Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar: My Review ***1/2 out of *****

Good entertainment comes from originality. As I’m fond of saying, many of us go to movies, not to see things we’ve seen or heard before, but to experience something new, whether it’s a new story, a new joke, or a new effect. The buzz surrounding Avatar is about the spectacular new visuals in this movie, and trust me, those visuals are stunning. The visuals are so stunning that they are enough to distract the viewer from a storyline and characterizations that we’ve seen before in numerous different films.

Many comparisons have been made to Dances With Wolves and Ferngully. But the movie shares so many plot points with another science fiction movie that did not get that much buzz: Star Trek: Insurrection. The similarities between Avatar and Insurrection are so numerous that it made the storyline of the movie very predictable.

One of the things that distracted me was the intentional parallel between the Na’Vi and the American Indians. Part of me was filling in dialogue (Movie: "This is unobtainium…" Me: "…which the natives call maize...") because otherwise, I would have just been annoyed at the whole “noble savage” concept. All the boxes were checked: living in harmony with the land? Check. Thanking the animals that they killed? Check. Expert tracking? Check. Not only that, but the voice actors cast as the Na’Vi are all non-white actors, while all the villainous invaders are white. Historically accurate? Perhaps, but it’s not original.

That being said, the movie features enough action, and stunning visuals to make you forgive most of that. The 3D is used to add a sense of height and depth necessary to convey the sheer scale of the environment that makes the aerial sequences all the more thrilling. While the story and characters are pretty much stock, the dialogue and acting make the movie fun to watch. It is a testament to Cameron’s skill as a director that the movie does not feel as long as it is. Avatar is a movie that is worth seeing; you will have a good time.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review of Transformers 2


There's a certain cruelty to humanity that is evident in Michael Bay's movies, given his desire for wanton destruction. Prior to Transformers, Bay's movies featured destructions of entire cities via Hummer in "The Rock," via meteors in "Armageddon," and via car chase in "Bad Boys II." His most offensive, however, was "Pearl Harbor," a movie that recreated that tragic day in our world's history with an almost pornographic display of abject disregard for the real meaning of what that day was about. So, when the first live-action Transformers movie came out 2 years ago, I was hesitant to watch it.

Since then, it's become one of my favorite movies to watch, but not because of Michael Bay. All of what's wrong with Michael Bay is in that movie, and it can be summed up into one word: inane. The humor, the ad-libbed dialogue, the unnecessary slo-mo shots, and above all, the casual racism (Jazz: "What's crackin' little bitches?") But when it came time for the action, the players did their jobs without acting silly (i.e.: Jar Jar Binks). It was great to see the Air Force shown in an heroic way. And, after all, Transformers was a cartoon; it never aimed to be dark and brooding.

And that's where Transformers 2 succeeds and fails at the same time. Its successes are marked when the heroism of its characters outshine the silliness, and its failures are marked anytime someone opens their mouth. Humanity's intelligence is insulted every single time the "Twins" Skids and Mudflap are on the screen, and that's proven when the only people laughing in the theater are stupid people. We take a collective step backward when not only negative black stereotypes are seen as heroic in robots, but negative stereotypes are seen as a punchline in actual human beings (the little Egyptian border security guard and the snaggletoothed Muslim deli worker). And let's not forget the unnecessary swipe this movie takes at the Obama Doctrine and President Obama himself.

But I still enjoyed it. I enjoyed watching Optimus Prime fight Megatron and Starscream. I enjoyed seeing the military fight bravely against the Decepticons. I enjoyed the explosions and destruction. I enjoyed watching Devastator climbing up a pyramid even though the same pyramid is in the background untouched during a close up of John Turturro. I enjoyed watching the Autobots drive round trip from Cairo to Petra and back in a few hours, even though the two places are nearly 300 miles away from each other. I was in a constant flux or emotions, experiencing simultaneous outrage and anger with juvenile glee. My senses were fed with wonderful sights and sounds at the same time my intelligence was being insulted.

What do I tell my friends what I thought? I have more negative things to say about this movie than I do positive. I feel like if they enjoy watching giant robots fight each other with explosions and Megan Fox, then they should definitely see this movie. Yet, if they see this movie, they'll only be feeding the cancer that is Michael Bay.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Monsters vs Aliens: My Review of the 3D format

Roger Ebert panned Monsters vs. Aliens 3D in his review, spending more time complaining about the format than he did actually critiquing the story or dialogue. He sounded so old and stodgy that my inherent ageism began to kick in, so much so that I decided that I had to see this movie, just to spite Roger Ebert.

So my friend Blake and I went to see it on the IMAX screen at Columbia Mall. I must confess that I’ve been spoiled since most of the IMAX movies I’ve seen were on the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum five-story screen; when a three-story screen fails to impress me, then, yeah, I’ve been spoiled.

The 3D glasses we were given at the entrance were big and clunky. They were heavy on the bridge of my nose, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t wearing glasses, because that would have just been too much for my head to handle. The lenses were large enough to encompass all of my direct and peripheral vision, and once the movie started, I got used to the glasses very quickly.

In the past few decades, there have been movies that have not necessarily had the best story, but the effects have shown what the future of the motion picture industry could provide the audience. Some have become classics, others have been forgotten. Of those that are classics, perhaps the best example that took advantage of new technologies and made the audience go “Wow!” was Jurassic Park.

Do I consider MvA3D to be the next Jurassic Park? Yes and no. First of all, 3D is not a new format, and each time they try to reintroduce it, the results are predictable: gratuitous shots of things being literally thrown at the camera (Kiss me, Kate, anyone?), with more time being spent on selling the format than actually having a good time with it. Then there’s the requirement of having to wear equipment in order to enjoy the movie. It adds cost to an already-expensive outing, so it better be worth it.

But MvA3D worked. Once the movie started, I was sold on the 3D technology. The colors may have been a little muted (especially for a CG-animated film), but that was small potatoes to what was accomplished, which was to give the audience a sense of scale. That is a remarkable achievement, because the movie’s main character grows from normal height to just shy of 50 feet tall. The audience is never confused as to whose point of view we are looking from, and when the scenes transition into huge underground caverns that dwarf our 50-foot-tall heroine, we feel just as small as the normal-sized characters that are with her.

What helped immensely was that it was a pretty funny movie. Not to the level of The Incredibles, but just silly enough to cause quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Fans of John Williams’ work will be especially appreciative when not one but two of his best known themes are used. There are musical cues that pay homage to Independence Day, and when you have “Axel F,” DDR, and Aqua in the same movie, it can’t be all bad. The voice acting was good, not great, which is a bit disappointing because some of today’s finest comedic actors provide their voices. But still, the movie was a lot of fun, and because of that, the potential to use 3D as a featured format becomes more and more feasible.

As such, this opens the door to a new market: customized 3D glasses. Why use public, previously-used glasses that may not fit your head very well and will leave unsightly marks on the bridge of your nose? Why not purchase your own glasses for $10 to $15 that are comfortable and personalized in your favorite color or style! Who’s with me?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why I Hate Gladiator

Imagine, if you will, a movie about life in the American Midwest that takes place in the early 1400s. It's a movie that follows the adventures of a young Lakota warrior who learns about survival, love, and his connection to the world. He's the most skilled archer and earns his place in the stories of his tribe as one of the greatest buffalo hunters who ever lived. One of his best friends is an Aztec from what is now Mexico who escaped human sacrifice, and despite their difference in geography, become confidants and suffer no language barrier. Sounds interesting, right? Well, let's see how we can ruin the movie by pulling a Gladiator.

First, everyone will be speaking English. Not just any English, mind you, but British accents. Because apparently, British accents make any movie sound elite, regardless of whatever language the characters would naturally be speaking, whether it's German (The Sound of Music), Middle-Earthian (The Lord of the Rings), or Latin (Gladiator).

Next, we'll cast non-Brits to speak in these British accents like Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Russell Crowe, and Richard Harris did in Gladiator. After all, nothing elevates an actor's status in Hollywood more than if he or she can pull off a non-native accent. Even if the actor sounds fake doing it, at least he's trying, right Joaquin? If Keanu Reeves can do it in Dracula and Kevin Costner can do it in Robin Hood, why not you? Or does that make you quite vexed?

Third, let's adjust the exposure of the film to make it look washed out and harsh, and for the actions scenes, we'll speed the frame rate to the point where quick cuts and closeups make the action seem disjointed and grainy. Don't learn anything about how Mel Gibson shot Braveheart -- you just want to make it look like a grittier version of Saving Private Ryan, but without the heart or the skill. Remember those tigers in Gladiator? Remember how dangerous they seemed? I don't. I remember watching quick cuts of giant stuffed tigers intercut with CGI animals and split screen shots.

Fourth, and here's my favorite, make a non-indigenous animal a particularly scary plot point. For example, instead of having a rattlesnake slither into the tent, put a cobra there. Then, to escape, have our hero jump on the back of a zebra. It worked in Gladiator, right? One character was killed by a venomous snake. Of course, they used a king snake, a non-venomous snake that looks very much like the venomous coral snake. The fact that both of those snakes are indigenous to North America shouldn't get in the way of logic, though.

Fifth, make the antagonist a pussy. Nothing is less intimidating than a villain you know you can defeat. I suggest casting Jack McBrayer as the villainous Spits While Talks. Remember, British accent.

Sixth, not only make the movie predictable, but make it long, boring, and predictable.

So now you have a movie about the Lakota spoken by actors with British accents, featuring a boring and predictable story, shot and edited so that it's hard to see the action, and contains wildlife from halfway across the world. Yup, sounds like a Best Picture winner to me.

Elitism and the films of Brad Bird

Excerpted from my post of May 12, 2008
It is important to understand what the word “elitist” connotes. While “elite” stands for the best of the best, the pinnacle of achievement, the word “elitist” carries with it implications of snobbery and condescension stemming from a sense of presumptuous superiority. In other words, people want to be elite; nobody wants to be elitist. From my experience, this is a uniquely American sentiment. I challenge someone to find a non-American equivalent to the rhetorical saying, “What, you think you’re better than me?!” Chances are, if that question was asked in another country, someone would actually answer “Yes” and not feel the slightest ounce of shame or embarrassment if his response was accurate.
There is a certain characteristic about each of us that can be difficult to discuss. It’s not race, gender, religion, or even sexuality (though these are at many times difficult to honestly discuss). No, in America, even the most open-minded and equivocating liberal can get squeamish when discussing the characteristic of achievement. If you are the best at something, you had better keep it to yourself, lest you sound like you are bragging, and nobody likes a braggart. Bragging hurts people’s feelings, and is relegated to the caricatured world of hip-hop.
Well, there is one non-rapper in whom elitism has found a sympathetic voice. His name is Brad Bird, and he is the writer and director of the Academy-Award winning Pixar movies The Incredibles and Ratatouille. These two movies not only are about the elite, but these movies celebrate elitism.
Brad Bird has been outspoken in his support for animation as a tool to express his vision. Listening to him during his interviews on the DVD extras, I easily got the impression that he thinks very highly of himself. What’s more, I couldn’t disagree, certainly not after watching his movies. Bird knows not only knows how to tell a story, he knows what kind of story he feels he needs to tell. And the common thread binding The Incredibles and Ratatouille is the pride one should have in being the best.
In both movies, the protagonists never had to work for their skills; both the Incredible family and Remy the rat were born with their powers and palate, respectively. In The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible is frustrated at having to hide his power, and is mad that his super-fast son Dash isn’t allowed to compete in sports. When he objects to attending his Dash’s “graduation” from the fourth grade to the fifth, he exclaims, “[A ceremony is] psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity…” And who is the villain in this movie? A smart, yet disillusioned, inventor, bitter that his youthful efforts were rejected by Mr. Incredible. His master plan is to equalize the playing field by selling his inventions to give ordinary people super powers; in his words, “when everyone’s super, no one will be.”

In Ratatouille, there are two characters that illustrate Bird’s elitist streak: Remy the rat, and Anton Ego, the appropriately named food critic. Both Remy and Ego consider themselves superior in knowing what tastes good. Other movies would have painted Ego as someone who didn’t know anything about what he critiqued and turned him into some sort of buffoon (much the same way Bob Balaban’s critic character in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water was portrayed). But his monologue at the end of the film makes this stuck-up food critic a sympathetic character:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau's, who is, in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau's soon, hungry for more.
It is not too much of a stretch to see that Bird is using Ego to plead a case for himself; Bird is a man of “new talent,” and the world of animation showcases the “new creations” that have the potential to rock even the most stodgy film critics to their core.
Unfortunately, Bird’s films leave out two very important facets of achievement. The first is the potential emptiness that comes from being at the top. At the end of the movie, notice how after Dash easily wins a school race, he jogs off the track with a smug look on his face. Dash is the fastest runner in his school, no doubt. But what would happen to his mentality after winning every race without even trying? What would Dash gain from effortless wins at trivial contests? Second, Bird’s films do not focus on something that I’ve found to be true in all people: that everyone is good in at least one thing if they try. For Linguini, the would-be chef, it’s roller skating. For Remy’s father, it’s leadership over an entire colony. No, not just anyone can cook, but anyone can do something well.