Friday, February 19, 2010

Avatar (Theatrical)

Since his Oscar-winning 1997 film "Titanic," James Cameron has done very little in the way of big-screen attractions. Now in 2009 for 20th Century Fox, he returns to writing and directing with the extraordinary science-fiction/fantasy "Avatar." I would assume that since we haven´t seen much from Cameron in the past decade, he would certainly have his work cut out for him. I would also imagine if you found the one-dimensional narrative in "Titanic" entertaining enough, then you would have no problems enjoying "Avatar."

The story itself is one that has been told far too many times in American culture. I couldn´t stop thinking that just about every Western ever made has told the same story. In fact, Disney´s "Pocahontas" is kind of similar, if not a carbon copy, of the story. What we have is a paraplegic soldier, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who has the chance to join a science/military experiment on a distant planet, with a group led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). The fine doctor needs Jake to interact with a tribe of alien beings known as the Na´vi, but he will have to do this in an avatar body that looks identical to a Na´vi. The attempt is to get the Na´vi to move from one gigantic tree they live in. Of course, this would be because the attractive, blue fantasy creatures live directly above the mother load of a very valuable mineral, a mineral we know very little about other than it´s worthy enough to turn greedy humans into savages.

Leading the pack of people we love to hate is Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). Parker is leading the pack of workers to mine the alien planet and will stop at nothing, including the use of military force. Parker´s only concerns are money, power, and obsessive greed. Leading that military coalition is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is by far the most overacted, one dimensional character in the bunch. Colonel Miles is that one character that should have died eight scenes ago but always manages to narrowly escape peril. It´s like when Austin Powers is falling out that window with Robin Swallows and yelling, "Why won´t you die?"

As the story lugs on, you can almost paint in the outcome by the obvious numbers left on the screen. As Jake spends more time in his avatar body, the more he finds a connection within himself and the Na´vi. Naturally, there´s the subtle love angle with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), but certainly not at the domination level of "Titanic." No, this film throws us a common plot with literally no surprises, and uses some very attractive visuals to make us enjoy the taste of that big spoon in our mouth.

The Good:
Hands down, the best thing about "Avatar" are the visuals alone. It´s certainly going to be the drooling joy of anyone fascinated with visual effects and sound. Yes, it will be part of your Blu-ray "show off" editions. Not that there´s anything too original here, as I would say Cameron is just utilizing the visual arts of science fiction and fantasy that have already been around for decades. What we get here is a simple-enough story to paint up some wonderful visuals to stare at. Oh, and let´s not forget things we get to blow up, too.

The Bad:
The bad here is a narrative that has been overcooked far too long. As I mentioned, it´s quite literally "Pocahontas" on another planet. The other nails on the chalkboard for me were the clich├ęd narrative of the military. I felt the part of the bad guys was so predictable and one dimensional that it was enough to obstruct my perspective of simply enjoying the film. I mean, as a culture in the far future, we still have not got past excessive greed and have not learned anything about humanity? The scientists talk with reason and common sense while the greedy corporations and the military destroy everything in their path. So, for that far into the future, I´m supposed to assume human culture still has not evolved to something a bit more enlightening? Really? Well, I guess you have to have some action somewhere in the movie, and you can always count on a bit of testosterone to provide it. The problem for me is I just wasn´t buying into it.

Also, what groundbreaking effects was I to notice? If you don´t know the CGI industry that well, then you won´t know what to look for. Therefore, as an audience member, all I can do is point at things and say, "Hey, that looks fake." Yes, I realize I mentioned the visuals are the best thing. Nevertheless, the film is marred by subpar effects, or perhaps my eyes have just grown adjusted to spotting it after so many years. Many of the animal creatures look extremely fake, like a marriage of rubber meets plastic on a computer model that took a nap on rendering details. In the days when we could finally tell some plastic spaceships looked like toy models, I´m beginning to find the same of CGI models. However, what "Avatar" has going for it is the style, design, and art in the effects. Everything certainly looks pretty on a visual level, but the blend makes it difficult to decide whether the film wanted to be an animated CGI extravaganza or one dealing with live action.

The Ugly:
The hype for this film has been quite ugly, and I can´t say I found the outcome lived up to it. I´m really happy I don´t have small children because they´d probably want Na´vi dolls for Christmas. Didn´t we have blue play figures back in the eighties? Weren´t they called "Smurfs"? I guess you could say the Na´vi are the taller, sexier version of Smurfs. I mean, they do live in the woods, surrounded by fantasy creatures of all kinds. Nevertheless, a movie that packs hype also comes with after-marketing and the possibility to develop a never-ending franchise.

For something that looks extremely well produced, it´s too bad the narrative is just a mediocre affair. I had higher hopes and was curious to see what Cameron could come up with after many years of absence from the blockbuster machine. The way I see it, when you´re checking your watch and nodding off a couple times in the movie theater, things can´t be too good.
--> Read More ...

Hurt Locker

There´s nothing quite like an intriguing war film to make you realize you have things just fine sitting at a distance and viewing the true horrors of war. Well, at least you can get a perspective that adds no harm to you physically. After sitting through the nail-biter "The Hurt Locker," I quickly went to my list of careers I would never pursue and added "military bomb squad" to it. To me, any movie that can be equally effective at sinking you into the narrative, keeping you at the edge of your seat, and providing at least a few nightmares afterward does its job pretty well. Director Kathryn Bigelow certainly adheres to telling us a unique story that is not often explored in war films. I mean, seriously, how many war films stand out in your mind that deal exclusively with working in a bomb squad?

Written by Mark Boal and originally released in Italian theaters in October of 2008 (limited U.S.A. release in June, 2009), Ms. Bigelow´s movie takes us on the journey of Officer William James (Jeremy Renner) as he completes his final days of tour in Iraq working as a daring bomb-squad leader. James is assigned to a group with Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) shortly after the death of its prevous bomb-squad commander, Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce). Throughout the film, we see directly the challenges these men face on a daily basis and the unease we feel as an audience member waiting for a bomb to explode at any given moment. Not only do we deal with bombs, we also experience the dilemma of one being targeted constantly by terrorist enemies. A scene in particular deals with a couple of snipers in the middle of the desert, and it is quite moving and intense. As I mentioned, it´s very effective at keeping you on pins and needles for the entire ride.

Bigelow delivers a narrative that shows us the culture of soldiers fighting in Iraq and the emotional challenges they face just to stay alive. Owen has issues dealing with the fear of death, while Sgt. Sanborn just wants to play it safe and get the job done right. Nevertheless, the main character in the story is William James, or Bill for short. At first, we understand that James has dismantled literally hundreds of bombs and often deals with his skill in an unorthodox way. He´s definitely a rebel and one we feel, initially, we can connect with. However, it isn´t long before we realize the man´s bravery can also be construed as insanity from some people´s point of view. Not to mention, James at times can be quite distant and arrogant to his team members. He refuses to follow protocol at times, thus raising the ire of his colleagues.

To examine how brave or how crazy James is, you will see that when squad members go out to disarm a bomb up close, they must wear a safety impact suit. The suit itself is no guarantee of one´s survival if a bomb goes off too close when wearing one. However, it is part of their protocol and something his team members take quite seriously. Nonetheless, in one disarming case, Bill takes the suit off while only inches away from an explosive death. In his opinion, if he´s going to die, he wants to do it comfortably. Now, in some way I kind of laughed at how fanatical he came across, but considering the risk his character is taking on a daily basis, I can also understand his logic. I mean, if you´re going to risk death in the first place, then the heavy, uncomfortable suit probably makes no difference, anyway.

What director Bigelow makes us take away from this film is an understanding of who we really are inside. As crazy as Bill James is at his task, we take a journey through a character study that shows us a man who realizes what he´s good at and what he knows to be his purpose in life. For me, there were times I felt connected to his challenges, but there were also times I wouldn´t want anything to do with him. He could easily be loved or hated at any given moment within the narrative. Then again, I also think Bigelow was trying to show us that sometimes the path of a hero can be too complex for most people to understand. In the case of where it takes a wolf to kill a wolf, then perhaps "The Hurt Locker" paints a great example of that.

The overall pacing of "The Hurt Locker" feels quite somber in tone, but it is a mild tempo that actually keeps you nerve-racked. At any moment an explosive surprise can happen, and, yes, there are undoubtedly times you see it coming. Granted, the film is not without its predictability, but for viewing it your first time through, it´s certain to keep you on the edge of your seat. The style and look of the film feel quite familiar in tone, but the narrative explores avenues less touched upon. It is an interesting and riveting look at a particular side of war, one that offers plenty of food for thought.
--> Read More ...

Patty Duke Show, The (TV Series) (DVD)

In 1963, 17-year-old Patty Duke took the stage to accept a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her dramatic and inspired performance as the blind Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." That same year, she cut loose--split, you might say--as a goofy, boy-crazy American teen whose demure, identical cousin from Europe comes to stay with the family. Duke played both a Gidget-type in Patty Lane, and a reserved, almost matronly young woman in cousin Cathy, with well-traveled character actor William Schallert as the father and Jean Byron the mother. Paul O'Keefe played little brother Ross, who was basically there for the cousins to react to and everyone to pick on. I'm sure he's in therapy now.

But seriously, the Sixties were a golden age for sitcoms, and the first season that "The Patty Duke Show" aired, the top TV show in America was "The Beverly Hillbillies." Seven out of the top 10 shows were sitcoms. "The Patty Duke Show" finished at Number 18, ahead of shows like "Gunsmoke," "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," "McHale's Navy," and "Dr. Kildare." Duke was a cutie and she had charisma--times two, in this show--so drawing a 23.9 share of the audience was really not surprising, given her Oscar star power.

The second season the audience dropped off a bit, though the episodes were just as consistently written and performed. It came in at Number 28. As sitcoms go, it was pretty average, though Duke's perky Patty character brought a nice energy to each episode. What makes it an average sitcom rather than a superior one are the hackneyed plots that seem to be standard-issue for situation comedies. Some of the episodes are even blatant rip-offs of the first season. Produced by William Asher (who gave us "Bewitched"), "The Patty Duke" show relies on the old formulas and hits some of them several times this season too. That they're still entertaining is more a tribute to the cast and dialogue than the formulas themselves.

The draw for contemporary audiences is that this family comedy does a pretty good job of showcasing attitudes and activities from an era that now seems as quaint as a cottage with a white picket fence. And the hair ranges from ducktails to doper-dos. Episodes this season involve building a soap box derby racer, a father-daughter dance, an attempt to join the Peace Corps, and dating so proper that it'll surely strike today's teens and 'tweens as unbelievable. Same with the politeness. But hey, it wouldn't hurt for a little of that to rub off. My kids (ages 12 and 8) have gotten into this show, though the girl likes it considerably better than the boy--for obvious reasons. "The Patty Duke Show" has a real Dear Diary feel to it.

Thirty-six episodes are included on six single-sided discs, housed in three slim, clear plastic keep cases and tucked inside a colorful cardboard slipcase. Here's a rundown on the episodes, as described in a wonderful six-page booklet that's printed on both covers:

1) "The Green-Eyed Monster." Jealousy erupts within Richard when Geoffrey Davis III returns to town and begins courting Patty.

2) "Practice Makes Perfect." Much to the dismay of the Lane family, Patty shows off her lack of musical talent when she decides to take up tuba lessons.

3) "Simon Says." Anger fills the halls of the high school after Patty's new advice column for the school paper goes from helping couples to breaking them up!

4) "Patty, the Organizer." To win more household privileges, Patty spearheads a new union: UAFUM, the United Association for Unprotected Minors.

5) "Patty, the Pioneer." To defend the honor of "spoiled teens" everywhere, Patty volunteers to live the life of a pioneer for one week, but the lessons learned from her experience come a little harder than she expects.

6) "The Boy Next Door." When a cute boy moves in next door to the Lanes, a bitter war is waged between the two identical swooning cousins.

7) "Patty, the People's Voice." The democratic process becomes tough for Patty and Cathy when they come to realize that the candidate running for office against Martin's boss is actually the better choice.

8) "The Greatest Psychologist in the World." Patty uses her keen skills in psychology to convince her parents to let her attend the Harvard prom with Sue Ellen's cousin, Rip.

9) "Patty and the Peace Corps." Excited about the prospect of helping a third-world country, Patty lies about her age and joins the Peace Corps. There's just one problem: her parents don't know!

10) "How to Succeed in Romance." When Cathy falls for the shy new boy at school, she asks her much more outgoing cousin for advice. Meanwhile, the shy boy, Christopher, is getting advice from Richard about Cathy. With all this "helpful" advice, can the two teens ever get together?

11) "Block That Statue." Cathy enamors the high school football hero, but she just isn't interested. What can she do?

12) "This Little Patty Went to Market." On discovering all the money to be made in the stock market, the entrepreneur in Patty decides it's time to form her own marketing company: Patty Lane, Inc.

13) "Best Date in Town." When her father's called out of town on an important newspaper assignment, Patty is left disappointed--and dateless--for the eagerly anticipated father-daughter dance.
--> Read More ...