MQGTTM! Avatar (2009)

My Queue Goes to the Movies:

Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Sigourney Weaver

Avatar. Looks expensive.

Given the budget and the fear Cameron’s directorial clout induces on his underlings, it’s a wonder this film didn’t descend into a Phantom Menace-esque self-indulgent disaster.

Lying somewhere between Dances with Wolves and Return of the Jedi, this over-hyped sci-fi epic definitely dazzles. It’s hard to find fault with something so technologically polished, acutely tuned in the way only a half a billion dollars can do. Everything from the the facial expressions and performances translated by the motion capture, to the awe-inspiring 3D environments and creatures all serve to immerse the viewer in an experience that many people are saying they dream about the night after watching.

Yet as I sat there in my seat for the first, second, and final hour of the film, one word kept nagging at the back of my brain.

Ewoks.

Anyone who’s ever wanted to stick their ponytail in their cat’s ear and read its thoughts can skip this paragraph. I’m not the only person who’s griped about the alien design. While this film does have heart and is immersive, it’s easy to slip out of the illusion when a character looks just a little too wide-eyed and goofy. The performances come through the facial rigs, but there’s still something inherently cringe-worthy every time the alien princess screams a Xena battle-cry or you’re watch a family of Na’vi mowed down by machine-gun fire. Think of that one shot with Ewok lamenting the death of his comrade in Jedi. That’s what I’m talking about.

But that’s not my main reservation about giving this movie four-stars. It’s the story. It’s derivative and predictable. The characters were archtypical and mostly one-dimensional. The sense of deja vu you get when watching The Abyss and this film is palatable.

The simple fact that we’ve seen this story before so many times, and done better for hundreds of millions of dollars less makes you take pause and wonder what the billions of dollars surrounding this film both in cost and revenue could have done to resolve a real-life territorial invasion. I marveled on what each shot must have cost and wondering, is the story better than Battle for Terra? A film that came out earlier this year with the exact same plot but made for a hundredth of the cost of Avatar. Better than Ferngully? Or Star Trek: Insurrection? Well, that last one, yes.

Is it better than Dances with Wolves or have a bigger impact? Maybe this is this generation’s Dances. Will the theme stay with you and make you think about taking up arms against corporate greed and industrialism? How can you when the film’s production is mired in financial excess?

But spectacle seems to be what this movie is all about and if seen in Imax 3D, a spectacle is what you’ll get. Is it gorgeous? Yes. Will you want to see it again? The three hour time stamp will probably deter multiple viewings. Will you walk away discussing its cultural ramifications with your friends? No. This is superficial entertainment.

But damn it looks nice.

Other films by the director: Titanic (1997), Terminator 2 (1995), The Abyss (1989)

MQGTTM! The Road (2009)

My Queue Goes to the Movies:

Directed by John Hillcoat
Written by Novel: Cormac McCarthy
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron

I had a rare chance to escape to the movies over the Thanksgiving break, amazing how tough it is when you have a child. I state this due to the added impact this film had on me as a new father. I was equally thrilled and filled with dread at the opportunity to catch The Road adaptation, being familiar with the source material. The film was devastatingly good, heart-wrenching, and depressing, but completely immersive, terrifying, and honest.

Viggo delivers one of the best performances since his Cronenberg film duet as the diseased and desperate father, trying to lead his child to safety through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Unlike the schlock big budget 2012, Road spends a scant 30 seconds on the disaster that salts the earth. The aftermath of the apocalypse is the mileau for this tale, following the pair’s struggle to find food in world devoid of any kind of life, scavanged by starving bands of cannibals.

The imagery in this film is impossibly bleak and unrelenting. Compositions of forrests of burning dead trees, black skeletons smoking amongst rusted hulks of cars, gray landscapes with lonely rotting houses permeate every minute of the film. Father and son constantly have the look of gaunt terror in their eyes, staring out from sooty visages. Viggo’s character is plagued by horrific encounters at every turn and haunted by the suicide of his wife when he closes his eyes. The direction and execution are flawless, leaving the audience trapped in this future with no hope. Beware, this film is riveting, but also not for the weak of stomach, or heart.

Other Films by this Director: The Proposition (2005)

Brazil (1985)

Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Kim Greist

Awards: Nominated for Oscar for Best Art Direction and Best Writing/Screenplay and Hugo for BestDramatic Presentation(1986), Won BAFTA for Best Production Design and Best Special Visual Effects (1986)

Self described as 1984 1/2, Brazil is Terry Gilliam’s take on an Orwellian vision of a retro-future. The government controls everything as the populace is held hostage to overpowering bureaucracy. Sam Lowry is an everyday man who gets tangled up in the wrongful death of a man mistakenly killed for being a suspected terrorist. As he tries to unravel what has occurred, he crosses paths with a woman who he has been dreaming about, gets branded a terrorist himself, and soon becomes a victim of the system he has long been a part of.

Brazil, like most of Terry Gilliam films, is a dark comedy wonderfully realized through art direction and style. Sets made up of old buildings retrofitted with ductwork, typewriters and old televisions converted to computers, and a society that is obsessed with the perception of image are all just a few of things that make up this fantasy. Gilliam suggests in the commentary that everything that occurs in the film was based on real life events during the eighties and was meant as a social commentary about overindulgence and corruption in America. I think it is safe to say that the film rings even more true given the current state of our political government and lifestyle. Everything is mocked in the movie ranging from obsessions with plastic surgery, slave-like devotion to remedial jobs, and blind obedience to overbearing laws and regulation without question.

Notoriously known for having trouble on his films, Brazil was no less a mess for Terry Gilliam. The film was held back for a year from being released in the United States due to Universal re cutting the film for a happier ending. Gilliam fought back by showing the film without the studio’s consent for two weeks at in LA to movie critics and film students. Pressure from them and rumors of attempted pre-release Oscar nominations eventually forced the studio to put out the original version of Gilliam’s film. While the visual effects are somewhat dated by today’s standards, the film is still fun to watch and serves as a chilling warning to a future that may yet come. All from a film that came about from a wish by Gilliam to do a movie where a man losing his mind ends up being a happy ending.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Time Bandits (1981), Twelve Monkeys (1995)

-Dantasia

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Director: René Laloux

This forgotten animated film is wonderfully bizarre and at times frightening with its imagery. Following the story of a domesticated Om, a human, raised by a race of giant humanoids called Draags, Fantastic Planet reflects on theme of mutual destruction and misunderstanding. The human, called Terr, is kept as a pet by the towering aliens and learns about the world through a headset that its young master uses for its lessons. Soon Terr comes to understand his sentience and autonomy by gaining knowledge and decides to escape his captivity into the wild.

Once free he encounters a race of savage Oms, gains their trust, and teaches them about the Draags technology. There are many threats to beings so small on the Draag planet, and the human Oms constantly face mortal peril at the hands of horrific monsters and the Draags themselves. Facing extermination after managing to kill one of the Draags in self-defense, the Oms create a spaceship and travel to the Fantastic Planet where they find the Draags weakness. Exploiting this weakness, the Oms are able to barter their survival.

Created by an innovative director and uniquely styled artist, Roland Toper, Planet has an interesting production past. The director got his start in animation by creating short films to test the attention of schizophrenic patients in a psychiatric ward. A search on youtube with Laloux’s name yields a wealth of strange films with frenetic themes and Boschian characters. Toper and Laloux went on to create two other films with Topper, but they are lost to archive history and incredibly hard to locate. Don’t miss this one though, its imagery will stay with you for a long time. Definitely not for young kids.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Dead Time (Les Temps Morts, 1964), The Snails (Les Escargots, 1965)

Children of Men (2006)

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Starring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore

Awards: Nominated for Academy Awards and BAFTAS in Cinemtography, Editing, and Best Screenplay

Adapted from PD James dystopian novel about the end of our species brought about by the inability to reproduce, Children of Men is a brilliant technical achievement and thrilling sci-fi drama that never got the attention it deserved.  In my opinion, this was the best film of 2006, but due the graphic nature of many of its scenes, I think its accessibility was limited.  Though it did its best box office in the United States, it was one of the most critical films of our national policy and reflected many a sentiment of the day in its unforgettable imagery.

Clive Own plays Theo, the archetypical everyman who has lost his son to a flu epidemic and is drowning out the end of the world with Scotch whiskey.  Julianne Moore plays his estranged wife turned revoluntionary who recruits his help to get a passport for the last pregnant woman on the planet to flee the United Kingodm into exile.  An intense, gruesomely violent action scene on the road ends with Moore’s character dead and Theo now in charge of protecting the future of humanity.

What is most brilliant about this film aside from the story, ambience, and raw violence, are the single-shot mise-en-scene sequences, most notably Moore’s death on the road and 454 second race through the war torn streets of future London.  Both of these shots were filmed in parts and then spliced together as I later came to learn when the director spoke with my department where I work, but the use of technology interwoven seamlessly with the cinematography hid any CG handiwork. 

Make sure to watch the special features on this DVD where they demonstrate the mechanics on the car rig used in one of these shots.  Cuaron’s storytelling ability and technical genious foretells him being one of the most influential filmmakers of our time.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

Director: L.Q. Jones

Starring: Don Johnson, Jason Robards

Awards: Won Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, nominated Nebula for Best Dramatic Writing

Summary: What does Star Trek, Miami Vice, nuclear war, and man’s best friend all have in common? Well, not much really except for a nifty little movie called A Boy and His Dog. Set in the year 2024, the world has become a desolate wasteland after World War IV. Based on the novella written by Harlan Ellison (who also wrote the Star Trek episode: City on the Edge of Forever), this movie stars a very young Don Johnson (Miami Vice) who plays a young man named Vic. In this future, people are forced to fight and scavenge for the few remaining resources such as food, weapons and yes, women! Vic has an advantage over most others through his trusty sidekick named Blood who just happens to be a dog. Even better, Vic has a telepathic bond with Blood giving the pair the ability to talk and understand each other psychically. With a keen sense of smell, Blood helps Vic avoid roving madmen and mutants and yes, even track down women!

For you see, Vic is a lonely man and lonely men have needs. As the story progresses, we learn how these needs eventually lands Vic into hot water as he crosses paths with a secret underground community who are more than they seem. Predating Mad Max and other similar films set in a post-apocalyptic future, this film is a cult classic that is fun and thought provoking. Watch for a controversial ending that had not only the often litigious Harlin Ellison upset but feminst groups as well.

Other Notable Films by this Director: The Devil’s Bedroom (1964)

-Dantasia