Wednesday, February 17, 2010


People were making a big deal about this movie. And I had no idea why. I mean, when Titanic came out and people are making a big deal about it, you could kinda figure out why. But this? Aside from the name James Cameron, I hadn’t a clue. I thought, “Huh, looks weird. What’s with the blue people?”

Apparently, Avatar made and spent a ton of money. After seeing it, I understand. Now, weeding your way through the hype and publicity and Cameron-sized expectations, can you get an honest review from WLC? Absolutely.

The opening scenes introduce us to Jake Sully. It’s all a vague recollection to me, mostly because it wasn’t developed very much, but he’s in the military and currently a paraplegic. He signs up for a program on a different planet to take the place of his brother who died—I assume—recently. The program is on the planet (er, moon) Pandora, and centers around the fact that a resource mine of something called “Unobtanium” (ha, ha) is located in a place where Pandorian natives live. The age old question arises: how do we get what we want from those savages?

Thank god for Sigourney Weaver. She heads up the project to tackle this problem as the no-nonsense Grace Augustine, leading a team of scientists which formerly included Jake’s brother in the Avatar program. Basically, they climb into futuristic coffins and get their brains connected to a Pandorian avatar. Leading up to this process, Jake is criticized for his lack of background and study in the area. He hasn’t learned the language, doesn’t know the culture or landscape, and is ::shudder:: a former marine. Philistine.

Basically, humans are split on the issue: the scientists, including Augustine, believe in a diplomatic solution to obtaining Unobtanium. The special interest (translated: selfish) group, led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and helped along by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) just wants to get the stuff, and get it fast. Then there are the Pandorians, who want nothing to do with the humans and would love nothing better than to see them catch the next train out of town. Sully gets caught in the middle of all this. He ends up being accepted by the Na’vi (the Pandorian natives) and learns their way of life. He even develops a relationship with a woman named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and seems to forget about the world of humans when he inhabits his Avatar.

As is to be expected, humans grow impatient with the amount of time being spent with the Pandorians with no real progress being made toward getting the resource they want. A deadline is made, and Sully is removed from the project just as he realizes how important the Pandorian ways of life (as well as Neytiri) are to him.

In short, conflict arises between humans and Na’vi about the land, as well as inside of Jake Sully regarding where his loyalties lie.

Bravo to James Cameron for effectively helping me internalize conflict about this movie as well. However, probably not in the way he would like. The problem is, we’ve seen this movie before. More than once. We know what’s going to happen, and who is going to turn into what, down to the cheesy cliché one-liners that get thrown around way more than they should have been. And so, I’m torn between the beautiful scenes with fantastic imagery and the basically lame and uninspired plot. Creativity rose up in places it shouldn’t have (gravity-repellent land masses and lizards that spin like a top when flying) and was absent when desperately needed (natives called “savages” who wear loincloths and war paint.) Col. Quaritch evolves into a ridiculous caricature of evil. And you know, almost from the get-go, exactly what is going to happen to Jake.

Rating: 9

A feast for the eyes and ears, a famine for the mind. Does that even make sense? I don’t know, but it feels right: not much in the substance department, but oh, so pretty!!!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Julie & Julia

You can keep your Transformers and your District 9s and your Legions and all your movies wherein what hangs in the balances is nothing less than the fate of the planet or the universe or the multiverse or whatever. Robots, aliens, demons stand down -- I still say that for my money, the best drama comes from pitting a character against him- or herself.

So it is with Julie & Julia, the parallel story of Julie Powell and Julia Child. Julie's quest was to make all 524 recipes in Julia Child's iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia's quest was to write the sort of cookbook that would inspire someone like Julie to think it worthwhile to undertake such a task. The movie hops back and forth between Julie and Julia as they face similar struggles--while outside forces do sometimes stand in the way, the real tension in this movie is between reality and the characters' lofty ambitions.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers only trust that iconic man (or woman, or in this case women) vs. self (herselves) drama so much, and so two thirds of this movie ends up being fairly average. For example, about halfway through the movie, Julie's husband, Eric, leaves following a big fight about Julie's obsession with cooking. Maybe that really happened. Maybe it even happened in real life exactly as the movie portrayed it. But you knew, as soon as you had the vaguest inkling of the plot, that it was going to happen. And while it didn't have to be, it came off as cliché. It seemed to happen because a film requires something like that to happen in the second act--some sort of interpersonal, rather than intrapersonal, drama. It didn't happen, in other words, because it revealed any truth about the human condition. It just satisfies the filmmakers' conception (and the audiences') of what the shape of a movie is. It also sets up and justifies the catharsis of the third act.

That's fine. Doing these things isn't really a bad thing, per se. It's just something all movies do, and so it's average. And I may not even have noticed it if the first 30 minutes of the movie weren't so surprisingly spectacular.

As the movie opens, both Julie and Julia are discontented government workers looking for something to give meaning to their daily routine. Julia settles on taking a cooking class; Julie gives herself the aforementioned task of cooking (and blogging) her way through Julia Child's book.

And it's here--and not toward the end, as is typical--where the movie is revelatory. It beautifully captures the breathless dizzy joy that comes from taking a pastime and turning into an avocation. Julie & Julia is a fine enough story, but where it does its finest work is in understanding and recreating that odd alchemical reaction that results from taking something you do because it's kinda fun and turning it into a project that defines you. Both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams skillfully conjure the surprised nervous giddiness that results when you tell yourself that you're going to do something that you don't know that you can do.

Adams does a fine job in the movie, but she was always going to be outshined by Streep, who, not content with merely doing an impersonation of Julia Child, somehow also manages to harness her soul. She's not just doing Child's odd vocal register shifts and dogged straight-ahead delivery; she's also managed to help us re-see the ebullient liveliness and stubborn goodheartedness that helped make Julia Child into "Julia Child." She's completely hilarious because she's not trying at all to be funny.

In the end, Julie & Julia (which drags just a bit at a little over 2 hours long) is worth seeing for that rich intrapersonal struggle of the first 30 minutes and for Streep's embodiment of Child. The rest is pretty standard fare but, at the same time, you could do much worse with a movie. The first acts clocks in at a 17; the second and third acts hum along at a 4. Average it all together, and you're left with a comfortably competent 9.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bones, Season 1

There aren’t a whole lot of things on TV I watch regularly. The Office would be top of the list, but if DW didn’t ensure it was a part of our routine I might even skip that. The ones that I do really like I either buy on DVD or rent. The most recent of these includes the show Bones, created by Hart Hanson and currently in its 5th season. “Oh no!” you say, “Not another procedural/forensics show!” As much as I’ve avoided these up until now, I happened to catch a glimpse of Bones somewhere along the way and was drawn in.

Bones is loosely based on the real life of Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist, professor and author. The character in the show that is based on her is named Dr. Temperance Brennan nicknamed “Bones” by her partner, Agent Seeley Booth of the FBI. She earns her name because she deals entirely with human bones to help Agent Booth and the FBI to solve murders. She’s the best in her field, and as a result ends up partnering with Booth to give him information about murder victims that ends up being evidence pointing to their killers: from a skeleton she can determine age, gender, illnesses, hobbies, manner of death, and favorite color. Well, ok, maybe not the last one, but pretty darn close.

The reason why this show appealed to me when others didn’t is because from my experience, most of these shows revolve around some tough guy cop/agent who always comes out on top and his adventures with his female sidekick. In Bones, Dr. Brennan is the central figure who drives the story and more frequently, Agent Booth defers to her.

The characters in this show are a lot of fun. Dr. Brennan is a brilliant anthropologist with a good heart but a brain that often overrides the good that heart could experience. She lives, eats, and breaths science and has great difficulty functioning outside of its method. Booth, in contrast, leads with his gut and is good at his job because of his instincts and theories. As such they make a great pair for solving crimes, but also tend to butt heads because of their differing approaches. Bones works with a team (or “squints,” also nicknamed by Booth) who all embody very different types of people as well, sometimes to a fault. Angela is a fun-loving artist who works to recreate the faces of victims. She’s also Bones’ best friend. Jack Hodgins is a scientist who works with everything that no one else wants to touch—namely insects and filth—and is a conspiracy theorist in his spare time. Zack Addy is a doctoral intern studying under Dr. Brennan whose abundance of intelligence as well as lack of social skills is staggering.

What I enjoy most about this show is the gender role reversal of Booth and Bones. While she is grounded in fact and reason, he is driven by emotion, faith, and passion for his work. This makes for some great sparring. Frequently, Booth tries to assert himself as the big tough FBI agent, only to be emasculated by the cool and calculating Bones. They definitely have some kind of chemistry, which gets dragged through the season as they either deny that it’s true or fail to recognize it.

I wouldn’t want to turn this into a rave, because as much as I enjoy Bones it definitely has its faults. One is that sometimes their favorite themes get redundant and tiresome. I love Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz in their roles as Bones and Booth, but there are times when she is too bland and robotic and he is too hammy. Also, because they’re dealing with decomposing bodies, it can get pretty gross. (I try to avoid watching while I’m eating!) Finally there is one character, not mentioned previously, that I felt took away from the chemistry of the characters: Daniel Goodman is the director of the Institute where they work, and doesn’t seem to fit at all. He’s a paternal type who is loosely connected to the goings on. Also, the actor allows his Shakespearean training to surface way too often. Thankfully, this problem was remedied by his absence from season two.

Rating: 10

Overall, Bones is a show with engaging, funny characters and some interesting scientific nuggets. The episodes have a little something for everyone: the mystery of solving a murder, the humor of the workplace, the science of forensics, and the chemistry of an attractive male and female lead. What more could you ask for? (That’s rhetorical.)

Favorite Scene: Booth and Bones are discussing their murder investigation in New Orleans and the claims that voodoo played a role.

BOOTH: Voodoo. Who's going to believe that stuff?

BRENNAN: It's a religion. No crazier than – well, what are you?

BOOTH: Catholic.

BRENNAN: They believe in the same saints you do, and prayer. What they call spells, you call miracles. They have priests.

BOOTH: We don't make zombies.

BRENNAN: Jesus rose from the dead after three days.

BOOTH: Jesus is not a zombie! All right? Man. I shouldn't have to tell you that.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Into the Wild

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” This aphorism is intended to mean that when circumstances get harder, you have to rise to meet them, not run away from them. When you run away from your problems, they don’t go away. In fact, it usually creates more problems.

This is a truth which eludes Chris McCandless, the main character of Into the Wild, portrayed with skill by Emile Hirsch. Being a recent graduate of Emory University, he subsequently decides to donate his life-savings to charity, abandon his car out in Arizona, burn all the money in his wallet, burn his Social Security card, changes his name to Alexander Supertramp (I’m not kidding), and become a hobo. The language “hobo” is never used in the film (or the book it’s based on), but that’s what he is: a hobo. I shudder to think what he must have smelled like at the end of this movie.

Speaking of the movie, it was a simultaneously beautiful and frustrating experience. The main character is idealistic, childish, and ridiculously foolish. Ostensibly, Chris wanted to find God, or himself, or transcendence, or all of them in nature, to escape from the materialism of society, and seek the greater meaning of life. But really, he just wanted to get away from his family, meanwhile causing them a great amount of pain. He’s like a 7-year-old running away from home, only to Alaska instead of down the street. The hypocrisy of his motivations diminishes his actions.

Chris seems to be operating under one central idea: the misery of his life is caused by the people in it, so the solution would be to remove all people from his life. People = problems, so mathematically speaking, if the value of “people” is zero, then the value of “problems” must also be zero. But another truth which eludes him is that human connection means everything. All the beauty and transcendence of nature mean nothing if you don’t have another human to share it with. Now, this may seem like a no-brainer to you (it did to me), but Chris just doesn’t get it. He only realizes it at the very end of the movie, and his life, which only make the story more tragic.

To compound matters, Chris constantly meets people along the way that try to show him this truth, and are even living examples of this truth, examples that apply directly to him. The hippie couple who give him companionship; the young girl who lets him see a picture of what his life could be; the old man who shows him the meaning and effect of loneliness. They’re all trying to bring him out of his singularity to a place of glorious give-and-take, where he can truly love and be loved. But he squanders the opportunities they give him, and ultimately rejects their love.

Another reason this movie is frustrating is that the entire first half presents Chris’s journey of self-discovery as romantic, epic, and even exemplary. I have very little patience for people who think that the best way to solve society’s problems for themselves is to remove themselves from society. In Chris’s case, his no-going-back trek into nature wasn’t even born out of a genuine desire to find a higher state of being; he just wanted to get away from his dad. Towards the second half, the movie takes on a different tone, one in which the viewer realizes that nature isn’t all fun and games and kayaking without consequence to oneself. There are very real dangers to deal with, and you have to realize that you may have great reverence for nature, but nature doesn’t give two craps about you. Naïve people like Chris will eventually meet an end like his own.

There are some great performances in Into the Wild, including an Oscar nod-worthy turn by Hal Holbrook. The cinematography is simply breathtaking, and beautifully captures the grandeur and majesty of nature. Director Sean Penn has a gift for gentleness and an even hand. What he lacks is pace and a good film editor. I think the movie could have been about half an hour shorter or more, and is at times plodding. It also takes too many forays into the very stylistic, which I could have done without. It takes a long time to say what it has to say, and seems to be saying something completely different when it starts. I thought it had some great things to offer, but I ultimately thought the main character was too much of a naïve idiot for me to really enjoy it.

Iconic Lines:

“12 years? To paddle down a river?”

“What if I were smiling and running into your arms? Would you see then what I see now?”

“The freedom of simple beauty is too good to pass up.”

22 Rating: -3

Particle Man

Monday, September 28, 2009


Those who know me personally (or have read this blog before)are at least passingly familiar with my tendency to kvetch about the sad state of my favorite film genre, horror. So, there's no need to reiterate that old rant here, save that gore and shock are favored over atmosphere. But I've never talked much about films that did have that atmosphere in this space.....but that's changing. I'll start with one of my favorite films, and one of the most iconic, yet somewhat obscure, horror films ever made: Dario Argento's Suspiria.
Suspiria is the story of Suzy Bannion (Phantom of the Paradise's Jessica Harper), an American ballet student who arrives in Germany to study at a prestigious ballet school.....that may be run by a coven of witches. Like most of Dario Argento's films, the plot of Suspiria is not it's strong suit, though it bears mentioning that the story and acting are tighter here than in most of Argento's other works. What Suspiria's great strength is, is visual. One, it was the last film ever made in Technicolor, which I find a lot warmer than modern coloring systems. Two, this film has some of the strangest interiors I've ever seen, as far as the ballet school. It can be said in certain films that the location is an actual character......this was never truer than it is in Suspiria. This film has some of the strangest, most flamboyant sets you will ever see. Three, the lighting in Suspiria is the most dramatic I've ever seen in a film. Scenes are bathed entirely in bright, primary reds, blues, yellows, etc. Four, what Argento lacks in the department of structure and ability to direct actors, he makes up for in spades in the department of setting up a shot. His visual style remains largely consistent across his catalogue, which is notable considering that he has worked with several directors of photography. All of the above factors combine to make Suspiria the best-looking film I've ever seen, in any genre.
Special mention has to go to the soundtrack by Argento proteges/mainstays Goblin, who also scored the original Dawn of the Dead. The eerie main theme, with it's arpeggiated pedal point progression, is a clear inspiration to later iconic horror themes like Halloween and Phantasm.......and that's before you factor in the unusual use of the bouzouki and tabla on the title track. The rest of the soundtrack is about as strange, but you can't really get the impact from me telling you about need to hear it. It's truly decades ahead of it's time.
There are, however, a few things that keep Suspiria from being counted amongst the all-time great horror film greats by more mainstream tastes.......the events of the film aren't as tight as they could be. There's a lot that happens, mostly character death, that does little to nothing to move the story along or raise the stakes. Also, some may find the performances somewhat dated.
Despite that, Suspiria is a remarkable film, and one that I heartily recommend. I give Suspiria an 18 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Ensemble movies are one of the basic foundations of film since its inception. In the past 10 years or so, digital movies have become commonplace at the theater as well. Naturally, the combination of the two is a natural leap to make. 9 was not the first movie to do this, however; that would be Toy Story. 9 isn’t even the first of its kind in the digital serious sci-fi arena. The horrible Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within comes to mind, though there might even be one earlier. So 9 is original… how?

That’s not to say the movie was bad; it wasn’t. It just wasn’t all that creative. Post-apocalyptic world… check. Futuristic Matrix-like man vs. machine setup… check. Female character who could kick yours and everyone in the theater’s asses… check. All the elements are in perfectly in place, which may be a good thing or a bad one, depending on how easily satisfied with conventions you are.

The one big thing 9 had going for it was that all the characters were machines made out of burlap and watch gears. That was pretty creative. The look of the movie was spectacular; lush and vivid settings and interesting-looking characters were consistent throughout. It was also a little interesting and different to have all the principles’ names be numbers (there are 9 of them, hence the title). In fact, nobody in the film has an actual name. The story concept was pretty great, too; a scientist’s creations must carry on his last mission after his death. Tried and true, but with a little futuristic twist.

While the visuals were phenomenal, and the story idea had a lot going for it, 9 trips up in the plot and story presentation, especially the dialog. The voice actors are all awesome in real life (the film boasts the talents of Martin Landau, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Elijah Wood, and Jennifer Connelly), and they lend their awesomeness to the digital screen to a certain degree. However, they don’t have a whole lot to work with. The script is pretty weak, and it relies heavily on action and visual wow to carry the film. Dialog and character interaction are given a backseat, and it’s clear that not a lot of time or energy were put into them.

Slight spoilers here, so watch out. The story idea was great, but some story elements were poorly explained in the film. This goes back to the dialog being very substandard. Also, the concept of the 9 living machines all being parts of the Scientist’s soul was interesting, but not well thought through. Also, the only ones left at the end of the movie are the two kids, a male and a female. The assumption is that they will repopulate the earth (that whole “this world is ours” thing), but… they’re machines. Machines can't copulate. Or if they can, that belongs in a different movie.

I’m glad I saw 9 in the theater, because it was quite the visual spectacle. That alone was almost worth the price of admission (or at least it would have been if NYC theaters weren’t so damn expensive). If you don’t expect too much else from the film, though, you’ll at least get to see some great CGI, if nothing else.

Iconic Lines:

I must have mentioned at least twice that the dialog wasn’t very good, so I got nothin’.

22 Rating: 4

Particle Man

Friday, September 04, 2009

Eternal Sunshine is Real

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite movies, and easily belongs on the Top 10 list of movies of the decade. And it basically starts with this premise: What if we could erase painful memories?

Well, apparently science has once again caught up to filmmakers' imagination. According to this study, a team of researchers has figured out a way to erase the memories of rats. They trained the rats to associate a particular sound with an electric shock, so that eventually, whenever the rats hear the sound, they freeze. Adult rats never forget -- they always freeze. But when scientists injected a drug that's supposed to dissolve the protective sheath around the brain cells in the amygdala -- lo and behold -- the rats stopped freaking out when they heard the sound.

Now, this is being talked up as something that could become immensely helpful to those with PTSD. And I can certainly see that. But I also wonder how long it is before it goes from being PTSD specific to being prescribed to anyone who, like Joel and Clementine in Eternal Sunshine, are just sad about a lost relationship. In any case, it provokes the following questions: Should we erase memories at all? If so, what kinds? And who should be able to decide what kinds?

Anyone have any insights here?