Saturday, December 26, 2009

'Avatar' is an amazing visual achievement

Writer/director James Cameron has always been a filmmaker that tries to improve and expand visual effects. His back-to-back films "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2" made giant leaps forward for digital effects. His last film "Titanic" utilized computers to recreate the infamous boat. Now with “Avatar,” his first narrative in 12 years, he has created an extraordinary technical and visual achievement that is a massive step forward in the burgeoning motion capture technology.

Motion capture, which uses special censors that allow computers to animate over an actor's performance, was most recently employed in Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol. ” As was true with Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” the technique created an eerie living wax figure effect.

The technique can be effective — as with Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” — but the way Zemeckis has been utilizing it has been less than convincing. With all this in mind, many went into “Avatar” with justifiable skepticism especially since the film is the most expensive ever made with a budget of $300 million.

That’s a lot of money up on screen, but it appears to be well spent. Cameron and his effects team have pushed the motion capture technology and computer generated effects to new and fully convincing levels. Alien creatures, both humanoid and beastly, and in many cases the landscapes in which they roam, are completely computer generated and you don’t doubt it for a second.

So, does the story justify all the technology that is thrown at it? While not the most astounding plot, the film does tell an interesting, if familiar, story. On a distant moon called Pandora, a military run settlement of Earthlings has an unease relationship with the Na’vi, the blue skinned native race. The reason for the settlement is to extract a valuable energy source.

Humans are unable to breathe on Pandora, but through avatars that are controlled through the mind and look like the natives it is possible to roam around and interact with the locals. This is great news for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine who gets to do all the things he no longer can in his real life as well as a few things he could only dream of doing. Jake is chosen by a local tribe to learn their ways under Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, “Star Trek”).

The Jake character follows an arc similar to “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai.” When his military decides to take the Na’vi land by force he must choose sides. It is no surprise what side he picks.

The final third of the film involves this battle and while it is thrilling it also when the film becomes the most cliché. Stephen Lang’s (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) villainous colonel is a one dimensional gung-ho military blowhard that in some respects recalls Tom Berenger’s character from “Platoon,” but with none of that film’s substance.

All the Na’vi characters and the avatars are computer animated actors, but do not look like walking cartoons. They look, for lack of a better word, real and after a while you simply accept it. You also accept the dragon-like creatures they fly on in some of the film’s most stunning and breathtaking sequences.

Worthington, who stole this summer’s “Terminator Salvation,” but still remains relatively unknown, gives another solid performance both as Jake Sully and his avatar counterpart. He has a way of being introspective and hint at his inner thoughts. Plus he’s just one of those actors that is easy to almost instantly identify with.

The rest of cast is filled with reliable actors like Michelle Rodriquez and Sigourney Weaver, doing a variation of her tough-as-nails “Aliens” persona, which makes sense since Cameron also directed that film. Weaver has some of the best lines in the film.

The film is letdown from greatness by some of the same awkward dialogue and plotting that was in “Titanic,” but regardless this is an extraordinary looking film that is well acted. Visually this undeniably compelling and absolutely needs to be seen, especially for fans of the sci-fi and adventure genres.

Friday, December 18, 2009

10 favorite songs of the decade

As the decade comes to close let's take a moment to look back on some of the best song from the first 10 years of the 21st century.

“Yellow” - Coldplay (2000)
With Radiohead moving away from the purer joys of Brit pop on their acclaimed “Kid A” a need was left that Coldplay filled. “Yellow” is a simple and honest love song and although it only hints at what would come from the band, it remains one of their most endearing songs.

“Thank You” - Dido (2001)
The song first appeared in 1998, but wasn't officially released as a single until 2001 after the song was sampled on Eminem's “Stan.” The song became a hit in its own right and for good reason: it is a sweet, unpretentious song about how being loved can make your day.

“Fell in Love With a Girl” - The White Stripes (2002)
Clocking in at less than two minutes, the song is an infectious blast of fast, furious, raw rock that heralded the mainstream arrival of The White Stripes, a duo that can rock harder than some full bands.

“Hey Ya” - OutKast (2003)
OutKast is one of the more inventive hip hop acts of the decade and “Hey Ya” is their pinnacle, an inordinately catchy track that masks some painful break up lyrics. Of course there's also that wonderful breakdown: shake it like Polaroid picture.

“Take Me Out” - Franz Ferdinand (2004)
The song starts out with a piercing repeated basic guitar riff before making one of the most fantastic transitions of the decade. “Take Me Out” morphs into a thumping dance track for the rock crowd with ambiguously dark lyrics.

“Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” - KT Tunstall (2005)
A deceptively simple song that with some well placed “woo hoos” and a catchy beat became one of the more surprisingly hits of 2005. Featuring lyrics that are smarter than the average pop song, it reminds that pop music doesn't need to be superficial.

“Crazy” - Gnarls Barkley (2006)
Gnarls Barkley, a collaboration between hip-hop artist Cee-Lo and producer Danger Mouse, produced one of the truly great songs of the decade, a massive crossover hit that sounds both classic and modern. It is a seemingly indestructible song. I've heard at least a dozen covers in varying style and the song always works.

“1234” - Feist (2007)
Feist bounced around the indie music scene for years, but, thanks to an assist by an iPod commercial, “1234” propelled her into the mainstream in a big way. With its childlike lyrics like “1, 2, 3, 4 tell me that you love me more” and cheery acoustic sound it is an undeniable feel-good song.

“A-Punk” - Vampire Weekend (2008)
Vampire Weekend blends “Graceland”-era Paul Simon with the the quirker tendencies of artists like Peter Gabriel, who they name check in another song, to create a sound not entirely their own, but one that is sorely lacking from radio. This is a quick, fun danceable track.

“1901” - Phoenix (2009)
This French band released a few albums this decade with moderate success, but this year's “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” struck a cord. “1901” is a solid pop song that hooks you quick and holds on. It will make you bop your head and feel happy.

Favorite films of the decade: Part 2

Welcome to part two of my look back at my 21 favorite films of the first decade of the 21st century.

“Shaun of the Dead” (2004)
Imagine a British romantic comedy with a slacker trying to win his ex-girlfriend back. Nothing special, right? Now add zombies into the mix. This is the movie that introduced American audiences, to the joys of Simon Pegg and his best mate on and off camera, Nick Frost. They are a dynamic comedic duo in a genre parody that doesn’t forget to create characters that we actually care about.

“Kill Bill Vol. 2” (2004)
Quentin Tarantino's tribute to chopsocky films and spaghetti westerns was originally one very long film, but in an attempt to make more money the film was split in two.“Vol. 2” is the more talky of the two with a brilliantly charismatic performance by David Carradine. What started out as just stylish fun in “Vol. 1” becomes surprisingly affecting by the end of “Vol. 2.”

“Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)
The film was advertised as a madcap road movie and a parody of beauty contests, but this look at a dysfunctional family runs deeper. The idiosyncratic family is believably brought to life by Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin and Toni Collette. This is a feel-good film that mines its humor from reality and the sort of movie that will make you laugh and cry, maybe even at the same time.

“Pan's Labyrinth” (2006)
Thanks to “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter,” this was the decade that saw the return of the fantasy film. For me, though, this is the best example of the genre. A girl escapes to a dark, scary fantasy world that is still more appealing than reality: fascist Spain in 1944. The endlessly imaginative writer/director Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a fairy tale in the original, slightly twisted tradition. It is a disturbing, but beautiful film.

“Stranger Than Fiction” (2006)
“Saturday Night Live” alum Will Ferrel became a big star early on in the decade in comedies like “Anchorman” and “Elf,” but here he reveals he can be more than just a goof. The ingenious premise has a man hearing a woman (Emma Thompson) narrating his life. The film is funny and features a sweet romance with Maggie Gyllenhaal, but it is also thoughtful and philosophical in surprising and moving ways.

“Children of Men” (2006)
Few films of the decade struck me as profoundly as this one. This is science fiction deeply rooted in reality and a cautionary tale of weight and depth. In the future, women have become infertile, but hope comes from the first pregnancy in 18 years. Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore and others desperately fight to bring the mother to a safe haven. It isn't easy viewing, but absolutely rewarding in the end.

“No Country For Old Men” (2007)
The Coen Brothers, the quirky filmmakers behind such films as “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski,” serve up an extremely faithful reworking of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a man who stumbles upon a satchel of money from a drug deal gone wrong and the unrelenting killer that comes after him. With Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem created one of the most memorable villains of this decade, or any decade for that matter.

“Juno” (2007)
In this fresh and endearing comedy, a smart, sardonic 16-year-old (Ellen Page) becomes pregnant and decides to give the baby up for a adoption to a seemingly perfect couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). Some claim the film’s dialogue is too clever, but it is all about the delivery and the fantastic Page nails the tone. The film inches up on the predictable, but takes a sharp left into an ending that is completely satisfying.

“Across the Universe” (2007)
The musical genre was revived thanks to the success of films like “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago,” but this is the one I keep returning to. A musical comprised entirely of Beatles songs is a dangerous endeavor to undertake, and, while Julie Taymor’s film is flawed, it is also ambitious, visually stunning and has flashes of brilliance. The film is a joy for Beatles fan, with re-interpretations of classic songs that are at times thrilling.

“The Dark Knight” (2008)
This was the decade of the superhero movie with “Iron Man” the “X-Men” and “Spiderman” all getting worthy adaptations, but “The Dark Knight” stands above the rest. The second film in director Christopher Nolan's reboot of the “Batman” franchise is a fully realized crime epic that deepens previously presented themes. The film is fueled by the late Heath Ledger’s extraordinary performance as the Joker, a performance that is the stuff of legends.

“Up” (2009)
Pixar Animation has the most consistent track of any film company working today with each film better than the last. “Up” stars a grumpy widower (Ed Asner), who when threatened with a retirement home uses thousands of balloons to convert his home into a flying house and sets off to South America. The film is bright and funny, but has an emotional resonance that few animated films achieve.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Favorite films of the decade: Part 1

As we quickly approach the end of the year, we also grow closer to the conclusion of the decade. With the end of a decade comes retrospectives and I offer mine in the form of a two-part list of my 21 favorite films of whatever this decade was called. Why 21? Because this was the first decade of the 21st century. There is logic behind my madness.

“High Fidelity” (2000)
John Cusack co-produced, co-wrote and starred in this sharp adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel about music obsession and the confusion of love. Cusack's recently dumped Rob Gordon tries to figure out where he went wrong by looking back at his past disasters. The film is honest and insightful about relationships and often hilarious with Jack Black in his breakout role. This is perhaps the definitive romantic comedy of the decade.

“Almost Famous” (2000)
Writer/director Cameron Crowe's autobiographical love note to rock and roll fictionalizes his real-life experience working as a writer for Rolling Stone as a teen. Some complained this a rose-colored look at the 1970s, but it is the nature of nostalgia to remember and enhance the best parts. This is a warm and funny film with terrific performances from Frances McDormant, Jason Lee, Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman and a never better Kate Hudson.

“The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)
Writer/director Wes Anderson, whose “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is currently in theaters, followed up his breakthrough hit “Rushmore” with this look at a dysfunctional family of former prodigies. Anderson perfected his deadpan, quirky style and his ability to jump between comedy and drama within the same moment. The great ensemble cast includes Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover and Bill Murray.

“Ocean's Eleven” (2001)
This was the decade in which Hollywood went remake and sequel crazy, but here's a remake done pitch perfect and actually spawned two worthy sequels. Director Steven Soderbergh has made a career of balancing indie projects with Hollywood films, but luckily he brings the same vitality to all his projects. This is an all style film that works thanks to the charismatic all-star cast that includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Casey Affleck and Carl Reiner.

“28 Days Later” (2002)
Thanks to the adaptation of the video game “Resident Evil,” the zombie genre was resurrected, but it was this English import that made the genre relevant again. Director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland balance social commentary with scares and add humanity and beauty to the mix. Shot on digital video, the film has a gritty, realistic feel especially in the opening scenes in which Cillian Murphy walks through a completely deserted London.

“The Bourne Identity” (2002)
A spy thriller with a twist: The trained assassin has no memory, but retains all his skills. It was no surprise that Matt Damon was able to bring a lot of humanity to the character of Jason Bourne, but what was a shock was how well Damon handled himself in the fight sequences. Along with the “Ocean” movies, this would go on to spawn one of the decade's few consistently solid franchises.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)
A movie based on a Disneyland ride could have been nothing more than an extended advertisement, but what may have been never was thanks to a brilliantly off-the-wall characterization by Johnny Depp. Depp's Jack Sparrow is a true original, one of the all-time great characters. Geoffrey Rush as his main adversary is nearly his match and their double act is a lot of fun. The two sequels attempted to replicate the magic, but largely missed the mark.

“Lost in Translation” (2003)
Writer/director Sofia Coppola's second film was a perceptive, quietly funny and lovely film about two lonely people, an actor (Bill Murray) and a photographer's wife (Scarlett Johansson), who connect while in Japan. This is a love story, but not in any conventional ways. Even familiar plot developments don't play out as one might expect. Murray is as funny as ever but also much more, and Johansson proves to be a perfect foil.

“School of Rock” (2003)
Much like Soderbergh, director Richard Linklater is a filmmaker that balances smaller projects with more mainstream work. Linklater brings an edge to all his films that rises what could be very standard material to a higher level. Jack Black, in a role written for him, is hilariously perfect as a wannabe rocker turned substitute teacher who transforms his students into a rock band. This is a prime example of a formula movie that works extremely well.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)
The wonderfully weird and wholly original writer Charlie Kaufman takes on the idea of memory itself in a film about a man (Jim Carrey), who decides to have the memories of an ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) erased. Both actors beautifully play against their respective types with Carrey giving an understated and believable performance. Largely taking place in Carrey's mind, director Michel Gondry's execution of the film is inventive and full of imaginative visuals.

Friday, December 04, 2009

'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is aptly named

Much like the recent adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” director Wes Anderson's take on Roald Dahl's “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is marked by a sophistication and an unwillingness to pander that is lacking for most kid-friendly entertainment.

As with the Pixar films, this is an animated feature with substance.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the latest film to utilize stop-motion animation, a technique dating back to the original 1933 “King Kong,” in which models are slowly moved one painstaking shot at a time.

This isn't the first time Dahl has been given the stop-motion treatment. That honor goes to 1996's “James and the Giant,” which was directed by Henry Salick, who also directed Tim Burton's “Nightmare Before Christmas,” one of the most popular and memorable stop-motion animated films. Salick, who provided stop-motion animated creatures for Anderson's “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” was set to collaborate with Anderson again for “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” but made “Coraline” instead.

Anderson is a rare modern director who is a true auteur. He has developed a distinct style, tone and themes that he continues to utilize. His films are marked by a dry, deadpan sense of humor and walk the line between comedy and pathos. Throughout his films, which include “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” he explores how dysfunctional families manage to function in spite of deceit, distance and other dubious behavior.

Dahl's children's novels, which include such popular book-to-film adaptations as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Witches,” and “Matilda,” always featured sinister undertones. Things would always work out, but as an author he had no problem sending his young protagonists into dark territory. Oddly enough the mash up of Dahl and Anderson's sensibilities works creating a film with a fresh voice.

The plot centers on Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a retired chicken thief turned journalist, who comes out of retirement for one last heist, or rather three: the local farmers Bean, Boggis and Bunce. The farmers don't take kindly to the pilfering and wag war against Mr. Fox and his family. Mr. Fox and the other animals in the valley are forced to literally go underground.

Anderson utilizes this framework to explore his usual themes. Anderson has transformed the titular Mr. Fox into his familiar flawed patriarch and added a rivalry between Mr. Fox's son (Jason Schwartzman) and his nephew (Eric Anderson). Lessons are learned and there's a familiar moral that we should embrace our differences. This can be an eye-rolling message when in the wrong hands, but Anderson delivers it in a way that feels honest.

Adults have a tendency to dismiss animated movies as just for kids, but this a film that will probably appeal more to parents than kids. The dialogue is very much pitched at adults. Anderson uses an amusing gimmick of substituting the word cuss in the place of all profanities. My personal favorite: cluster-cuss.

There's still plenty of bright, colorful and imaginative action and slapstick antics to keep kids in the audience appeased. The complicated game whackbat, the use of tranquilizer-laced blueberries to dispose of attack dogs and the way in which the animals ravenously eat their food should tickle the funny bone of kids and adults alike.

The voice acting, which also includes Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox, Michael Gambon as Bean, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson, is splendid. Traditionally, voice-over actors are kept separated in their own little booths, but Anderson had his actors recorded together. Does this make a drastic difference in the vocal performances? It isn't hugely noticeable, but the caliber of the performances is excellent, so perhaps it did make an impact.

As for the animation, the style seems to be a throwback to stop-motion of the 1960s, similar to the kind used for such beloved holiday specials as “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.” The animation here is vastly more refined and intricate with astounding detail on the puppets but at the same time is not as polished as Salick's “Coraline.” It works, though, as it gives the film a more of a homemade feel that really is delightful.