Avatar Review

My draw group talks about movies and TV a lot, and whenever we mentioned upcoming movies, Avatar came up. As such, Alex has told me at least 5 times, “This is the movie that James Cameron has wanted to make for 15 years but has been waiting for the technology to get good enough to do it.” Well, I think the technology is pretty good now.

Avatar is set on Pandora, a wild, alien moon where humans have come to mine for unobtainium. They, however, have to deal with the wildlife and the Na’vi, a blue humanoid race who live on top of a large deposit of unobtainium. Jake Sully, an ex-marine, is connected neurologically to a Na’vi body and is sent to join the Na’vi clan and convince them to move.

Visually, the movie is stunning. Going for the full experience, I went for a 3D IMAX showing, and although the 3D effects aren’t perfect, I was still amazed 2 hours in the movie whenever an object appeared to race to 5 feet in front of my face. Almost of all Pandora is computer-generated, yet the plants and animals never seem cartoony. They ensured that certain aspects, from bio-luminesence to breathing vents, maintain the same, extra-terrestrial feel. Add in a soundtrack that is so strange yet almost familiar (and a musical score from James Horner), and you will be immersed in the world.

The detail doesn’t stop with Pandoran life, however, as it also extends into Na’vi culture. It’s time that you all forget your Klingon and Elvish, for Na’vi is the new invented language to listen to. The Na’vi are technologically primitive, so they naturally have involved rituals and mystical beliefs. I’ll let you see what they do for yourselves, but pay attention to the details of the Na’vi because their culture is fully developed.

What I felt wasn’t as well developed are the characters. Although I can sympathize and understand many of them, I was never surprised. My friend Trey described the military as very “G.I. Joe,” which sounds about right. Early on, you see the conflict between the Colonel and lead scientist (Sigourney Weaver, who even proudly a shirt from her alma mater!), and it’s easy to slot each of the characters into their roles. Many of them are one-dimensional, and those who change do so in predictable ways. Even so, individual performances were strong, even through computer-augmentation into Na’vi.

One last thing I would like to mention is that I think that the sci-fi and fantasy elements were dealt with very well in this movie. Oftentimes, sci-fi movies will get in a trap of trying to explain too much about how the technology works or how this phenomena makes sense. Avatar certainly relies on far-out technology to explain how these humans can control Na’vi bodies and how Pandora as a whole works, yet never make that a big deal. Instead, we’re only given the principle for how it all works, and that’s good enough to understand the idea of the movie.

Overall, I would peg Avatar as a “worth it, but not the whole package.” If you’re in it for experiencing Pandora and seeing what 3D can do now, you’ll love it, but know that you’ve probably heard this story before.

I have a bit more to say after you’ve seen it, so there are some minor spoilers here that I just want to throw out there.

I’m happy that James Cameron got to make this movie, but I think he had too much time to make it. By that, I mean that the pieces fit together too well.

In my English class, we talked about how in nonfiction, not everything makes sense. You can’t understand the whole world in one go, and parts of it are just inexplicable, from why the grass is cut to why Joey tripped Jimmy back then. This happens to be something that you might even need to go out of your way to fix in fiction, for in a fictional world, everything can be coherent. I know it goes against Chekhov’s Gun, but fiction sometimes feels fake for not having any loose ends.

And I think that’s one thing that bothered me a lot about Avatar. When Jake goes back to capture and bond with the big bird, I knew that James Cameron was one of those sort of writers, and I was searching my memory to figure out what other detail he had left in there that he was going to bring back. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t catch it in time, but it absolutely happened with the turning point of the battle, and that made me tremendously sad that he did it.

(As my psych prof would say), “All of this is to say that” I didn’t think the movie was great (though still good) because it was canned. The characters were canned, the plot is a classic, and not even the twists made me think. Oh, and the end of the movie was absolutely predictable (though I’m trying to think if I would’ve been more satisfied with any other ending). So yeah, looks good, not a so great as a story.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Review

(in the spirit of reviews, I’ll try to dodge spoilers, even if the ending to this Harry Potter book was an internet frenzy)

It’s been awhile since I saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but a quick refresher from my last review reminds me that I didn’t like it. The movie felt very angsty, and the somewhat serious tone it took made it largely unbearable. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the plot still revolves teenage wizards growing up and dealing with their issues, but a shift towards a funny awkward tone makes it bearable enough to be fun for 2 1/2 hours.

While thinking about what I would put in my review, I realized I couldn’t think of a one sentence plot summary. Actually, I don’t think the movie is about much at all, but that’s okay because the movie is really only meaningful within the context of Harry Potter movies that you should’ve seen. To make any sense of the movie, you likely need to have either read all of the previous books or watched all of the movies as this movie does pretty true to the book. That means the plot starts in the middle of this epic without any exposition and relies heavily on known character traits.

Granted, I read the book once when it came out, so the details are fuzzy, and maybe it isn’t so true to the book. Several of the Tom Riddle memories have been cut out, and the circumstances of the love story change. One quality I think the movie captured well is the lack of content until the final scenes. Part of the lack of plot is that there isn’t a lot of direction to many of the scenes. Potter is vaguely helping Dumbledore on his quest to defeat Voldemort, and it’s not clear how his interest in Ginny is related. Like the book, the movie meanders between characters and events, only trying to tie meanings together at the end.

The good news, though, is that even if nothing happens, it’s still a lot of fun. Just like the book, I always wanted to get to the next scene, and the two hours passed very quickly. When Ron sits down with a pie between Harry and Ginny just before they have a “moment”, there’s something familiar and funny about being somewhere you shouldn’t be. Perhaps it’s more fun for me because it genuinely sounds like a story my friend might tell me about last weekend, so I should warn that the movie might feel longer than the lines at the DMV if you don’t enjoy or appreciate the awkward moments, because that’s all it is.

The tone is particularly well-targeted, though. Looking around in the theater, I think almost everyone in the audience was somewhere between 15 and 25. Had I watched this movie when I was in 8th grade, I definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, but the humor feels like something that would happen in high school. Kids around my age are the ones who grew up reading these books, so it seems natural that each movie about a wizard boy growing up should change its tone as its audience grows up as well.

I was actually unsure whether I wanted to go to a midnight showing, but I think it was worth it just for the audience participation. Since the theater was probably half dormmates and half similarly aged students, we all had similar reactions, including roaring laughter at a particularly poorly worded sequence suggesting inappropriate relations between Snape and Draco. I probably could’ve done without the shrieking when the movie began, but a sarcastic and cruel “haw haw” (think Nelson from The Simpsons) legitimately made the movie better. Even if I missed some dialogue when everyone was laughing, I’m certain that the movie is better seen in a group.

Except for the lack of a plot and suspense (since it wasn’t clear what there was to be worried about), the movie was well-produced. The special effects were exactly what you would expect from a Harry Potter movie, so not revolutionary, but still pleasing. There wasn’t much quidditch, but the scenes looked great. The acting was solid, including some excellent background characters. For those who love the lore and world of Harry Potter, you’ll be disappointed to find out that the movie trivializes the presence of many characters, such as Hagrid and Neville. Those were the actors that did the best job, in my opinion. The young Tom Riddle was perfectly creepy, and Luna was just as much fun as in the last  movie.

So the bottom line is that you should continue to do what you’ve been doing. If you haven’t followed Harry Potter up until now, this movie isn’t amazing enough that you have to catch up. It may be the best Harry Potter movie, but it’s still just an okay movie on its own merits. Fortunately, it’s not only on its own merits, so if you’ve seen all the other movies, definitely make your way out to this one. And take a couple angst-ridden teenagers with you for laughs.

Star Trek Review

I had only just gotten out of my seat, not even to the aisle, before I already wanted to see the sequel.

This evening, my dormmates and I went to a late 11:00 showing of “Star Trek.” Having watched the trailers, I got the gist of the movie. We were going to rewind all the way to young Kirk and Spock where they would fight some great Romulan threat. And as soon as the movie begins, you can see the massive Romulan ship as it destroys the Federation starship from where Mrs. Kirk escapes while giving birth. Having just seen “Wolverine” last week, I was in the mindset to immediately jump into the action, and it felt good to get the rush in a legitimate way. Sometimes, it’s good enough just for the action to look amazing. But it works out much better when it’s actually well done as well.

Watching the movie, it’s clear that it’s not your traditional Trek. Indeed, the cast including Sylar, Harold from “Harold & Kumar,” Hot Fuzz, the oracle from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” an assassin from “The Bourne Supremacy,” and some guy from “Princess Diaries 2” doesn’t sound like it’ll work. Obviously no one in the world can be Captain Kirk like William Shatner, yet it absolutely works better that Chris Pine doesn’t try. Instead of the vaguely cheesy style of classic Trek, he actually plays a believable character faithful to the cockiness and humor of Kirk, without the halting speech. Karl Urban does just as good a job pulling off a McCoy accent and maintaining his cantankerous nature. The best acting, however, came from Zachary Quinto as Spock, who’s inner conflict as half-human and half-Vulcan comes off in a truly believable way.

Another major tip-off that they weren’t going to stick to classic Trek aspects is the completely re-designed look of the ship and bridge. From the clips in the preview, you can see that the crew is no longer working on boxy, black-and-white displays, but actually have something that looks sharper than an iPhone. Even so, the general layout of the bridge remains the same with the captain’s chair in the middle, viewscreen straight ahead, and the crew in a circle around that. Combined with flawless special effects integration, and the visuals won’t disappoint.

More importantly, I think the movie works because of how it decides to maintain the Star Trek feel. It would’ve been very easy for the producers to just re-hash Star Trek in all its glory one more time. Find the old props and throw them in. Keep the transporter effect. Use the same costumes. Tell the same jokes in the same ways. But instead, they amazingly tastefully discarded just about anything unnecessary from Star Trek and kept only the spirit to appease the trekkies.

So the pace of the movie is remarkably unlike that of any Star Trek to date. It’s hip, it’s sexy, it’s dramatic, it takes itself seriously. Not to say it doesn’t stick to a couple good laughs for old time’s sake. But when Scotty yells, “I’m giving her all she’s got!”, he actually means it. The token gestures to classic Trek lines might or might not be familiar to you, though if not, I’d bet that the only reason why’d you know is the trekkie snickering in the corner at a seemingly random time.

The verdict is that this movie is fantastic. Screw the fact that it’s Star Trek; it’s a damn good movie on its own merits. Argue whether the Star Trek universe actually has the merit to pull something like this off; I don’t care. It’ll run the full gamut of amazement, humor, action, and empathy that you want a movie to make you feel. My vote’s in; cross-referenced with my “favorite movies” on Facebook, it’s the best movie I’ve seen

And I’m so glad for it, because for the first time in human history, it’s cool to be a trekkie.

Wolverine Review

Many of you probably haven’t seen the movie yet, but promise me, you’ve seen this movie before. Though perhaps not quite so shamelessly.

It was fun. I can promise that. My dorm organized a trip to see “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” this evening, mostly because of the trailer. Like any good action trailer, it flashes a series of clips of epic fight scenes and makes you want to see the entire scene play out. And given that the movie is only about about an hour and 45 mins, you can imagine that there’s not a lot else happening in the movie.

The movie follows Wolverine’s life before the events of the X-Men trilogy movies. If you remember from those movies, he has flashbacks about getting the adamantium metal bound to his skeleton, and Jean Grey comments that his accelerated healing means his age is indeterminate. This movie starts to fill in the holes in his history, going back to his relationship with Stryker and Sabretooth. The revenge theme and plot twists end up being somewhat predictable for the movie. Several different battles show off the superpowers of many well-loved superheroes, but they as well appear as token action elements, and no one other than Wolverine is significantly developed throughout the movie.

But that doesn’t really matter, especially when Deadpool cuts a fired bullet in half to kill the two people behind him. Certainly, don’t go to see it if you want to see a good movie. If you’re looking to get a couple absurdly overdone action sequences just for the rush, it should be exciting.

Expectations

Yesterday morning, I IMed George during the day about potentially going to see “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” that evening. We had mentioned it previously, but even I, attendee of opening day Star Wars three times (including one midnight), didn’t feel the obligation to go. I’m not sure many people knew about it, but yes, LucasFilms did release one more Star Wars movie, but without the advertising and hoopla of the other movies. Critics slammed the CG animation. And in the only midnight showing at that theater, the mostly empty theater seemed to reflect a similar enthusiasm. Which I’m kind of confused about. Of the intrepid quintet who at 11:19 decided to go, none didn’t enjoy it.

This movie is not the next Star Wars movie. It’s a movie that happens to be set in the Star Wars universe with a familiar cast. Roger Ebert comments (perhaps complains) that it’s “basically just a 98-minute trailer for the autumn launch of a new series on the Cartoon Network.” Which may be true, but isn’t really a problem when considering the quality of the movie. Feel free to debate whether it was worth the 10.50 for admission, but it entertained.

In the movie, Anakin and Obi-Wan are assigned a mission to rescue Jabba the Hutt’s son who was abducted by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee’s character) and Asajj Ventress (a Sith apprentice) in an attempt to manipulate the Hutts. The plot doesn’t delve deeply into the meaning of fate, or demonstrate the consequences of hubris, but Star Wars, to me, was never about plot. Star Wars presents spectacle, from massive space battles with advanced technology to fantastic abilities of telekinesis and foresight. And to that end, I don’t think the CG animation is a problem; if I’m willing to suspend disbelief for sound in space, I can imagine the Thundercats-like people to be just as real as reality.

Those expecting a Star Wars movie like those before will be disappointed. The series is more similar to the hand-drawn “Star Wars: Clone Wars” cartoons aired on Cartoon Network a few years back. This particular movie actually reminded me even more of “Jackie Chan Adventures.” Just like the new movie (soon to be a TV series), the source material comes from live action movies, yet the new format allows them to do more than reality permits. An addition to the main cast is the movie is Ahsoka Tano, Anakin’s new padawan learner. Just like Jade from “Jackie Chan Adventures,” she provides a teenage liveliness that fits so well with the energy of the animation. Besides, the Anakin and Obi-Wan relationship only has so much depth.

I enjoyed the movie because I enjoyed the cartoon before it, yet I feel like some of that also comes from elements that made the live-action movies great (well, at least they made the original trilogy great). Taking a step back from years of extended lore in books, I watched the original trilogy again this past year and was amazed by how ridiculous these movies are. Just like “Indiana Jones,” the action is carefully spliced with humor that borders on outrageousness. Mindless banter between battle droids? A enemy leader who sounds like Sean Connery? Some might say that the inconsistencies ruin the canon of Star Wars. Others might say that George Lucas is continuing the decline of the Star Wars franchise. Who cares? It’s fun.

Indiana Jones Review

Of course, warning; I don’t intend to put spoilers in here, but I can’t promise you that I’ll catch everything. And I feel like it’s better to watch and develop an opinion, then discuss. But I won’t stop you if you haven’t seen it.

So last night, I went with several of my dormmates to the midnight premiere of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I was glad to be in a large, comfortable movie seat after riding with 5 people in the back of a sedan, and very much ready to watch for being very tired.

The premise of the movie is that Indiana Jones, almost 20 years after the events of the last movie, is caught in another hunt for archaeological treasures with mythical powers. This time, however, he has Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) to back him up against not the Nazis, but the Russians.

I enjoyed the movie immensely. As a single movie, it was an incomplete cinematic experience, but I really enjoyed it. I’ve wavered a lot on what I need to enjoy a movie, and I think I’ve managed to appreciate the pure joy of an adventure, regardless of whether the plot makes me think or not, whether I really have to soak up the movie after watching it. As for this movie, it got a solid smile.

For the complete cinematic experience aspect, it didn’t get at overarching themes that make me re-evaluate life, and I wasn’t impressed by revolutionary effects. Instead, the movie continued on the same outlandish action as the previous movies. The difference, however, seemed to me the same as that between Pirates of the Caribbean 1 and 2: the latter just got a lot more ridiculous. The original trilogy was never serious, yet the action had a body of realism that highlighted the exaggeration. As a parody of action sequences, they really embodied all aspects of the movie and could make the audience respond. I felt like this movie missed that in several important scenes. When I should’ve been sucked into the action then teased out of it, I instead watched as Shia LaBeouf found inspiration from monkeys to rejoin the fight. But I can appreciate the ridiculousness; it’s the inspiration for a lot of what I do.

Looking at the whole movie, the plot also seemed lacking. George Lucas claimed that the reason why this movie was in development hell was the inability to find a good macguffin (the plot device that drives a story). The crystal skull begins as an interesting driving force, but the flow of the plot seems to happen too quickly. Like the others, the movie follows Jones as he makes subsequent archaeological discoveries on his adventure. While the audience isn’t necessarily supposed to be a backseat detective or look back to make sense of the events, they are expected to follow and engage with his discoveries. Unfortunately, it feels like the movie ultimately ends up with a conclusion far removed from the more grounded beginning of the movie, if only because momentum required that the tempo remain high in the movie.

The acting was a mixed bag, with Harrison Ford doing a convincing job of the current state of Indiana Jones and Karen Allen doing another great performance of Marion Ravenwood. Cate Blanchett’s Russian accent comes and goes, but I was never as convinced of her character’s drive as I should have been.

The effects were a good mix for setting. Spielberg used both old-fashioned tumbling and advanced CGI to create an epic, yet grounded, sense of scale. And John Williams did a great job building the music into the story and setting, far beyond just the catchy (but good) theme that people remember.

It happens to be in an interesting situation with audiences. For those who haven’t seen the previous movies, it might seem a little disappointing because they might not appreciate the style of it, while those who have might be disappointed because it doesn’t match the craft of the originals. But overall, I recommend it, even if it isn’t everything it could’ve been. Just because it’s still enough.

Order of the Phoenix Review

I got the most unusual call from a little Indian boy yesterday asking if I wanted to go see Harry Potter at the midnight release. I’m not really a Potter fan; I got the books from the library and watched the movies, but never really got into it. And I’ve managed to forget most of the details hours after reading the books. It seems that nothing of any importance happens until the last fifty pages of the book, filled with other anecdotes in a verbose style.

The movie was entertaining. I sat through it and enjoyed watching it. The two movies I had seen previously were “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “Spiderman 3”, so I had lowered my expectations going into this movie. The dialogue wasn’t cheesy, and the acting felt authentic, mostly. I empathized with the soulless administration of Hogwarts and most of Harry’s troubles.

I wasn’t truly engrossed in it, though. I blame my companion for some of that, but I was never entirely transported to the movie’s magical realm. The Harry-Cho plot-line felt contrived. The writers did a great job of condensing a much longer book into a normal length film, but the romance didn’t feel right at all. It wasn’t important to the story, didn’t develop the characters, wasn’t itself fully developed, and wasn’t performed particularly well. It felt like it was added simply because it was in the book—which I already mentioned was scattered—and would make a great addition to the trailer to sucker people in.

Being at the premiere wasn’t as cool as I was hoping either. I didn’t see anyone dressed up, and it wasn’t as chaotic as I was hoping. Other than having a difficult time getting a seat, it wasn’t as exciting as Return of the Sith. Oh well; there are another 2 to go if I want to see that.

There are some movies that leave me sitting there, still, in awe, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the work. Then there are others, like FF2, that get a laugh. OotP was somewhere in the middle. It certainly wasn’t life-changing, though I did enjoy it. The credits started rolling, and I stood up, ready to go.