Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avatar (2009)

I am a sucker for James Cameron. He has made a couple of my all-time favorite movies, and created my favorite franchise of all time (Terminator).

That said, James Cameron has been making the same movie for 15 years. The spirit of nature overcoming the oppressive technology created by man. That's it. That is his formula, for 15 freakin years.

  • Terminator. Sarah Connor defeats the oppressive artificially intelligent terminator.
  • Aliens. The aliens take over the oppressive technology of the Weyland-Yutani corporation trying to terriform a planet.
  • Abyss. Unexplained undersea aliens save humans from their own oppressive undersea mining/nuclear technology.
  • T2. Terminator acquires more human traits in order to defeat oppressive T-1000.
  • True Lies. Ok, doesn't really fit the mold.
  • Titanic. Needs no further explanation. This could be the original "world's largest metaphor" story.
  • Avatar. Backwoods natives of planet defeat oppressive technology of men trying to rape their planet.
Oh, did I give the plotline of Pocahantas Avatar away? Let's pretend as if this wasn't the most predictable movie of all time for the rest of this review.

James Cameron is the only person who could have pulled this movie off. Technically, and in terms of production value, it's unbelievable. The digital effects are astonishingly good. This is the first movie I've seen since leaving the VFX industry that I've really wanted to know more about the techniques employed. The virtual acting is, hands down, the best ever. Their facial expressions are so subtle and meaningful. Perfectly acted. Hats off to the stereo done for the movie as well.

And yet it's the most empty, soulless $300 MM picture you'll ever see.

First of all, it makes no sense. The political message of the movie -- IMO, never done before by Cameron and strangely out of place -- is sort of an anti-George-Bush-Save-The-Planet message. And they nicely lay in some talk about how Earth is a brown, ruined planet. The humans have amazing technology for interstellar travel and yet, the audience is expected to suspend disbelief when it comes to the foundation of how Avatars work. So wait, they're genetically grown but have some kind of wireless control mechanism with no interference problems, etc?

This falls into the same trap as Wall-E -- suspend disbelief except when it comes to the filmmaker's politics, and poke holes in your plot doing it. They want to make a movie that displays how technology has ruined our planet and we have to move off of it. But if our technology is that advanced, and we have these unlimited power sources for spaceships or Wall-Es, why wouldn't we just save the planet with that same tech? It's just dumb. Entertainment movies are for entertainment. Don't put your politics into them. It's annoying. We don't care. Half the audience groaned when one of the characters was quoting George Bush about "terror"... in San Francisco!

BTW, there's a very 9/11esque scene in the movie that made me think that Cameron might have held off on making it. I had heard of Avatar in the 1990s, after Titanic had wrapped.

That's about all I have to say. The movie has a couple cool ideas, the story is absolutely predictably worthless and the movie looks fantastic. It's waaaayyy too long for what it is. See it once, in the theater in 3D, and never again.

JSS Rating: A Bad Good movie. It wants to be Gone with the Wind, but it's more like Transformers. A fantastic looking shell of a movie.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The House Bunny (2008)

I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for Anna Faris. She's pretty and will seemingly do anything to get a laugh. So I am predisposed to check out a movie that she's in, just to see what's up there.

That said, I expected to turn this movie off in the first 5 minutes and ended up watching the whole thing. I found it to be a lighthearted, entertaining, traditionally cliche movie of the geeks overcoming the snobs. And it's not too long.

JSS Rating: Good/Bad movie. We expect to to be bad, but it's enjoyable.

The Fog of War (2003)

This is a fascinating documentary that is essentially a conversation with Robert McNamara, the man who was Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War. Other than his interview, there is stock footage of war scenes and some recordings of him talking to Kennedy and Johnson.

Given that, it's one of the most fascinating documentaries I've ever seen. It's an 85 year old man reflecting on his life and the lessons he's learned. Truly excellent.

JSS Rating: Good/Good

The Searchers (1956)

I find it hard to believe this movie gets so many five star reviews in this day and age. I believe many people love this movie because critics and filmmakers have told you to love it, not because of its merits. For what it's worth, I don't even mind the racial depictions in the movie that bother many. I can imagine that's how it was in the old west. Fine, whatever. They can depict that if they want.

The problem is that the story and character development--pretty much the two keys to, oh, I don't know, FILMMAKING--are both extremely thin. The Comanche enemies are one dimensional and so is Ethan (John Wayne's character). Ethan fought in the civil war, now he's got a chip on his shoulder about indians. How boring. I want one dimensional characters in over the top action movies like Die Hard, not a long (LONG!!!!) slow-moving western that's supposed to take place over the course of five years.

Overall the acting is just terrible in the whole movie. There's the whiny bitch Martin that follows Ethan around during the search. Then there are the people they keep flashing back to on the home front during the search, reading Martin's letters. All of these characters were so horrendous I was wishing they'd all die in a fire. John Wayne is the only acceptable actor in the film other than Natalie Wood and Scar (the Comanche leader), who basically have no lines at all.

Furthermore, does anyone laugh at the comic relief in this movie? I was just wishing for it to be over. I have seen funny movies from the 1950s and this is not one of them.

Giving credit where credit is due: it has some impressive landscapes and better than usual (for the era) day for night work. Except... wait for it... most of the movie was supposed to take place in Texas, but they shot it all quite obviously in New Mexico and Arizona at Monument Valley. Next time try to be less obvious when you shoot somewhere else, IMO.

It may be the case that this movie was amazing when it came out, but it certainly does not play as such in the 21st Century. Skip it.

JSS RATING: This is Bad/Good movie. It might have been good at the time, but it just isn't good now.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Valkyrie (2008)

One sure sign of fantastic filmmaking is the ability to create tension or suspense when the outcome is already known.  This movie achieves this – assuming you’re aware how WWII ended and Hitler’s death really occurred.  The suspense in the movie reaffirms that Bryan Singer is a top-tier filmmaker, no matter what his misgivings in the genre of comic book adaptations.

Valkyrie is also the reuniting of Singer with Chris McQuarrie.  They had collaborated before on The Usual Suspects, one of my all time favorite movies.   Singer has been lost in comic book movies for 10 years, McQuarrie… who knows where.  These guys should just keep making movies together.  It’s obviously a stellar paring when they collaborate.

Although Valkyrie features great storytelling, a good cast (yes, even Tom Cruise), and a lot of polish,it drags at parts.  The last 30-45 minutes are where the movie shines.  Some of the first half are overlong, and, as usual, the movie could easily have had 30 minutes cut out of it.  If I was in charge of film studios, I’d take every script, rip out 20-30 pages at random and tell the writer to make the plot fit.  Movies should have a major reason to be longer than 100 minutes.  This is one reason I can’t bring myself to watch Benjamin Button.  Seriously, 3 hours? Didn’t they already tell this story of a guy aging backwards with Jonathan Winter on Mork & Mindy?

Anyway, Valkyrie does have one serious downfall and that’s that it is in the category of the Docu-Drama.  I’ve railed against Docu-Dramas before on this blog.  Fortunately, this one isn’t politically charged like W or The Reagans.  It’s hard to argue against hating Hitler, right?

The problem with Docu-Dramas is that the devil is in the details.  It’s mentioned a few times in this movie that the conspirators want to overthrow Hitler because of his evildoings in concentration camps and such.  Frankly, I think this is fiction and their motivations are probably not that noble.  The men involved with this plot were already very established in Hitler’s government.  They put their various plots into motion back in 1938, well before the concentration camps had been created (in fact, Poland, site of Auschwitz, had not even been invaded).  No, the best guess should be that they were power hungry themselves.  When the Allies successfully defeated Nazi Germany, would top men in Hitler’s government be installed into the new regime?  Hell no.  But if they had gotten their coup and declared a truce with the Allies, they would have been able to hold onto that power.  

This is a far more likely explanation of motivation.  But, for the purposes of the Docu-Drama, it’s better to have them want to kill Hitler because of concentration camps.  It helps us root for the protagonist, whereas I’m not so sure we’d root for a power-hungry Nazi underling who just wants to take over and doesn’t give a damn about death camps.

JSS Rating:  Good/Good.  It was supposed to be a good movie, and it was a good movie.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Terminator: Salvation (2009)

Obviously, the draw of this movie is to see whether Christian Bale will lose it.  He does, in fact, seem on the verge of losing it the entire time.  Sadly, I have to report that this Family Guy clip that uses Bale’s freakout as source material is better than the movie.

In fact, the trailers might have been the highlight of this movie.

I was drawn to see Terminator: Salvation – the first movie I’ve seen in a theater since Dark Knight – because it’s my favorite science fiction series of all time.  The original blew my mind, the second one was just awesome and blew my mind with visual effects, and the third one had a significantly redeeming ending that I won’t give away here.  I prefer it to the Aliens franchise because I only really like Aliens of that franchise, and I prefer it to Star Wars because George Lucas ruined that franchise.

Before seeing the movie, my fear was that McG was going to ruin this Terminator franchise forever.  You would think, for sure, that he’s the weakest link in making this picutre, right?

Not so.  In fact, given the script he had to work with, McG did a fantastic job of making a mindless, vfx-laden summer blockbuster.  The script is so disjointed that it’s painful to watch.  You wonder if the editor lingered on a scene in an awkwardly long way because it would have been more awkward to cut at the point the material would have normally called for. 

And you might as well call the Terminator storyline completely trashed now.  They’ve tried to save it in Terminator 3 and The Sarah Connor Chronicles by saying that the time travel paradox isn’t true (that timelines are separate, and that destinies are inevitable).  But this movie makes no sense if that’s the case!   Why would John Connor care so much about the main plot in this movie if any of that was true.  Consistency is long gone in this franchise and so is the magic.

This script is so bad and so franchise-ruining it should have been on the same funeral pyre as Darth Vader when they comped stupid young Anakin into Return of the Jedi (another franchise-ruining act by G. Lucas).

All I have to say about the acting is that when Bryce Dallas Howard seems Oscar-worthy in a movie, the other actors must reeeealy suck.

The VFX and action scenes are the real stars of this movie, although I have to ask “Transformers much?” about some of the content.

Regarding the VFX, some shots are off the charts good and some are just, plain, embarrassingly bad.   I was surprised to see that ILM did the effects, though I’m sure it was offloaded to a host of shops along the way. Can no one pull a decent matte anymore or does no one take the time to shoot a good bluescreen?  Either way, you would think that McG would have been very accommodating to the VFX crew since there was no other reason to make the film.  Period.   It just puts another nail in the coffin of film’s greatest science fiction franchise.

And finally, I’d like to say that I saw this movie on DLP and I’m never seeing another movie on film again.  I’ll detail that on my main blog later.