Wednesday, January 6, 2010

December 2009

AVATAR (2009)
James Cameron’s new film, at least when seen in 3-D, made me think I was attending a Universal Studios attraction instead of a motion picture. Amazing experience, yes; great film, not even close.

In fact, one could make a case that creating a 3-D film is a completely different art form than directing a typical 2-D production. The effort spent to make the foreground pop out of the screen, flying ships and animals seem like they’re headed your way and characters move in 3-D clearly becomes the focus of the filmmakers rather than the composition, the storytelling and the character development that are essential to what makes a good film in the traditional sense. In essence, 3-D makes for an entertaining event but doesn’t do much to make the film better or worse. Cameron first feature in 12 years----since the multi-Oscar winning Titanic (1997) broke box-office records around the world----gives you a story and characters you’ve seen dozens of times before in a form you’ve never come close to experiencing. And clearly that’s the point.

“Avatar” turns out to be another version of the classic science vs. military that was so popular in the monster/sci-fi films of the 1950s. Inevitably, the scientists want to understand the alien (or the giant insect) and discover why it’s taken the form it has and is visiting our planet, while the military just wants to blow the damn thing up. If you’ve seen many of them, you know exactly how the plot plays out in “Avatar” and that it always turns out to be much harder to destroy those pesky invaders than the men with the guns ever imagine.

In this new film, set in mid-22nd Century, a science/military base near the planet Pandora has been established in part to study the blue-skinned, cat-eyed (they have long tails also), very tall and gangly Na’vi, but primarily to mine a very valuable mineral that lies beneath the planet’s surface. There’s no subtly offered here: it’s Big Business stealing from the native people and showing no qualms about devastating their land in the process.

Essentially, the Na’vi are the Indians and the military/science folks are the European invaders. That’s as complex as “Avatar” gets.

Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paralyzed Marine whose twin brother was part of this operation before he was killed in action. Jake is assigned to take his place, despite his lack of scientific training, the assumption being that the avatar created for his brother will respond to the twin’s DNA as well. How it works, is the human gets into a chamber in the lab and somehow is mind melted into the body of the Na’vi replica body down on the planet.

To his credit, Cameron doesn’t linger with the scientists or setup too long. In fact, on Jake’s first visit to Pandora he’s separated from the exploration group, headed by the chief science officer played by Sigourney Weaver, and is rescued from vicious wild beasts by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), an alluring Na’vi princess and taken into the tribe. She’s then assigned by the rulers to teach Jake the ways of the tribe’s warriors. At this point, it’s pretty clear where the plot is going.

Stephen Lang plays the ridiculously macho head of the team’s security force who’s itching to kick some Na’vi butt and eventually does, which results in an epic CGI battle that rivals some of those incredible battlefield scenes in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

The main attraction of “Avatar” is the incredible world Cameron creates on Pandora and he smartly lingers over the strange beasts and plants and the incredibly colorful landscape that the natives feel such a bond to, not unlike the way the American Indians revered the land. I can’t imagine anyone going to this film and not enjoying the experience.

You’re not there to see a complex, insightful movie and Cameron doesn’t make much effort to give you that. And while Cameron goes out of his way to paint the native people as sympathetic and the invading Earthlings as the ugly, thoughtless brutes, it still comes down to yet another film in which the white man, in this case Jake in his Na’vi body, has to save the native people. He becomes their greatest warrior and finds ways to battle the bad guys that the Na’vi never could have managed.

While Cameron’s point is that the native people should be left alone and their way of life respected he still can’t help utilizing the old cliché that it takes the ingenious outsider to save the locals. Couldn’t he have found a way to make Jake helpful to the Na’vi without making him both the action and romantic hero?

But then, I’m missing the point. The stock story and characters Cameron provides are good enough for what he was trying to accomplish. He’s not making great art, he’s making jaw-dropping entertaining and in that he succeeds tenfold.

UP IN THE AIR (2009)
This exceptional movie from Jason Reitman, who directed “Thank You for Smoking” (2005) and “Juno” (2007), manages to succeed as a smart, subtle comedy, an insightful study of a relationship-phobic man and an angry commentary on the country’s unemployment problem. Bringing it all together is a perfectly measured performance by George Clooney, whose relaxed confidence, amusing small talk and supreme professionalism as Ryan Bingham belies deep-seated reservations about his life.

He flies around the country doing the dirty work for companies who don’t want to layoff their own employees, bringing a slice of humanity to the unpleasant taste of telling workers they are no longer wanted. Yet he enjoys the routine of the job: airports, plane trips, hotels, the anonymous friendliness, all the while keeping, as he says in the seminars he gives on the side, his “backpack” light.

Then Ryan gets some bad news; his company plans to end the in-person service and start firing via video conferencing. Maybe because he objects to the idea so convincingly, his boss sticks him with the sure-of-herself recent grad who came up with the remote-firing idea and orders him to show her the ways of the job.

The inexperienced, tightly wound Natalie (Anna Kendrick in a superb performance) finds out that firing someone isn’t as clean cut as she imagined. And while he’s showing her the realities of the world, she provides a mirror of sorts for Ryan, as the shallowness of his life becomes clearer.

Muddying his uncomplicated life, he strikes up a relationship with Alex (Vera Farmiga), first in a wild one-night stand and then as they arrange to rendezvous whenever their schedules align. She seems to be his female counterpart; smart, uncommitted and constantly on the move and their bond matures when he takes her to his sister’s wedding in his Wisconsin hometown.

The superbly crafted screenplay by Reitman and Sheldon Turner ,from a novel by Walter Kim, doesn’t short-change any of the major character and even manages to turn Ryan’s two sisters and the bridegroom into memorable, well-drawn characters.

Farmiga as Ryan’s perfectly matched partner gives her most interesting and full realized performance since her breakthrough role in the indie “Down to the Bone,” while Kendrick has Natalie’s calculated view of the life down pat. But Clooney, as he does in most of his films, dominates every scene. While he’s no De Niro or Pacino or Sean Penn, this 48-year-old has developed the most engaging and versatile screen persona in film today, rarely failing to bring just the right energy and tone to the story. You never catch him “acting,” he just thoroughly inhabits his characters like the classic stars of the past.

In just the past 10 years, he’s starred in two hilarious Coen brother comedies (“O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “Intolerable Cruelty”), played the suave thief in three “Ocean” movies and given impressive dramatic performances in “Michael Clayton,” “Good Night, Good Luck,” “Solaris” and “Syriana,” which earned him an Oscar.

“Up in the Air” may be his best performance yet---it’s certainly his most complex. Ryan Bingham is the rare Hollywood film character who doesn’t end up figuring it all out. Life, even in the movies sometimes, isn’t nearly that easy.

Fashion designer Tom Ford, in his first venture into filmmaking, has crafted one of the most icily stylish, intelligent and affecting studies of deep depression you’re likely to see on film, adapting a story by Christopher Isherwood, (the British writer who also wrote the stories that served as the basis for “Cabaret”). Colin Firth, in the performance of his career, plays George, a gay college professor circa 1962 who has just lost his companion of 16 years in a car accident.

In sharp, minutely observed detail, Ford shows George as he struggles through a single day, fighting to find a reason to go on. Acerbic and bookish, but unsure of the point of his life, George, at first, seems like an indulgent bore, but Firth makes you care about him. Soon his every conversation, how he sits or holds his drink, even his choice of clothing, become fascinating in the way they offer clues to his state of mind.

In many ways, Ford’s filmmaking style is a throwback to the 1960s, favoring extreme close-ups and holding shots as if he’s exhibiting still photos. It can be pretentious, but in this film it works. And while Ford’s strength as a director is clearly his eye for images and the mise-en-scène design, he never lets the film became stagnant, even as the story takes on a dreamy, romantic style. He also smoothly incorporates George’s memories of his dead lover Jim, superbly played by Matthew Goode, to not only show how strong their love was but to help explain the sadness that continues to overwhelm George.

George’s best friend and fellow expatriate from London is Charley, a chic, hip, lonely alcoholic, played with ’60 panache and desperation by Julianne Moore, amuses him for awhile but mostly makes him more depressed as he makes his long day’s journey into night.

George’s friendship with an earnest, presumptuous student feels a bit too much like a literary device, but most of “A Single Man” is an intense and spotlessly painted character study featuring one of the year’s finest performances.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a designer for Gucci could produce a great looking movie, but what is surprisingly is that he has also written one of the year’s most insightful and complex screenplays and coaxed impressive performances from the entire cast.

It’s easy to miss: In the middle of this hackneyed, crowd-pleaser, Meryl Streep gives a nuanced, complex, wonderfully amusing and completely unaffected portrayal of middle-aged angst, giving life to a woman working through relationship issues while engaging in an affair with her ex-husband.

Streep plays Jane, successful owner of a fancy Santa Barbara bakery shop and mother to three seemingly problem-free children, who, after a night of drinking and reminiscing with her ex (Alex Baldwin) while they’re in New York to attend their son’s college graduation ceremony, ends up in his bed.

She assumes it’s just a one-time mistake and returns to her life in Santa Barbara, where an shy architect (a very stiff Steve Martin) makes a play for her while working with her on her house remodeling project. The usual comic complications and sitcom-like misunderstanding ensue (if you saw writer-director Nancy Meyers’ much better “Something’s Gotta Give” you know the jokes already) yet Street keeps adding layers to Jane, elevating the film to a level way beyond where its plot or dialogue take you.

Baldwin, an underrated actor who seems to get better with age, is perfect for this role as a self-obsessed jackass but, as written, he’s given little to do beyond begging his ex-wife for sex and looking depressed while dealing with his much younger, insufferable current wife and her son.

This film would be completely forgettable without the presence of Streep (the same can be said of “Julie & Julia”) who remains at the top of her game and more surprisingly, at age 60, has become a box-office draw.

There is much to admire about this heartbreaking story of a severely obese, sexual abused teenager living in abject poverty in Harlem. Not only is it one of the few films to give voice to a seemingly hopeless, unattractive African-American girl, but it refused to look away from the horrors that have condemned generations of poor inner-city minorities to the same fate as their parents and grandparents.

Yet director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (working from the novel “Push” by Sapphire) have heaped so much tragedy on this sad girl ironically named Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) that by the story’s end they’ve made it easy to dismiss the film’s valid observations. On top of that, some of the choices by Daniels, whose only previous credit as a director is the 2005 film “Shadowboxing,” do more harm than good: misplaced music, a disjointed structure and a handful of odd fantasy scenes more suited to a broad comedy, work to lessen the impact of the central story.

What he can’t diminish is the unforgettable portrayal of maternal evil by rap singer Mo’Nique. Mary is a welfare cheat who treats her daughter as a slave, repeatedly tells her she’s too stupid for school, encourages her to over eat and has allowed both Precious’ father and grandfather to molest the teen. Their dark, dingy apartment feels like a torture cell with Precious as the innocent victim of the deep-seated hatred her mother feels for the world.

Mo’Nique’s Mary rarely gets off the couch, but she fills every scene she’s in with an ominous sense of impending violence. The cold stare of Mo’Nique will send chills up your back along with reinforcing every racist stereotype of a welfare recipient.

Providing a light of hope in Precious’ bleak life is Blu (a very effective Paula Patton), a sensitive, inspiring teacher in a special learning program the teen enrolls in after being tossed out of public school when she becomes pregnant. Blu shows Precious she is capable of learning, worthy of love and ready to care for her children.

A deglamed Mariah Carey does good work as a social worker, but the script turns her welfare cubicle into an unlikely confessional for both Precious and her mother.

In most films, a character like Precious would be the object of a fat joke or two and then fade into the background. This movie turns that caricature into a real person and tries to explain the circumstances that have left her mentally and physically damaged. Despite its flaws, “Precious” puts a light on a subject rarely broached in a Hollywood film. Maybe, if this movie succeeds financially, more films seriously exploring the black experience will make their way to the screen.

While there seems to be little agreement on which films were the best of the just concluded decade---I’ll offer up my assessment next month---few would deny that the most dominate American filmmaker of the period has been Clint Eastwood. Never in Hollywood history has a septuagenarian directed so many entertaining, diverse, intelligent, memorable pictures. Since 2000, Eastwood, who turns 80 in May, made two great English-language films (“Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby”), a masterful Japanese movie (“Letters From Iwo Jima”) along with a handful of others that were among the best of their year (“Flags of Our Father,” “Gran Torino,” “Changeling” and “Blood Work”).

His latest doesn’t measure up to his best work, but it continues this former matinee idol’s on-going investigation of issues of race, here focusing on post-apartheid South Africa.

As the picture begins, longtime political prisoner Nelson Mandela, just elected president, is intrigued by the upcoming rugby World Cup to be held in Capetown. Mandela works with the popular captain and star of the national team, the Springboks, to turn their Cup run into a way to unite the country’s whites and blacks.

This is a very deliberate, straightforward story in which deep-seated conflicts seem to resolve themselves and long-held hatreds are overcome way too easily. It’s the surprising relationship between Mandela (a dignified, charismatic Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, a very convincing Afrikaner athlete) and what that represents in a changing South Africa that sustains the movie. Eastwood’s seamless direction and old-fashioned storytelling works beautifully when dealing with these two, but he missteps in his focus on Mandela’s integrated security team and the interminably long rugby scenes. And, at points, the movie tries so hard to win over the audience that it starts to feel like a made-for-TV tearjerker.

Freeman gives another memorable performance under Eastwood’s guidance (following his Ned Logan in “Unforgiven” and Scrap-Iron Dupris in “Million Dollar Baby, which earned him an Oscar), but it’s a bit too reverential to feel like a full, fleshed-out portrayal. Mandela’s strained relations with his family are referred to but never explored and he rarely says anything that doesn’t sound like a famous quotation.

While “Invictus” (the title comes from a poem that inspired the imprisoned Mandela) offers a glimpse at the problems faced by South Africa after white rule ended, it’s too safe, too predictably inspiring to spark the kind of fire the story needed and that we’ve come to expect from this great director.

SUGAR (2009)
Nowhere in the world is baseball more revered than in the Dominican Republic. This poor Caribbean island nation has seen so many of its sons become rich and famous in America through baseball that families can’t help but put all their hopes and dreams on any boy who can hit or throw better than his peers.

This low-keyed, unpretentious look at one young man’s journey from the D.R. to a mid-West minor league baseball town should be required viewing for any teenager from any country who imagines himself headed for big-league glory.

Miguel “Sugar” Santos, played with just the right combination of innocence and athletic confidence by Algenis Perez Soto (who himself played in the Dominican leagues) goes from a camp for prospects run by the fictional Kansas City Knights to the teams’ farm club in Iowa. There he boards with an elderly couple who are devoted fans of the team and regularly serve as hosts to foreign players. This isn’t a movie invention---locals have for decades offered inexpensive room and board to minor league players, a leftover from the days when baseball was a vital part of the country’s fabric.

Not only does Sugar struggle while adapting to American life and a new language, but he suddenly faces tougher competition on the field than he’s ever seen. And then, as has happened to thousands of other players with great potential, an injury takes him out of the starting rotation and off the radar of the team’s decision makers.

The film (mostly in Spanish with subtitles), written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind the excellent “Half Nelson,” suffers from its predictable, TV-movie plot lines and artless direction, but it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities these athletes face in their journey from coveted prospect to the big leagues. And the filmmakers have done a first-rate job of staging the baseball scenes, including Sugar’s pitching, and made the relationships between Sugar, his teammates and the family he lives with sincere and believable.

You don’t need to be a baseball fan to enjoy “Sugar”; it’s a tale of immigrant dreams and life’s realities, facing disappointments and making the best of it.

THE ROAD (2009)
This is the kind of movie that sustains my belief in Hollywood. While only partially successful---done in by the magnitude of its hopelessness---this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s painfully tragic, unadorned novel of a post-apocalyptic world shows that studio executives and filmmakers are still willing to take a chance on risky material.

Anyone who cares about American movies has to lament the recent proliferation of comic-book action, futuristic nonsense and crude sex comedies that fill most screens. Yet despite its reputation as the ultimate profit-obsessed industry, Hollywood studios gave the go-ahead for “The Hurt Locker,” “Synecdoche, New York,” and “The Wrestler” just to name a few films released in the past 18 months. And there was no bigger gamble than this attempt to turn McCarthy’s book into a film someone would pay to see.

No doubt the success of the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” also based on a novel by McCarthy, helped get “The Road” off the ground. But, to say the least, this nearly Biblical tale of a father and son seeking out food, shelter and safety as they journey to the sea has none of the fascinating characters, crackling dialogue or blood-letting action of “No Country.”

Viggo Mortensen plays the Man who, along with the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has been on the road for an undetermined length of time, forced to keep moving to avoid roving bands of cannibals and their never-ending search for more traditional sources of protein. The earth has been dying for at least 10 years, ravaged by earthquakes, fires, unpredictable weather and a permanent hazy gloom. Few humans are left, cities have been destroyed and life has become a day-to-day test of survival.

Not much happens to the father and son, but the moral decisions they face, more immediate and real in such dire circumstances, and how they hold on to their humanity anchors the film.

John Hillcoat, who previously directed the excellent Aussie western “The Proposition,” and screenwriter Joe Penhall do first-rate work in translating McCarthy’s compelling but simple narrative to the screen and both Mortensen and Smit-McPhee offer strong performances, creating very normal people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. In smaller roles, Charlize Theron as the wife/mother---seen in flashbacks---and Robert Duvall as a feeble old man bring some needed spark to the film’s monotony. Yet when the best possible outcome for these characters is to starve to death (or take their own lives) before the “bad guys” catch them, it’s hard to become emotionally involved.

On the page, “The Road” is powerful, impressively crafted fiction. Replicated as a visual drama, it becomes a more emotional experience, rather than the cerebral approach I believe the author intended, an inevitable consequence of putting faces to these anonymous characters. Usually, that’s the great strength of the cinema; in this case it gives us hope when there is none.

There are no Jerry Bruckheimer heroics or cool special effects in this film, just the unrelenting bleakness of a dead world and doomed characters. For me, the fact that “The Road” managed to get made turned out to be the one slice of hope the picture provided.