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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Back after a long absence

I'm back with some new articles.  Just in time for the Oscars come reviews for three Best Picture nominees.  Just keep in mind, as nice as I am to Avatar, I'm still rooting for Inglourious Basterds and Up. 

5:47 pm est          Comments

Avatar review

By Bob Garver

For this review, I’m going to try and coin a new term – “The History of Ever”.  What it really means is “ever”.  The visual, financial, and historical significance of “Avatar” (as well as most films from director James Cameron) require a term all their own.  Also, I’m going to use the term “gazillion”.  Again, James Cameron films are in a league of their own, they warrant a term all their own.

As we all know, James Cameron’s 1997 epic “Titanic” is currently the biggest movie in the History of Ever.  It made a gazillion dollars thirteen years ago, but Cameron hasn’t made another movie until now.  He’s had to take a long time and spend a gazillion dollars, but his work has paid off.  The film looks excellent and based on box office numbers so far, it looks like we’re going to have a new biggest movie in The History of Ever. 

The key to the film’s success is in its groundbreaking visuals.  The film offers otherworldly people, animals, plants, gizmos, geographic features, and actions.  Thanks to the imagination of the filmmakers, all these things are imaginative and impressive.  Not to mention convincing.  Your brain knows they’re all computer-generated, your heart will think they’re real.  It looks like there’s a gazillion dollars onscreen at any given moment, it’s hard to believe that, logically, there must have been entire sequences made for less than a million.  

It is perhaps appropriate for a film with such an overwhelming look to have such an underwhelming plot.  To put it simply, a soldier is sent undercover to learn what he can about a strange race.  Although greeted with hostility, he and the strange people come to be friends.  He even finds love with one of them.  His own people want to take action against the new race, and the soldier is forced to choose between home team or his new friends.  He realizes that his original side is evil and sides with the new race.  It is a plot that has been done many times before, from “Dances With Wolves” to “The Last Samurai” to “The Fast & The Furious” to many others.  But because it all takes place in a Cameron-created world, it takes on the tired plot in a way it’s never been done before.

Paraplegic slacker marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is called up to work for a corporate-sponsored military on a distant moon/planet called Pandora.  His job is to go undercover and investigate an alien race called the Na’vi, which are the closest things to humans on Pandora.  To disguise himself as a Na’vi, he fuses his body and mind with an Avatar, which is a robot designed to look like an alien.

Sully nearly gets eviscerated by Pandoran wildlife, but is saved by a Na’vi called Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).  She reluctantly takes him home to the rest of the Na’vi, where they wearily permit him to stay.  He soon learns to speak, love nature, and ride flying horse/dinosaurs like the Na’vi do.  And of course, he falls in love with Neytiri.  Soon after, the greedy humans who sent him announce plans to bulldoze the Na’vi in order to steal a precious mineral called Unobtanium.  Guess who Sully sides with.

Yes, the storyline is pretty basic.  The acting is pretty wooden as well, although the actors were probably covered in patches that were hooked up to machines by wires, so their awkwardness can be forgiven.  But to focus on traditional aspects like these is to miss the point of “Avatar”.  The film’s amazing look makes up for anything else it does wrong.  Not many films can get away with this, but “Avatar” can.  It might just be the best looking movie in the History of Ever. 
5:42 pm est          Comments

Up In The Air review
“Up in the Air” 
By Bob Garver
Sometimes when we’re trying to get a friend to try something new, we try and manipulate them by asking, “What’s the matter? Are you afraid you’ll like it?”  When we say this, we know that our friend is stepping out of their comfort zone, but secretly we think that they will like it enough not to mind.  We don’t think they’re putting anything on the line. 

“Up in the Air” tells the story of a man who goes out of his comfort zone to try something new and likes it.  But then this new thing is taken away from him and he feels worse off for it.  Was he right to be afraid of trying it in the first place?  This is an excellent topic for post-film debate and discussion, and there is no right or wrong answer. 

The film starts with Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in his comfort zone.  He is the best at what he does, which is going around the country telling people that they’re fired.  He is the best at telling people that they’re fired, but even better at going around the country.  He’s super-efficient at packing, getting through airport security, checking in and out of hotels, ordering in restaurants, and being a frequent flier.  The trade-off for this lifestyle is that he can’t have too many long-standing personal connections, but it’s a sacrifice he’s happy to make in exchange for a pampered life on the road on his company’s dime. 

Bingham works for a firm that specializes in renting out people who come to other companies and fire their superfluous employees.  The lousy state of the economy has ironically created a business boom for Bingham’s firm, a fact not lost on his boss (Jason Bateman), who rudely celebrates a “golden age” for the profession.  Things are so good, in fact, that hotshot executive Natalie (Anna Kendrick) suggests that the firm can finally afford to upgrade to a computer system that will allow their employees to fire people in distant cities from a single home office.  Threatened by the possibility of being grounded, Ryan frantically agrees to take Natalie on a firing tour to prove that the job doesn’t lend itself to remoteness.

Ryan also meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow professional traveler who understands what a life on the road means.  Their relationship starts out as a series of impulsive one-night stands, but soon they start going out of their way for each other.  Natalie points out that Ryan isn’t likely to find many more kindred spirits like Alex, and he hesitantly pursues a serious relationship with her.  Bingham steps out of his comfort zone to try love, temporarily forgetting how afraid he should be.  He comes to pay for this.

The film is the third feature for director Jason Reitman, and it is his third triumph.   His previous efforts include the quirky comedies “Juno” (2007) and “Thank You for Smoking” (2006).  The main characters in both “Smoking” and “Up in the Air” work in professions that make it hard for them to live with themselves.  Aaron Eckhart’s character in “Smoking” dealt with his heartlessness with humor, Bingham and Natalie have heavier hearts.  Bingham knows the job has its burdens, but has conditioned himself to move on.  The unprepared Natalie carries guilt and sadness around with her. 

“Up in the Air” is a film that takes a look at people who live anonymously.  The characters aren’t spies or something else unrelatable, they have jobs that you or someone you know might have.  The film asks you what you would do if you had the same lifestyle.  If nothing else, you can have a lot of fun studying what these characters do with their anonymous lifestyles. Since all you have to put on the line is the price of admission and two hours of your time, I can safely say that you may very well enjoy the film and you don’t need to be afraid of liking it. 
5:39 pm est          Comments

Blind Side review
“The Blind Side” 
By Bob Garver
There have been a lot of unfunny parody movies in recent years that have movie genres for titles.  “Date Movie”, “Epic Movie”, “Disaster Movie” and others are just mash-ups of elements from other, better movies with a few toilet gags thrown in.  “The Blind Side” might as well have been called “Inspirational Movie (About A Troubled Teen)”.  It isn’t a parody, but it is a mash-up of other, better movies, and it is painful to sit through. 

The film tells the story Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), currently best known as a tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.  It takes place during his high school career, as he attends a snooty private school where he is in way over his head socially and academically.  He has a physical advantage over the other students, though, and excels as an athlete despite inexplicably lacking an aggressive side. 

Off the field (and he can’t even play because of his grades), his life is a mess.  He’s been in and out of foster homes since his drug-addicted mother lost custody of him when he was young.  He has a learning disability, which prevents him from doing school work and makes him appear slow-minded in the eyes of his teachers.  His hulking frame makes him intimidating, and he has a hard time making friends.  Given the time of year, it is appropriate to say that he’s actually about as threatening as Santa Claus.  His life is going nowhere, but then Sandra Bullock steps in and turns everything around. 

Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, the affluent mother of a kid who goes to a school near Michael’s.  She and her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) see Michael walking home in the rain one day and invite him to spend the night.  The family takes to him instantly, and soon he’s spending Thanksgiving with them, then he gets his own room at their place, then they’re supporting him in his football career, then they’re paying for him to get into a good college.  In short, he becomes a member of their family and all his dreams come true.  Don’t call that a spoiler, we know he makes it to the Ravens somehow. 

Look at all the types of Inspirational Movies (About A Troubled Teen) we have going on here.  We have the Sports Movie, the Kid From the Ghetto Movie, the Struggling Student Movie, the Social Misfit Movie, and the Outsider Makes A Family Complete Movie.  Plus, Leigh Anne loves to chew out men who talk rudely to her and Michael.  Her character is basically a cross between Julia Roberts’s “Erin Brockovich” and Kyra Sedgwick’s character on “The Closer”.  So we have a Female Lead Who Isn’t Afraid To Speak Her Mind Movie as well. 

The film climaxes with a conflict so ridiculous that the filmmakers must have been out of all the good ideas for building suspense.  An NCAA official accuses the Tuohys of “harvesting” Michael as a candidate for football at Ole Miss (their alma mater).  Here’s what somebody needs to say during their very first conversation, “We like Ole Miss, we speak highly of Ole Miss, Michael has spent a lot of time with us, he thinks highly of Ole Miss too”.  The conflict could have ended right there, but the film drags an unnecessary half hour out of this situation before someone thinks of saying what should have been said in the first place. 

People are actually talking about Academy Awards for “The Blind Side”.  I know that sappy, uplifting films are usually Oscar bait, but the film doesn’t have anything original to say.  There are good Inspirational Movies, there are bad Inspirational Movies, then there are bland Inspirational Movies like “The Blind Side”. 
5:36 pm est          Comments

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