Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review: "Avatar"

James Cameron has directed some of the biggest films in history. He is responsible for The Terminator and its first (and best) sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, and he personally won 3 of the 11 Oscars awarded to Titanic. He also produced an excellent IMAX 3-D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss about exploration of the Titanic wreckage that I thought was superior to his big-budget fictionalization about the doomed ocean liner. Cameron has been absent from the screen for several years now while mounting his biggest spectacle yet, Avatar. Cameron is credited as writer and director, and as with his other productions he is deeply involved with virtually every aspect of production. This is his third feature film in a row that has supposedly set a record for its budget (reportedly between $200 and $300 million dollars) and as with most of his other films, there is a lot of tech up there on the screen. I read many reviews (probably too many) of the film before seeing it, with opinions ranging from "this is the most amazing film EVER" to the derisive description "Dancing With Smurfs." As a result, I expected to be both wowed and underwhelmed. And sure enough, that's what happened.
The story takes place on a distant moon, Pandora, which contains a valuable mineral called "unobtanium." (Subtlety is not one of Cameron's strengths as a storyteller.) A mining company is desperate to get to the biggest underground deposit, located under a massive tree that is the home of a tribe of Na'vi, Pandora's 10-foot tall blue-skinned humanoids. Jake Sully, the story's hero, is a former US Marine whose battle injuries have left him in a wheelchair. Despite having no training for the program, he is selected to operate his late twin brother's avatar, a genetically-modified Na'vi drone which acts as a sort of virtual-reality body in which the operator can interact with the natives in the poisonous-to-humans atmosphere. The avatars are part of a program, headed by chain-smoking scientist Sigourney Weaver, to study and understand the Na'vi though the corporation's militaristic security operations chief sees them as a way to get intel that can be used to overthrow the primitives. Through his avatar, Jake falls in love with his new-found mobility, the spectacular environment, the chief's daughter...you get the idea. Rather than gather information, he decides he wants to join the tribe.
The environment of Pandora is quite impressive: the CGI-rendered world is magnificent in its detail and execution. The bright, phosphorescent colors are a bit overwhelming after a while and the effect is what I would describe as "convincing" rather than "realistic." Pandora's lower gravity presumably is what allows for its incredibly large plants, creatures, and floating mountains, all of which do provide a suitably alien setting, especially when seen in an IMAX 3-D theater. The 3-D photography still suffers at times from the motion blur common to 3-D films, but the effect of true depth is the best I have ever seen. The glasses do become a bit annoying during the over 2 hour 40 minute running time. Some of the aerial sequences are genuinely breathtaking, and as a whole this film is the only one that rivals this summer's Star Trek for realism.
Part of the realism involves the Na'vi themselves, created through the most detailed and painstaking motion-capture yet used in a movie. The details of the characters' mouths, noses, and eyes make for very convincing characters and it is easy to believe that you are seeing a close representation of the actors who play the Na'vi. As a technical achievement, I'm not sure there is much that would improve it.
As a story, there are problems. If you have seen Dances With Wolves, you won't be surprised by a single element of the plot. For all the time, effort, and money that went into this film it is disappointing that Cameron didn't take another couple of weeks or bring in other writers to flesh out what is essentially a bad cowboys-good Indians action flick. As I wrote earlier, Cameron is not good at being subtle. We are told how vitally important it is to the "company" that unobtanium be acquired, but my reaction throughout the entire film was "so what?" It was difficult to believe that anyone would invest so many resources and risk so much destruction for this stuff. Maybe that's the point of the story, but if I'd been told the stuff could cure cancer or cause the growth of giant, delicious radishes I would have found the motivation of the villains more believable.
The villains. If a story doesn't have good villains, its success as a story is likely to be compromised. The bad guys in this movie, a gung-ho former Colonel and the corporate manager, are so one-dimensional that I was waiting for a "soon Metropolis will feel the sting of my death ray" monologue. From the moment they appear on screen, there is no doubt: these guys exist only to make bad decisions and be hated by the viewer. They want to destroy the Na'vi, because bad guys like explosions and hate kittens. When the battle tactic of "fight terror with terror" is mentioned, it is a jolt not just because it is an obvious "James Cameron commenting on modern warfare" moment but because there is no aspect of the plot up to that moment that in any way resembles terrorism. It falls into the narrative trap of "every war is Vietnam" and "modern armies bad, primitive armies good" (unless the good guys are using modern weapons they swiped from the bad guys) because the narrative is now making an important statement rather than letting the story unfold in an organic manner.
That's a shame, because despite my misgivings after seeing the film's overly-long trailer several weeks ago, I wanted to get wrapped up in the story. The effect was similar to experiencing a great roller coaster ride, only to be told at the end-by the person operating the ride-that cutting down trees to make room for roller coasters is bad. I appreciate the message, but do you have to be that heavy-handed?
The romance story is actually well-done, and the explanation for why the Na'vi are so dependant upon their environment made the almost literal "tree hugging" aspect of the story consistent and plausible within the realm of the film. In some ways that aspect of the film works better than the rather simplistic teen romance of Titanic, which also was visually spectacular but suffered from having a cartoony bad guy. It seems to me that Cameron is at his best when the antagonist is an amoral killing machine or an impersonal group of flesh-eating aliens, but at his worst when he tries to write conflict between humans (or Na'vi). While we can accept that robots from the future have no motivation other than the orders given by the programmer, humans don't work that way. It's a shame that a movie with such convincing 3-D effects should have unconvincing 1-D characters.
But don't get the wrong idea if it seems I'm being a bit harsh--Avatar is an adrenaline-packed experience with some truly exciting action sequences and amazing visuals. If you are even considering seeing it, GO. Despite its shortcomings, it is a landmark film, a testament to what a whole lot of time, money, and technology can do to create a world that previously only existed in the imagination. Watching this on even a good television in your living room would be like watching a video of the aforementioned roller coaster: it may technically look the same, but it won't match the experience of being there.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holiday Thoughts

*This has been something of a frustrating period for me. I'm glad to have a couple of weeks to get away from work (paid vacation!) and visit family and friends, but I also spent nearly two whole days of my hard-earned leave sitting in the Philadelphia airport waiting for the snow to stop. This caused me to miss lunch with some friends in Atlanta, as well as attending an NFL game with my family. Weather is one of those things you can't control, but as Calvin said, "I'm still going to gripe about it."

*I don't really buy the whole "war on Christmas" that a lot of people complain about. I don't think that there is really a major cultural movement to stop people from celebrating Christmas. The holiday is too popular, too ingrained in the culture, and too much money is involved for it to be swept under the rug. However, there is a war on many of the things that Christmas represents: goodwill to those with whom we disagree, the recognition of our common failings in the light of better ideals, the importance of people over things. These have been under assault for a long time.

*Every year, there is an effort by someone to get some sort of holiday symbol removed from public property. They like to invoke the First Amendment, claiming that a nativity scene in front of a building is "government endorsement of a religion." Well, government should be a reflection of its people and if the majority think that it isn't an imposition, that should settle it. The "establishment clause" means that the government can't officially sponsor, or be sponsored by, a church. It does not mean that members of the government can't express their solidarity with others of similar beliefs. When people want trees and mangers taken away, it says more about their selfishness and insecurity than it does about the people celebrating a time-honored tradition.

*Yes, most Christians know Jesus wasn't born in December. We know that Yule was a pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Stop trying to take our joy from us by pointing it out in a snarky, holier-than-thou manner. It just makes you look like a jerk. People who believe Christmas is important are the same type of people who founded the nation that allows you to live your life of non-belief quite comfortably, so stop complaining about how the culture of freedom that you enjoy inconveniences you because you're tired of looking at manger scenes.

*Some people oppose massive legislative bills because they are rushed through without time to be properly evaluated, and then they vote for the bill anyway because they got a deal too good to pass up. Some others plan to vote for it, but will hold out until they manage to extort as much as possible from the taxpayers. Neither speaks well for a person's character. So why do we keep electing them?

*The trick with taking vacation in the hopes of seeing people is that everyone is on vacation, so they all have plans and commitments. Thus, it is difficult to actually get together with the people you wanted to see. Like I said...frustrating.

*I did discover that there is a Chick-Fil-A in the Philadelphia airport. Yep....closed on Sunday.

*My deepest gratitude to the USO, which provides an area in many airports for traveling members of the armed services to relax, have free food and beverages, check email, sleep, etc. during layovers, especially when flights are delayed. It makes a difficult trip much easier. Thanks.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thanksgiving Across the Border

Thanksgiving weekend is the single biggest travel weekend of the year in the United States. Because of this, air travel is more expensive and good seats are harder to find. Because of this, I did not travel back home to Tennessee for Thanksgiving this year, nor did I visit friends and family in Georgia. (For the first time in four years, I also did not play in the pit orchestra for Columbus (GA) Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.) So instead, I took a road trip.
Jeff, a friend of mine who served with me in the bands at Ft. Benning and Ft. McPherson, told me a while back that he had the urge to go visit Montreal, the largest city in the Canadian Francophone province of Quebec. So once I decided that flying was out of the question and that it's less than a four-hour drive from Watertown, NY to Montreal, we decided to use the four-day weekend to hang out in Canada.
Thursday afternoon I crossed the border about twenty-six miles from where I live and work. I arrived at the airport just in time to pick up Jeff after he retrieved his baggage, and we headed for the Best Western Europa in downtown Montreal. After checking in and unloading, we bundled up for a walk around the area. The hotel had an ideal location, near several shops and restaurants and close to the city's Metro subway system. (We were also just down the street from Centre Bell, the arena that is home to the fabled Montreal Canadiens hockey team, but attending a game was not on the agenda this weekend. Which is fine, because we probably couldn't have gotten tickets.) We ate at a food court in an underground mall, and I was surprised by the way that many people there casually and randomly switch between speaking English and French. Montreal is what I'd call "comfortably bilingual," and many people there seem comfortable using either language. That was fine for me, as I haven't attempted to speak French regularly since I took 200-level French my freshman year in college. Jeff's French is better than mine, probably because he used to be stationed in Europe. No doubt I'd have a harder time in other Quebec cities where the population is more adamant about speaking only French. Several locals also seemed to think Jeff was from France because of his accent, which was noticeably different from the rather bizarre accent that the Quebecois have. (Actually Jeff's family is from Thailand.) We wrapped up the evening at a local pub, Les 3 Brasseurs, where Jeff bought one of their custom glasses to add to his collection.
Friday was mostly spent shopping (Jeff says it's easier to find things in his diminutive size in Canada than in the US), browsing bookstores, and trying to avoid the constant rain. I suggested going to Le Tour Montreal, the world's tallest inclined tower. It is located next to Stade Olympique (Olympic Stadium), built for the 1976 Summer Olympics and former home to the Montreal Expos baseball team (now the Washington Nationals). This made for our first trip on Montreal's excellent Metro system, the smoothest subway I've ever ridden. Upon exiting the train, we saw a partitioned area that looked like a ticket line for the tower. Instead, it was a ticket line for people getting the H1N1 Flu Vaccine, and once we realized that we were about to get shots, it took quite a bit of us repeating "pas de vaccine!" to convince the workers that we were there as tourists, not patients. We finally made our way out of the station, which is actually located under the stadium, and walked all the way around to the tower. We decided to go back the next day, as we were told the weather was causing near zero visibility. We took the train to Vieux Montreal, the old part of the city with brick streets and old stone buildings. After exploring a fascinating shop with lots of Renaissance-themed items, we ate at a very upscale restaurant with excellent salmon and hot fresh bread. To sample the city's nightlife, we chose a club within reasonable walking distance from the hotel and stood in line (in the rain, with umbrellas) for quite a while before we got in. It reminded me of why I don't go clubbing much--too loud, too crowded, and I have more skill with ballroom dancing than club dancing--but it did give me a chance to confirm that there are a lot of good-looking women in Montreal.
Saturday began with a trip to Chinatown and a meal at one of the local Chinese restaurants, which was excellent, though I found myself amused by the prospect of ordering in French at a Chinese establishment. From there we walked to the pier area and got a lot of pictures--the sun was out and much more pleasant than Friday's unending rain! We returned to the tower, finally getting to ride the inclined elevator to the top and enjoy the spectacular near-360-degree view of the city and of mountains and hills in the distance. (One can also get a dizzying view of the formerly-sort-of-retractable-roof of the stadium, suspended by cables connected to the tower.) After this, we used our comprehensive-package tickets to the adjacent Biodome, an indoor nature museum built in the fomer Olympic Velodrome. The Biodome contains a fascinating array of monkeys, fish, trees, and birds (one of whom used me as a "target," if you will, to Jeff's great amusement) and is worth a trip if you're in the area. Just don't wear any expensive clothing. Trust me.
Saturday night, we went to a production at the city's most notable church, the Basilique Notre- Dame de Montreal. It was an audio-visual presentation of the history of the founding of Montreal and the building of the church. (Notre Dame carries the honorific of Basilica because it is not a cathedral; it does not have the correct shape for one.) After the presentation, we took some time to admire the architectural magnificence of the Basilica and the detail that can be found all over the building. Dinner was at St. Hubert, a chicken-oriented restaurant that had outstanding chicken pot pie and HD screens showing the hockey game taking place a block from the hotel. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Montreal Jazz Festival building, home to the Festival and a relaxing place to sit at the bar and relax after a long day.
Sunday, I drove Jeff back to the airport for his flight to Georgia, and I drove back after stopping at McDonald's to order some breakfast (in French, of course). This was my first extended trip to Canada, and with the relatively short travel distance I'll have to go back to Montreal soon and enjoy more of what the North American continent's most Continental city has to offer.