Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Movie Review: AVATAR

First of all, let me apologize for the lengthy hiatus; I know how the masses have been clamoring for my cinematic musings, but I am adjusting to a new schedule at work that has left me with less time for writing, not to mention the fact that I saw a whole string of bad movies that did not inspire me to sit down and share my thoughts. Now I'm back. Huzzah.

Secondly, I would like to amend one or two statements that I made prior to the release of AVATAR. Statements like, "The preview told me everything I need to know, there is no reason to see this movie;" " I'll go see it at the Crest when it's three bucks and NOT in 3D; I'm not giving James Cameron one red cent;" "Dammit, 3D!"; and "I defy the possibility that this movie will be good."

Brash words, you say? Well, you be the judge: in the last 48 hours I saw the movie twice, was completely drawn into the 3D, and ended up giving James Cameron twenty-six of my hard-earned dollars, rather than the one red cent I said I would never give him. Not to mention the fact that I spent most of today devising a plan that would enable me to see it again tonight. Now, some people may say that it rather looks as though I've gone against my words, and for the most part that is fairly accurate. As far as my last statement, "I defy the possibility that this movie will be good," well, I was both very, very wrong and agonizingly, unbelievably right.

Now, I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so let's start with the the things I liked about the movie: for starters, AVATAR looks amazing. It is one of the most visually arresting films I have ever seen. The world of Pandora is lush and imaginative, and the imagery is utterly breathtaking. Bio-luminescent jungles, 10,000 foot trees, floating mountains, all inhabited by flora and fauna which are equally lush and imaginative. One of my main reasons for seeing it a second time was so I could step into that world again. And while I have always had adverse 3D experiences in the past, something this time just clicked and I am now a fan of 3D. (I will be even more of a fan when directors learn that anything tighter than a 2-shot is wasted in 3D; no more close-ups, please!)

The Na'vi were easily the strongest element of the movie, and their part of the story was what brought me back to the theater two nights running. Their culture and customs were engaging and well-realized, and although I have heard the complaint that the Na'vi are nothing but a pastiche of African and Native American tribes, I have to say "who cares?" Pastiche or no, they feel real and alive in a way that the rest of the movie does not (but more on that later). Also, their literal connection to all life on Pandora was incredibly compelling to me; the idea of direct communication with other living things has always appealed to me, so the scenes of the Na'vi with their six-legged horses and winged creatures made me want to step into the screen and ride alongside them. I wanted to sit under the Tree of Souls and commune with the ancestors, to join their clan and live in their world. Despite the many, MANY other failings of this movie, James Cameron got this part perfect.

And let me say this: Zoe Saldana gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Ney'Tiri, the female lead. When she delivered her first lines of dialogue I actually sat up a little bit, I was so surprised.Saldana's performance came through the CG so strongly that I suspect the raw footage of the actress would be enough to give you chills. Everything about her is so raw, honest, and fierce, that Ney'Tiri emerges as one of the strongest female characters that I have seen in a very long time (and I mean strong in every sense of the word, not just physically).

All right, I've been working on this review for three days and it has come to feel like homework, rather than something I do for fun. From now on, I'm going to write my reviews right when I get home from the theater. I want these to be conversational, not friggen' essays.

Okay, I've talked about the good, now for the bad: EVERYTHING ELSE. Every character apart from the Na'vi is either poorly fleshed out or a ridiculous cliche, and as a result you don't care about any of the humans (even the ones you are supposed to care about). While the story itself is pretty good, the writing is atrocious, with a capital A (Atrocious, James Cameron, Atrocious!) Most of the thematic elements are introduced but never fully realized, or when they are realized, it is in a trite and unsatisfying way. Frankly, there are too many examples of horridness in this movie for me to detail here, but I would love to have a lengthy conversation about it.

The most frustrating thing about AVATAR is that while there is much to love about it, there is just as much to hate, and there is no middle ground whatsoever. If I may make an analogy, watching this movie is like eating a layer cake made of angel food and monkey shit: you muscle though the shit to get to the good stuff, but you have to wonder what the hell that monkey has been eating.

Friday, March 19, 2010


This movie would have been great if it was thirty-six minutes long, and even better if it had omitted the maudlin family drama and ponderous existential musings.

As it stands, it was A-GO-NIZ-ING.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Movie Review: A SERIOUS MAN

Possibly the darkest, bleakest, most hopeless movie I have ever seen (and if you know me, then you know that my tastes run to the harsher side of cinema, so that is saying something). I am trying to find a way to view this movie as something other than a scathing critique of Judiasm, but I'm not having any luck so far. Any thoughts on this one?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I usually wait for movies to come to The Crest so I can see them for three bucks, but last night I spent the extra seven dollars to see this movie in a newer theater with a bigger screen (I went to the Loews Alderwood 16; very nice). I am a big fan of Terry Gilliam (I have all of his films except one), and this film looked like a return to form after the egregious misstep of TIDELAND (that's the one).

So, was this the triumphant return of Terry Gilliam? Well, yes and no.

First of all, let's talk about the good: This is a wonderfully imaginative movie, with some of the most mesmerizing visuals I have ever seen. Gilliam has created a remarkable world behind Dr. Parnassus's magic mirror, a dreamworld that feels like a real dream. The imagery is lush and bizarre, wondrous and free-form. I would buy this movie just for the universe contained in the Imgainarium; it's that compelling.

The cast is excellent--a band of relative unknowns, anchored by the legendary Christopher Plummer. Andrew Garfield is outstanding, Lily Cole's weird beauty is magnetic, and Christopher Plummer is, or course, magnificent. The only weak link is Verne Troyer, who cannot act. I know the guys from TIME BANDITS are all pretty old by now, but surely Gilliam could have found a little person with some actual talent.

Heath Ledger was good, as were Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrel. I wasn't sure how this trick was going to work, knowing that it was precipitated by Heath Ledger's death, but it was perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film, and would have been a nice touch even if Heath had survived the entire shoot.

And now for the bad: For starters, someone needs to take all of Terry Gilliam's wide-angle lenses away from him. He has made a career out of shooting distorted, unsettling images with ultra wide-angle lenses (usually in the interest of the story), but now it just feels like he's settled into a comfortable laziness with his visual style, and in this particular film it is a disservice to the story. Most of his other movies are dystopic fantasies and mind-bending nightmares, and the jarring visual style has gone hand-in-hand with the subject matter. But PARNASSUS is not a dystopia, nor is it a nightmare; for all its flights of fancy it is actually a fairly straightforward story, and it deserved a more straightforward visual treatment (at least on the reality side of the magic mirror). Many times during the film I shook my head at the camera placement and thought to myself, "Terry, grow up."

Not only way the camerawork troublesome, but the editing left much to be desired. Actually, it kind of stank. The first 40 minutes were so poorly structured, and the editing so choppy, that I debated even staying for the rest of the film. There are ways to tell a story so that it builds interest, suspense, and dramatic tension, and there are ways to tell a story so that it is muddled and plodding. Gilliam chose the second method for PARNASSUS. In addition, the script was frequently mediocre, and some of the London scenes were directed in such a farcical style (and not in a good way) that I again found myself thinking, "Terry, grow up."

And of course this review would not be complete if I did not discuss the performance of Tom Waits (my favorite guy) as Mr. Nick, otherwise know as The Devil. This was both the best--and most frustrating--part of the movie. It was the best part because Tom Waits was absolutely AMAZING as The Devil, and it was the most frustrating part because thanks to the camerawork, editing, and writing, we barely get to see him.(And when I say "him" I don't just mean Tom Waits, I mean the character.) First of all, Gilliam gives him one of the worst screen introductions I have ever seen--ever--and the flashback where Parnassus and Mr. Nick strike their original bargain is way too short, and comes much too late in the movie.

Then, he shoots so much of Mr. Nick's scenes in tight close-ups that we only get glimpses of the languid, crooked physicality that Tom Waits created for the character (oh, but what glimpses!) It's not so much that his screen time was inadequate, it's more that the shots they used were inadequate. Gilliam used short, quick cuts when he should have used long, unbroken takes to let the character build up some visual momentum.

Frankly, the biggest problem with the movie is that it wants to be about the Devil and Dr. Parnassus, but they shifted the focus too much on Heath Ledger's character, which made it easy to brush Mr. Nick to the sidelines (a real shame, trust me). Now, people who know me and know how much I love Tom Waits' music might be inclined to say I am biased about his role, but I honestly think that someone who has never even heard of Tom Waits would be mesmerized by his performance. My greatest hope is that the DVD will have about an hour of deleted scenes, and that Mr. Nick will be in all of them.

All in all, DOCTOR PARNASSUS was a bittersweet experience. I will say that despite all of the problems I have mentioned, I will probably see this again when it comes to The Crest. If nothing else, I can revel in the Devil and step through the magic mirror one more time.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Don't Worry, I'm Still Here

Just wanted to let my readers (all four of you) know that I will be posting again soon. Coming down from the holidays and working more than usual has put a damper on my blogging, not to mention I am a little bored with reviews at the moment. I am toying with a few ideas for my blog, so don't lose faith--I shall return.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review: ZOMBIELAND

I caught this one for 3 bucks at The Crest, and while it's by no means a great movie, it was pretty damn fun. The writing was good, the zombie stuff was gory and hilarious, and there were a few serious moments that were completely genuine and moving. Although I enjoyed all of the principal actors, the best part of the movie--hands down--was Woody Harrelson. Watching him slaughter zombies with a grin on his face and a smart-ass comment on his lips was an absolute delight, and it made me wish for a sequel just so I could see more of him. ZOMBIELAND isn't on the same level as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but I'm glad I got out of the house to see it. Definitely worth a rental.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book and Movie Review: CHOKE

The opening sentence of the book says it all: "If you're going to read this, don't bother." It's intended as an ironic comment by the narrator, but it holds fairly true for the book itself. With its' themes of isolation, alienation, self-indulgence, self-delusion, self-destruction, gleeful anarchy, and mental illness, CHOKE feels very much like a sequel to FIGHT CLUB, except that this time the narrator has an actual human being wreaking havoc in his life (his mother), and not just a demented alter-ego. So much of this novel is rehashing the same arguments put forth in FIGHT CLUB (the crushing sterility of consumer culture; the emptiness of our safe, sanitized world; the failure of God and all subsequent Godheads; rebirth and re-creation through destruction; etc.) that I wondered why I liked this book so much back when it was first released.

I will say that although I didn't care for this particular book, I thoroughly enjoy Palahniuk's writing style. He often employs short sentences, sentence fragments, and aphoristic musings in his work, not to mention the fact that he is funny as hell. For example, describing a certain type of mental patient that resides on the same floor as the narrator's mother:

"A squirrel is someone who chews her food and then forgets what to do next. They forget how to swallow. Instead, she spits each chewed mouthful in her dress pocket. Or in her handbag. This is less cute than it sounds."

In all fairness, there were many parts of the book that I enjoyed (just now as I was searching for that last quote I kept stopping and re-reading bits that I remembered) but even as I think about the strength of the individual moments, what left a lasting impression is the whole, and that impression was less than stellar. Who knows, maybe you will feel differently.


Well, for a movie based on a book about a sex addict, they sure went out of their way to cut the balls off this story.

Every truly dark and unpleasant element of the novel is either absent from the film or sweetened up to make it more palatable, the flat black humor has been leavened with sight gags and "funny" music, and the character portrayals are soft and bland. (Although Sam Rockwell had the right look and attitude for the main role, he is about ten years too old, and the rest of the cast was so misplaced that I was left scratching my head.) I gave up on the movie after 45 minutes; life's too short.