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Column Fri Dec 18 2009

Avatar, Broken Embraces, The Young Victoria and Mammoth

Avatar

Is there anything left to say about writer-director James Cameron's years-in-the-making epic Avatar? Well first of all let's look at something about that question and notice the term "writer-director." Avatar is not another special effects-driven studio film made by committee to please a target audience; instead, it is the vision of one man whose ability to wow and entertain us is nearly unrivaled in film history. Sure, thousands of people helped make this movie, but the spectacular 3-D images on the screen come straight from the brain of Cameron, who hasn't helmed a feature film in 12 years. Apparently he simply waited until technology could catch up to the worlds he wanted to create.

Now make no mistake, I have a small handful of real issues with Avatar, beginning and ending with the fact that it's so damn derivative — both of Cameron's previous work and some fairly high-profile works by other filmmakers — that it's almost distracting. I've read a couple of critics who compared the movie to Dances with Wolves, and that's not exactly right. Avatar isn't similar to Dances with Wolves; it's a fucking carbon copy of Dances with Wolves at times (I might also throw in a little The New World). Granted, there hasn't been a truly original movie plot for a big-budget studio film since the silent-film era, but holy Christ was I surprised to see this story of a military man sent in to tame an indigenous population and ends up "going native" after falling in love with one of the locals. Some people might not be able to forgive Cameron for this lift, but I eventually looked past it and into a world and palette of images that simply robbed me of words.

The future setting for Avatar is Pandora, a moon orbiting an unknown planet that looks a lot like Jupiter. Planet Earth is without oil, and this world contains the only known source of a mineral (with a name so stupid, I won't ruin the surprise of hearing it yourself) that would seem to be a worthy energy source to save our planet. A military-industrial complex has been firmly established on Pandora. Their main objective is to clear the mining sites of any indigenous peoples and dangerous animals to make way for the biggest bulldozers you've ever seen. The diamond-hard Stephen Lang plays Col. Quaritch, who runs the military, while the weasely Giovanni Ribisi plays Parker Selfridge, representing the mining company. Ribisi's character seems poured from the same mold as Paul Reiser's character in Aliens, or at least the two characters had the same mother. Speaking of Aliens, Sigourney Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine, who leads a small and largely powerless band of scientists who are not only exploring Pandora but also attempting to learn the customs of the native humanoid-feline-blue race known as the Na'vi in the hopes of negotiating them off their land rather than having them scorched off by the military.

Armed only with spears, poisoned arrows and fierce loin clothes, the towering Na'vi are painted as a people connected to the land and creatures around them... literally. They all have long ponytails with filaments that link them to certain plants and animals. It's an interesting concept, but I'm not really sure the conceit pays off in the plot. Perhaps the most useful thing the scientists have developed is the ability to mix human and Na'vi DNA to make Na'vi Avatars that can house the minds of humans. The thinking is that the Na'vi would feel less threatened by creatures that look like them. There's something inherently condescending about that logic, but let's move on.

Playing the man caught between three worlds is Terminator: Salvation's Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a marine who has lost the use of his legs. When his brother is killed, Jake steps in to use his Avatar, at first as a means to get his legs back. But Col. Quaritch uses Jake's loyalty to have him spy on both the scientists and get in good with the Na'vi to learn where their defensive weaknesses are and the primary sources of the valuable mineral being sought. During his first trip into the wild of Pandora, Jake meets Neytiri (voiced and motion-captured by Zoe Saldana, who played Uhura in Star Trek), who might be the single best thing about Avatar. And it's through Saldana's performance that we begin to understand what Cameron is attempting to capture with all of this new technology that forces us to not only reclassify special effects but also, in many ways, to redefine animation. There are entire lengthy sequences in Avatar that are 100 percent digitally rendered — the backgrounds, vehicles, vegetation, characters, everything. I don't have a problem with this, but it made me really ponder where films with this level of special effects fit in the world of film.

I liked that Cameron made the human Avatars sort of look like the actors, while the Na'vi characters don't look anything like the people performing the parts. You really notice how lifelike the Avatars appear when you watch Sigourney Weaver, who is quite good and brings a much-needed intelligence to the proceedings. But it's Saldana who steals the show. There's something about her movements and facial expressions that illustrates the precise differences between human behavior and reactions and those of the Na'vi. The way she smiles, gets angry, hisses at a foe or focuses her attention just before she attacks an aggressor is captivating. During any scenes features Neytiri, I could have turned off the sound and simply watched her performance without missing a thing.

Much of the final third of Avatar is a mixed bag for me. We're well aware that the inevitable battle between machine and nature is on the way, and I hate that Cameron has become so predictable. Still, the actual battle is astonishing and the destruction is massive, and that's all that needs to be said about that. Then there are other moments that didn't work at all for me. The Na'vi teach Jake about riding a Banshee, a dragon-like creature that once chosen is yours for life. Here's my problem: I've never been impressed with CGI dragons. They never look real or any better than some videogame creation, and while the creature isn't technically a dragon, it basically is, and I just wasn't buying it. Any frankly, watched a group of Na'vi flying around mountains and waterfalls on the backs of these creatures is kind of boring. That said, I was largely impressed with the other previously unseen creatures of Pandora, and not just the wild animals but also the flora and fauna, some of which look suspiciously like some of the rare forms of life that live near the bottom of the ocean that Cameron seems endlessly fascinated by. I like the idea of Cameron bringing these majestic and freaky things to play on the surface; it's a great idea. Just get rid of the dragons, dude.

The truth is, there's only so much you can read about Avatar before you finally just have to decide whether to see it or ignore it. I know I need to see it at least one more time to really get my head around it and see which elements hold up and which fall apart. But there's no denying that so much of what you'll see you have never seen before, and not just the Pandora wildlife. Cameron has created war machines, computer technology, and even a wheelchair that simply don't exist, and it's just as fascinating to look around the corners of the screen away from the action to see what little touches Cameron has invented for his canvas. There is so much to like here visually that it almost seems like too much of a good thing to watch Avatar in 3-D. I said after seeing the first footage from the film at Comic-Con back in July that the immersive nature of the 3-D is quite simply overwhelming at times. That's a good thing. Go see it, come back, and let the endless debate begin. My guess is that you'll go in a skeptic and leave a lot less of one. I'm not saying you're going to worship the screen this film plays on, but I dare you not to be impressed.

Broken Embraces

Even writer-director Pedro Almodovar's worst films are better than 90 percent of what I see in a given year, and that's because the man looks at predictability as the worst possible crime a filmmaker could perpetrate on his viewers. And the fact that his current muse is Penelope Cruz, who actually seems to be getting better as an actress as well as more devastatingly lovely with each new film, doesn't hurt at all. Although Cruz appears as the main thrust of the posters for Broken Embraces, she's not the real center of the movie. Lluis Homar plays Mateo Blanco (a.k.a. Harry Caine), a blind screenwriter who is still much sought after even though he lives a hermit's life with only a few close friends helping him out with a few day-to-day needs. When a stranger approaches him to work on a film about the visitor's father, the writer begins to suspect the identity of the man before him and turns down the job. But the incident triggers a series of painful memories in Mateo/Harry, and before long, the son (Tamar Novas) of his trusted assistant Blanca (Judit Garcia) asks Harry what is troubling him. The story that pours out of him from 15 years earlier is fantastic as a celebration of film, beauty, love, tragedy and creativity.

Mateo was a celebrated filmmaker years earlier who was madly in love with Lena (Cruz), an actress he discovered as a secretary moonlighting as a part-time prostitute. Her wealthy sugar daddy, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), financed her first film with Mateo as director, but it was that experience that brought the pair closer together. Martel is capable of horribly violent fits of jealousy, and he uses his wealth to keep close tabs on Lena. Much of Broken Embraces is a staggering look at the lengths people will go to when they are jilted, jealous or otherwise betrayed. There are a select few scenes that are genuinely painful to experience, but the entire film is so rich and fully realized as both a visual and emotional journey, you can't help but stay glued to the screen.

To say much more about the plot and about the ultimate fate of Lena and Mateo would be to ruin a truly unforgettable and carefully woven bit of storytelling. I used to think that when Almodovar abandoned his orgy of sex, drugs, deviant behavior and insane use of color that I'd miss that playful side to his work. Instead, he has grown into one of the great storytellers of our time, as well as one of the greatest writers of female characters ever. Broken Embraces isn't quite as interesting as his more recent works All About My Mother, Talk to Her or his last feature, the exceptional character study Volver, but that doesn't make it any less watchable. There's a whole lot of plot going on here — maybe a tiny bit too much — but I'm not complaining. The women are still sensual, the set design is still color coordinated with the costumes, and the melodrama is still as hot as the sun. For the duration of any of his films, including Broken Embraces, you are Almodovar's slightly askew world. You simply grow to accept it and enjoy the ride.

The Young Victoria

It has been a real joy watching Emily Blunt come into her own thanks to a handful of truly great and memorable performances in a relatively short span of time. For the critical world, she first fell under our gaze in a small, luscious love story called My Summer of Love. But most of the American world got their first taste of her cool charm playing Meryl Streep's "one stomach flu away from my ideal weight" assistant in The Devil Wears Prada. Lead roles in little seen films such as Wind Chill and strong supporting parts in works like The Jane Austen Book Club, Dan in Real Life, Charlie Wilson's War and The Great Buck Howard soon followed, but it was this year's Sunshine Cleaning that really made her pop off the screen the way she did six years ago when I first noticed her. She's got a slew of films on her docket for the next couple of years, including opposite Benicio Del Toro in The Wolfman, but it's her fragile yet confident performance in Young Victoria that has given her the most challenging and captivating role of her career.

In Canadian-born director Jean-Marc Vallee's look at the rise and early years of Queen Victoria, Blunt plays a young woman who is expected to be a pawn of one of the influential men that surround her like vultures. With the entire nation seemingly in agreement that she is too young to be queen when King William IV (Jim Broadbent) dies, she instead defies everyone by refusing to give up any power to her "mentors" and instead attempt to rule Great Britain and connect with the people on her own terms. In these early years of her rule, things did not go well for the fledgling monarch. What is fascinating about Blunt's performance is that she manages to incorporate both the energy and flaws of a still maturing young woman with the strength and sense of responsibility of her nation's ruler. It's clear that these two sides to Victoria are not so much co-existing as they are dueling inside of her, and there's little doubt that the mature, less joyful side will eventually win, but it's enjoyable to watch this version of the queen take time to enjoy life a bit before the weight of the world settles down on her narrow shoulders.

Among those attempting to control her through both tyrannical and more subtle means are Sir John Conroy (the simply awesome and evil Mark Strong, who I'll be talking about more next week in Sherlock Holmes), the companion of Victoria's pushover of a mother (Miranda Richardson), as well as the far more charming (but no less manipulative) Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), who uses his ladies' man ways to sway the queen with kindness. The power struggle deepens when Victoria decides it is time to begin taking the idea of marriage seriously and finds herself actually in love with a young first cousin Albert (a nicely understated performance by Rupert Friend), who becomes the ideal partner for Victoria by taking over running the day-to-day affairs of his wife's estate while she dealt with more pressing matters of the nation during a time in British history when the monarchy was slowly losing power to the elected body of Parliament and the Prime Minister.

The period of adjustment between Victoria and Albert (the first royal couple to live in Buckingham Palace) is tumultuous at times, but once the young couple figure out that working as a united front would make for a stronger monarchy, they move on to great things. I couldn't help but think what a great double bill Young Victoria would make with 1997's Mrs. Brown, starring Judi Dench as the significantly older Queen Victoria mourning the loss of Prince Albert and her friendship with John Brown, a member of her household staff who provides her with a lasting and comforting friendship until her death years later. The two films make sense as a pair because they both show us a strong woman who still needs a soul mate and partner to lean on occasionally. The Young Victoria illustrates the humanity of power, and Blunt is the perfect embodiment of it. The screenplay by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Vanity Fair and the upcoming Alfonso CuarĂ³n film The Tourist) doesn't try to pack too much politics into this very human story, but it gives us enough of the struggle for Victoria's soul to make it captivating stuff. If anything, I wish the film had given us a bit more of the emotional side of Victoria, but perhaps the idea was to show that, in the monarchy, emotions to a certain extent don't help make for informed decisions. How very British.

Mammoth

Cut from the same cloth as Crash, 21 Grams and Babel, the English-language debut from Swedish writer-director Lukas Moodysson (Together, Hole in My Heart, Lilya 4-Ever) features three interconnected stories that revolve around the highly volatile nature of family. Unlike the aforementioned films, the relationships of the characters in Mammoth are much clearer from the outset and all three stories exist in the same timeframe and reveal themselves chronologically. But the lack of cinematic trickery doesn't reduce the impact of these intimate and deeply felt stories.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays New Yorker Leo, a web designer who has developed a site that is on the verge of selling for millions of dollars to a company in Thailand. He flies there to sign the paperwork and due to some last-minute snafus gets stuck there for longer than he's expected, away from surgeon wife Ellen (Michelle Williams) and their young daughter Jackie (Sophie Nyweide). With Ellen's surgery schedule ever changing, Jackie is pretty much being raised by Gloria (Marife Necesito), a Filipino woman who has left her homeland and two young sons (now living with Gloria's strict mother) to come to America to make money to send back home. Although Gloria seems like an excellent nanny to Jackie, Ellen feels disappointed when it becomes clear that her daughter would often rather spend time with the nanny than her. Meanwhile, Leo has grown bored sitting around his hotel room waiting for lawyers to figure out his company's worth, so he goes off to a secret beach hideaway where he meets a Thai prostitute named Cookie (Run Srinikornchot), whom he pays to hang out with (not for sex) and show him around the area.

Mammoth is about how seemingly small decisions we make can influence everyone around us, and it's a message that isn't particularly surprising or delivered to us with any kind of real power. Still, the performances by the three leads are quite moving, and I was especially drawn into the story of the two Filipino boys, the older of which (at 10 years old) is so desperate for his mother to return that he attempts to find a job to earn money to bring her back. The entire scenario plays out in a heartbreaking fashion that is one of the film's emotional high points, as is another sequence in which the boy's grandmother explains what will happen to him if he calls long distance again and complains to his mother.

Big sections of Mammoth don't work as well, in particular the scenes of Bernal on the beach. Despite the fact that he's in the company of a beautiful woman, their adventures are kind of dull. I liked more the segments of Williams tossing and turning and unsuccessfully trying to get some sleep after a long workday. There's genuine angst on her face, and, in general, I've really grown to love Michelle Williams as a quality actor. And wait until you see her in next year's Shutter Island. Holy shit is she good in that. Mammoth tends to drift aimlessly when it needs to pull itself together and make a point. I'm not saying every film needs to have a clearly defined message, but this film clearly thinks it does when it actually fails to do so. That doesn't stop these characters from being fascinating at times, but it only takes us so far. For sure, I'd say this is a positive review of the film with some sizable reservations, but if you have an affinity for either Bernal or Williams, you should be relatively satisfied. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinematheque. If only for an end-of-year change of pace, Mammoth is worth checking out.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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