Archive for December, 2009

Review: “Avatar – The IMAX 3D Experience”

I’ll admit it, I was a bit down on this movie since the first screens started popping up on the Internet.  James Cameron is an amazing filmmaker and all (Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the best films of all time, in my opinion), but there wasn’t anything I was seeing that made me go “Yes, I will support this film unconditionally.”  Even when I went to a screening of 15 minutes of IMAX 3D footage, I was still unimpressed.  Don’t get me wrong, the visuals looked amazing; the story, however, still wasn’t captivating me.  But, when tickets went on sale for midnight on opening day, I was all in.  Regardless of the story, I love movie spectacle, and at the very least, this promised to be quite the spectacle.

Avatar takes place on a distant planet called Pandora (technically a moon, since it’s orbiting a much larger body).  Pandora is home to a rare mineral called Unobtanium (pun possibly intentional), as well as the world’s native species called the Na’vi.  Earth wants the Unobtanium, and has hired military contractors to go in and extract the mineral from the planet, thinking nothing of the Na’vi.  As you can imagine, it creates conflict between the natives and the humans.

Attempting to find a peaceful resolution, Grace (Sigourney Weaver), a scientist studying the Na’vi, has developed a unique way of communicating with them via avatars: genetically engineered bodies that look just like the Na’vi, but the ‘mind’ is inhabited by a human through some crazy scientific process that involves sleep.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former Marine, now a paraplegic.  His brother was one of the chosen few accepted into this avatar program.  His brother is now dead, and since the two of them were identical twins, Sully is picked to replace his brother and use his avatar to gain the trust of the local Na’vi.  The military, lead by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) want a local Na’vi tribe to relocate away from their massive ‘hometree’ in order for a greedy company, headed by Miles Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) to begin excavation.

Long story short, Sully and a few others begin siding with the Na’vi and an uprising begins that pits all the tribes of the Na’vi against the smaller, yet far more technologically advanced group of military contractors.

This movie will probably go down in history as the most expensive flick ever made (so far).  Some reports have it at $200 million, funded primarily through the distributor, 20th Century Fox.  Others have it at around $500 million (that’s half a billion dollars folks), funded partly by Fox, and the rest through Cameron and other investors.  The reason for the hefty price tag: a new, state of the art 3D camera system, dubbed the ‘Pace-Cameron Fusion’ camera system.  It’s so cutting edge, that rumor has it Spielberg, Lucas, and Jackson were all giddy like schoolkids when they were allowed time with the cameras.

Well, regardless of what it really cost, every frame of this film is gorgeous.  The 3D technology here is leaps and bounds ahead of other live-action 3D (like My Bloody Valentine 3D).  For one, it didn’t hurt my eyes every time I tried to refocus on something else.  Also, the depth of field is amazing.  The way they use 3D here really allows the camera to feel like its inside the space it’s filming, regardless of whether that space is a CG grassy plain, or a real studio set dressed to look like science lab.  There’s not a moment when you don’t see where all that money went.

Area 5 Media co-founder Matt Chandronait tweeted that it’s the first time the uncanny valley has been crossed in film. While I believe the CG is still not that good just yet, it’s still damn pretty.  When a real hand touches CG skin, it looks like it’s touching something, and not just empty air.  Things look like they have weight and presence in the environment, and the blending of real and fantasy is almost seamless at times.  Just watching the hair on the Na’vi was impressive.

The cast is also very good here.  For a film that’s mostly CG inhabited by real people, the actors do a great job ‘living in their environments’.  I give kudos to the great Stephen Lang, who was also in this summer’s Public Enemies (and had a great turn in the Civil War epics Gettysburg and Gods and Generals).  Lang is fantastic as the xenophobic Quaritch.

So now, let’s get to what I found slightly lacking in this film.

The story is basically a rehash of FernGully: The Last Rainforest.  Evil corporation comes in, wanting to destroy nature for resources and profit.  Band of technologically disadvantaged natives must fight back in order to protect their home.  Nothing new here.  What is impressive is the world that James Cameron has built.  Roger Ebert compared this film to Star Wars, in that a complete world was created from scratch; the people, the customs, the plants all have some kind of meaning.  In fact, the Na’vi speak of an energy force that a lot like Lucas’ concept of The Force.

Unfortunately, the overall story arc left me wanting more.  The entire movie was like an anti-war film wrapped up in a green message.  A lot of the references made, such as ‘fighting terror with terror’ would’ve been relevant in 2005, but instead made the audience chuckle and shake their heads when we heard it.  And as much as I enjoyed Stephen Lang, none of the villains here had any real depth.  Here’s the bad guy, and he’s bad.  Here are the good guys, and they’re misunderstood, so they must be good.  Only Worthington’s Sully goes through any change throughout the entire 2 1/2hr+ run time.

In comparison, when you look at Terminator 2, all the main characters (the Terminator, John, and Sarah Connor) go through some kind of change.  John finds a father figure in the robotic assassin, in robot actually learns to understand and even have human emotions, and Sarah learns to finally trust and to live like a human again.  In Avatar, Quaritch is a bad guy through  and through, Selfridge us a selfish dick (pun probably intended there, too), and Grace is a compassionate humanitarian who probably wishes she were one of the aliens.  Even supporting characters like Michelle Rodriguez’s pilot Trudy don’t really go through a change (at least not one that’s fleshed out).

And although I liked the visuals of the film, I still don’t believe the 3D added anything to this story.  Sure, it looked awesome, but was there anything in the plot that warranted developing an entirely new filmmaking technique for?  I don’t think so.  The story was entertaining at best.

James Cameron’s Avatar is one of those few films that has the word E-P-I-C written all over it.  Not since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith has there been such cinematic spectacle as this.  Underneath it all, Cameron still knows how to tell a pretty fun story.  While the plot may be cliché, there’s no denying that it’s still damn fun to watch, and you don’t ever really get bored.  Avatar would probably have no problem making its way onto Best Films of the Year Lists.  Also, the film’s Golden Globe nod is also well-deserved (could an Oscar nom be far behind?).  It’s a solid, well-made science fiction epic, the likes of which haven’t been seen since 1977.



I feel I must address my experience dealing specifically with IMAX and the whole 3D presentation in the theatre.  For the first 20 minutes or so, my girlfriend and I did not see anything in 3D.  Why?  I had the wrong 3D glasses. We’ve been using the same pair of glasses for 3D flicks for about a year now, and the only reason is because all the 3D theatres use the same 3D projection tech.


I’m assuming it’s because the way the screen is curved, and the fact that the print is 70mm (twice as big as traditional 35mm), it requires special glasses.  I had to get up, go outside, and ask for the proper ones.  Once everything was OK, I was finally able to marvel at the visual brilliance of the film.

If you’re going to see this movie, you need to see this in IMAX.  Some movies it won’t matter (Monsters vs Aliens, Star Trek), but for Avatar, IMAX 3D is the way James Cameron intended the movie to be shown.  Now, I’m not saying you won’t enjoy it in a regular 2D theatre (like I mentioned previously, the story doesn’t warrant itself a 3D presentation), but rarely does a film come along that demands this kind of attention, that almost requires you to shell out the big bucks for a $15+ movie ticket.  It’s like having a home theatre system: there are some movies that just need the best presentation possible in order to be fully immersed in it.


December 18, 2009 at 8:41 pm 6 comments

Review Catch-Up: “Ninja Assassin”

I may be alone on this one, but I wasn’t the biggest fan of James McTeigue’s V For Vendetta.  I didn’t hate the movie, in fact I’ll say I liked it.  However, it wouldn’t be on my top 5 of greatest comic book adaptations list.  When I heard he was working on a ninja movie, starring none other than Asian sensation Rain, I was skeptical.  I told myself that I’d see anyway, since it was a movie focusing solely on ninjas, and we haven’t had a movie like that in a while (Last Samurai doesn’t count; it was about samurais).

Ninja Assassin barely has a plot.  It’s about a ninja, Raizo (Rain), who rebels against his clan, choosing the path of peace over killing for hire.  He travels the world, trying to expose his clan to the public.  Unfortunately, there’s not much peace for him, as his actions have brought dishonor to his mentor, Ozunu (the great Sho Kosugi).  In retaliation, Ozunu has unleashed his entire clan to bring down Raizo.  Then there’s Mika (Naomi Harris), a Europol agent who’s investigating a string of political assassinations which may all be related.  Her hunt for evidence has put her on the list of Ozunu’s enemies.

If that sounds like a decent story (and it could be, given the proper medium, like comic book), it’s an afterthought here.  The movie’s 90-minute runtime is commanded by a) fight scenes, and b) flashbacks that fill in Raizo’s backstory.  Generally, things like flashbacks and voice-overs are frowned upon in the screenwriting world as ‘lazy storytelling’, and while I’m not going to fault this movie for having flashbacks, I will say that there’s too many of them, and every time we see one, I get bored.  I want to see ninjas fighting.

And you see that.  In spades.

I thought the name Ninja Assassin was stupid.  I mean, it’s kind of redundant, right?  Aren’t ninjas already assassins?  But then, watching this movie, I realized that Raizo assassinates other ninjas.  Get it?  He’s a ninja assassin!  And if I thought V for Vendetta was a little slow and boring, Ninja Assassin is the exact opposite for most of the movie.  The story is inconsequential, this flick is all about ninjas versus thugs, ninjas versus some crazy army/police force, ninjas versus other ninjas.

McTeigue and his stunt team have crafted some ridiculously awesome fight scenes.  And these aren’t quick, 30-second, quickly edited fight; some go one for minutes at a time.  And, there’s probably a fight scene every 10 minutes or so.  One particularly stands out: the setup is an abandoned warehouse being used as a command post by Europol.  Mika is the target.  You’d think being surrounded by dozens and dozens of trained guys with automatics would offer some protection.  Ozunu’s ninjas make short work of them, but Raizo makes short work of the ninjas.  Watching the excellently choreographed fights make me want to just jump around and kick people.  And, this fight scene lasts for the better part of 10 minutes.

What I also appreciated was that the movie kept a bit of the mystery surrounding ‘the ninja’.  They move with inhuman speed and can stalk their prey from, literally, the shadows, using the darkness to appear and disappear.  These aren’t The Foot Clan from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, these are trained, merciless killers.  I also didn’t expect the movie to be this gory.  The blood flows freely, only stopping when the blades stop moving.

With a title like Ninja Assassin, you probably already know what to expect from this movie.  Lots and lots and lots of fighting.  For action or martial arts fans, this is a can’t-miss kinda movie.


December 15, 2009 at 6:51 pm Leave a comment

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