any way possible. This is especially poignant when they meet a stranger (Robert Duvall) who is temporarily allowed into their circle.
The irony of the film is that the father finds himself forced to suppress his son’s charitable nature and harden him so that he might survive, yet the boy resists, holding on fiercely to the better part of his soul. The father knows that what he is doing is, perhaps, a sin, but is necessary for the boy’s survival. This is, of course, McCarthy’s message. On any road we travel, we are forced to make moral decisions regarding how we treat others and come to terms with our own conscience. Though the film takes place after society has collapsed, The Road proves to be a lesson on how to live every day of our lives. The hope is that more will choose to extend love and kindness, which would make any world we live in more bearable.
Life’s contradictions are Up in the Air
Much has been made about how Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is a film for our times, how it successfully taps into our disillusionment with our society’s materialistic and emotional values. This is all true, yet what the film does better than any other in recent memory is speak to our own internal conflicts and how we delude ourselves by retreating into a cocoon of denial.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is conscious that he’s living an empty life but he keeps himself busy so that he won’t have to deal with it. As a “corporate consultant” he’s brought in by failing companies to fire large numbers of dedicated employees. Spending 322 days a year on the road, Bingham has no home. Suddenly, he’s in danger of losing his job as Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young hotshot at work, has come up with a new program to terminate people remotely (via the Internet). Bingham objects and convinces the powers that be that Keener fails to realize the impact of her work. Before you know it, they hit the road so the old pro can show the new kid the ropes.
It becomes readily apparent that these two are polar opposites as well as contradictions themselves. While both are efficient in their own way, Bingham recognizes the terminations they conduct must be done with a personal touch, whereas Keener sees them as simply a rote process. Ironically, Bingham is unable to see that such a personal approach is needed in his life. Estranged from his family, he fears true emotional commitment, though he’s tempted to reevaluate this when he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer he connects with immediately. Keener, of course, craves that which Bingham ignores and is devastated when her love life goes awry.
It comes as no surprise that each character winds up learning some hard lessons. They are forced to reevaluate their priorities. However, what makes Air special is that its final destination is not quite what you expect. The surprises it has in store are meaningful because of the emotional connection we make with the characters. The chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga crackles with wit and sexual tension and is altogether charming. We ache for them to be together. Clooney has never been better as he displays a winning sense of vulnerability. Meanwhile, Kendrick shows she has no business looming in the background of silly vampire films. She’s the real deal – funny, touching and warm – and a pleasure to watch.
Up in the Air is rife with contradictions and uncertainty, which is the point. Our lives are as well. How we attempt to deal with these issues is a true sign of our character. Bingham hasn’t quite got it all figured out and will continue in a holding pattern until he finds a place to land. As such, this is not just a film for our times, but for all times.
A phoenix rises from the ashes of despair in Precious
From reading a plot summary of Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, one would suspect that the misery contained in it would be simply too much to bear. However, the biggest surprise the film contains is that it’s able to deliver a sense of hope in the face of crushing despair. It winds up being a testament to hope and redemption.
Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) has been dealt such a bad hand by fate it’s a wonder she finds the courage to go from one day to the next. Pregnant by her father with her second child at the age of 16, the young obese woman is illiterate and the constant target of her abusive mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). Her mother has given up on life and takes her frustration out on her daughter, beating her regularly and daily tearing at her self-esteem. However, when Precious is sent to an alternative school, she comes under the caring hand of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), a teacher who sees potential in her, as well as that of Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), a social worker who plays hardball and is intent on getting the girl out of her situation.
Daniels takes a varied approach to the material, adopting a gritty, documentary-like aesthetic when we witness Precious during the course of her day. Then he abruptly shifts to an oversaturated, color-laden technique when we are made privy to her fantasies, an elaborate scenario that finds her with a light-skinned boyfriend and the subject of movie-star-like adulation. It is a jarring switch when it occurs and speaks to how desperate the poor girl is to escape her situation.
Sidibe and Mo’Nique bring a raw quality to their performances. It gives the film a degree of sincerity that’s hard to witness when violence erupts between them. As Mary, Mo’Nique spews hate, venting the frustration she feels over her wasted life at the daughter she feels is mocking her. The actress is unrelenting in her attacks and she must be commended for being so willing to flesh out such a monstrous character. Sidibe takes an opposite approach, often remaining quiet as the character internalizes her pain, maintaining a sense of strength that we mistake at times for apathy. The performance, and the film as well, is a triumph as it and the actress convince us that hope can survive the most heinous bouts of emotional strife. During the film’s final moments, I could not have predicted the feeling of inspiration the film evoked in me during its final moments. Though hard to witness, Precious is a testament to hope that cries out to be witnessed.
Nine doesn’t add up
If A’s were given for effort where movies were concerned, the cast of Rob Marshall’s Nine would be at the top of the class. Led by Daniel Day-Lewis, the bevy of beauties who bring to life the women of his character’s past and present, twirl, pump and grind with such enthusiasm you almost feel the perspiration come off the screen. (Note to Hollywood – You missed the boat by not making Nine-The 3-D Experience!) Too bad all of this effort is put towards what is ultimately a lost cause. Marshall’s film simply doesn’t come together in the end, despite all of the razzle-dazzle.
Day-Lewis is Guido Contini, an Italian filmmaker in the ’60s, struggling to put his next feature together. His last three movies have been flops and his next is set to start filming in a week. Problem is, Contini hasn’t begun to write the script, paralyzed by writer’s block and doubt. Looking for inspiration, he flees to a seaside hotel and finds himself reviewing his life, remembering the various women who have loved, tempted and shaped him.
These reveries are rendered as elaborate musical numbers where Marshall pulls out all of the stops, ramping up each one to an ear-splitting crescendo. As with most musicals, it’s a mixed bag with some of the songs being catchy toe-tappers and others, ponderous selections that bring the film to a halt. The movie lacks a true showstopper, a song you end up humming as you walk out or a dance number you recall days later. With all of the talent on hand, Kate Hudson as an American reporter, and Penelope Cruz as Contini’s mistress, come the closest to knocking it out of the park. Hudson’s “Cinema Italiano,” a stylish tribute to the films of Fellini and his contemporaries, is great fun. Cruz nearly sets the screen afire with “A Call from the Vatican.” Nicole Kidman, as Contini’s muse, doesn’t embarrass herself with “Unusual Way,” while Fergie, as a prostitute from his youth, vamps her way through “Be Italian.” The less said about Judi Dench (his wardrobe designer) and Marion Cotillard’s (his wife) musical scenes, the better.
Day-Lewis is no singer, but his mere presence grounds the film. He doesn’t overplay Contini’s angst and serves as a solid, reflective center around which this musical phantasm revolves. He’s always interesting to watch and he makes his character’s descent into depression intriguing and heartbreaking, almost salvaging the film.
The movie’s last shot is my favorite finale of any film this year. All of Contini’s ghosts come back to watch over his return to cinema and there’s a sense the director will use his experience with them as inspiration rather than a source of torment. It’s a brilliant moment containing the sort of inspiration that the rest of the film lacks. The scene underscores that Marshall’s take on Nine is a missed opportunity.
Morgans hardly worth hearing about
Could Cary Grant and Irene Dunne have salvaged Marc Lawrence’s Did You Hear About the Morgans? Doubtful, but it would have been fun to see them try, as it’s obvious the writer-director was aiming for the sort of screwball comedy these stars from yesteryear seemed to toss off with ease. Lawrence has successfully navigated this territory before with Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics, but the third time is not charming. This film is nothing more than a collection of clichés with each situation and character taken from other better movies.
Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker do their level best to bring this dog to life. While both are capable performers, their combined charm is no match for this dead script. As Paul and Meryl Morgan, two New Yorkers whose marriage has hit a rough patch, the two performers seem a perfect match. Yet, there’s no zing between them when they start hurling barbs at one another. Grant, perhaps the best light comedic actor of his generation, has the thankless task of delivering Lawrence’s one-liners and pausing for a laugh he knows won’t materialize.
Just as you can tell when a performer is having fun, you can also tell when they know they’ve entered into a project that will have them questioning whether they should get a new agent. It’s obvious the two leads realize the material’s not up to snuff, especially when we see them struggle with the fish-out-of-water shenanigans Lawrence cooks up for them once Paul and Meryl end up in Wyoming after they enter a witness protection program. They deal with grizzly bears, rodeo bulls and, worst of all, narrow-minded Republicans. After grappling with all of this adversity, I wonder if the Morgans will get back together? If they hadn’t it would have been the only surprise in the script.
Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen add a bit of local color as the married sheriff and deputy sworn to protect them, but they aren’t given enough to do. Wilford Brimley adds yet another crusty old codger role to his resume. Grant and Parker are left to tote the water and it’s a losing cause. There’s no life to be found in Lawrence’s holey script and that’s the awful truth.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.