Greetings again from the darkness. I’ll admit that I’m not easily dazzled, and I’m very happy to admit that the thirteen years since James Cameron’s AVATAR was not just worth the wait – this latest one truly dazzled me. While the 2009 film was impressive from a technical standpoint, the new one is awe-inspiring, especially in the underwater sequences. I should disclose that I saw this on a huge screen in a theater with a spectacular sound system, and even the 3D glasses didn’t bother me at all (a first). The usually annoying muted color tones of 3D were minimal here, and the colors still popped as the 3D effects became a part of the presentation rather than the typical gimmickry.
Heading back to Pandora is either something you look forward to or could care less about. For those who have been anxiously awaiting the release, prepare to be amazed and stunned at just how far the CGI has come since Cameron set the standard years ago. On the other hand, one should be prepared for a middling, cliché-driven story with a script by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, with story credits to Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno. And since there will be at least one more film in the franchise (filmed simultaneously with this one), and possibly as many as three more, be prepared for unresolved and dangling story lines (that you may or may not care about). The reality is that the magic of the Avatar movies is in the visuals – escapism and fantasy creatures – not in the plot.
A lot has happened since the previous film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human-turned-Na’vi (via genetic engineering) is now a tribal leader on Pandora. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have two teenage sons and a young daughter, as well as an adopted teenage girl Kiri (played via stop-motion by Sigourney Weaver, one of the scientists in the original), and a quasi-adopted human son named Spider (Jack Champion). Family bliss in paradise is a pretty darn good life … at least until the evil humans return, scorching the land with their machinery. Since humans have pretty much ruined Earth, the mission is to find a new homeland, and what better place than Pandora. A miscast Edie Falco is the General leading the mission, and her advanced exoskeleton is a nod to Ripley in Cameron’s ALIENS. Her elite squadron of Na’vi Avatars is led Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a human character who died in the first film, but his memories are now implanted in a physically superior Na’vi body and he has revenge on the mind … specifically hunting Sully and Neytiri.
As beautiful as Pandora is (and it is), the island that Sully and family escape to takes beauty to another level. This tribe of Na’vi has evolved to live at one with the ocean. The water people aren’t overly excited about taking in the forest people, especially since bad guys are chasing the newcomers, and what follows is a stream of predictable interactions – though the predictability is quickly forgiven once Cameron takes us beneath the surface. It’s truly breathtaking to see this underwater world filled with wildlife, plants, and coral. The creatures are unique, colorful and exciting, none more so than the mega-whales considered spirit animals by the water people.
The stop-motion technology means we see only a few actual humans, though the cast is often recognizable, and in addition to Worthington, Saldana, Weaver, Lang, and Champion, it includes Oscar winner Kate Winslet, Jemaine Clement, Cliff Curtis, and CCH Pounder. But this isn’t a showcase for actors. Instead, it’s a showcase for Cameron to blend his love of technology with his love of the ocean and commitment to environmental protection. He succeeds in wowing us and reminding us what a true cinematic spectacle can be. Another warning I’ll offer is that at least one-third (maybe closer to half) of the film is either the hour-long battle in the final act, or some other action sequence sprinkled in. Just don’t think this is a relaxing getaway to Pandora! Lastly, for those interested in seeing this, I encourage you to seek out a local theater that is decked out with the latest technology, and don’t shy away from 3D showings unless you are one of those who get nauseous or experience motion-sickness.
Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes a movie synopsis just screams “Lifetime Channel”. As an example: A road trip movie with a single father and his teenage daughter would be a typical beginning. Oh, and the father has been recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. And then, let’s have them track down the mother that abandoned the girl when she was a baby. Those pieces certainly lay the groundwork for a sappy melodrama meant only to induce tears from those who enjoy a good cry after a hard week of work. Fortunately and surprisingly, crisp writing, proficient filmmaking, and a talented cast work together to make this film something entirely different – a heartfelt saga grounded in real life feelings and moments.
Hannah Marks is an actress now making her mark as an up-and-coming director, while the script was written by Vera Herbert (“This is Us”). A perfect example of their grounded approach to these storylines comes near the film’s beginning when Max Park (John Cho, Star Trek franchise as Sulu, COLUMBUS, 2017) reacts to the doctor’s diagnosis of brain tumor and prognosis of one year to live. His movements strike us as real to the moment, rather than staged for effect. Max immediately rules out an option for a highly-risky surgery, choosing instead to bribe his 15-year-old daughter Wally (newcomer Mia Isaac) to take a road trip with him under the auspices of attending his 20-year college reunion. The bribe? Driving lessons.
Wally is a ‘normal’ teen who makes both good and bad decisions, while often getting frustrated at her ‘boring’ and restrictive parent. Max chooses not to tell Wally of his condition or his ultimate goal of reuniting her with her mother, in hopes that she will have family once he’s gone. The drive takes place in Max’s old wood-paneled Jeep Wagoneer, an example of how he has sacrificed to provide for her all these years. Another deeper sacrifice is revealed on the trip, and there are moments of disagreement and aggravation, but also special moments of bonding that can only happen when a parent and teenager communicate.
Since it was filmed in New Zealand during the pandemic, the staged road trip from California through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and ultimately, Florida, does not offer the familiar landmarks along the way that we’d expect. But this story isn’t about cool pit stops or Bourbon Street (although we do get some killer shooting stars), it’s about a father understanding his daughter and that daughter understanding her father.
Excellent supporting work is provided by Kaya Scodelario (a mutual booty call buddy for Max), Josh Thomson (Max’s oldest friend), Otis Dhanji (Wally’s first crush), Stefania LaVie Owen (Wally’s friend), Jemaine Clement (as Max’s ex’s ex), and Jen Van Epps (as Wally’s mom). But make no mistake, this movie crackles thanks to the chemistry between Mr. Cho and Ms. Isaac. We believe in them, and though the ending is a bit creaky, their relationship is fully-formed in reality. When he counsels, “A good man will take you dancing”, we smile along with Wally, knowing this father wants only the best for her. The opening voiceover warns us, “You’re not going to like the way this story ends. But you’re going to like the story.” That turns out to be true, although it doesn’t stop the appreciation for all involved. This journey on the road turns into a journey in life.
Greetings again from the darkness. Mid-life crisis has long been a popular movie topic. A list of the best would include: Fellini’s 8 ½,Blake Edwards’ 10, AMERICAN BEAUTY, CRAZY STUPID LOVE, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, and THELMA & LOUISE. Some of these are outright comedies, while others are turbulent dramas. With the label ‘white male privilege’ being applied so broadly these days, it’s impressive how writer/director Mike White (THE GOOD GIRL, SCHOOL OF ROCK, creator of TV’s “Enlightened”) so expertly and gracefully takes on the familiar topic.
Ben Stiller stars as Brad Sloan, a married man raising a teenage son and running a Non-Profit Organization in middle-class Sacramento. As Brad and his son Troy (Austin Abrams, PAPER TOWNS) embark on an elite northeast college visitation trip, we get the sense that Brad is only now waking up to his son’s rapid approach to adulthood and remarkable talent as a student and musical prodigy. This happens congruently to Brad’s mid-life realization that his own college buddies are richer and more famous than he. Self-loathing, insecurities and concern over the jealousy he feels towards his own son are the focus of Brad’s inner thoughts, which we hear courtesy of his narration.
Brad’s college friends who are unknowingly driving his defeatist attitude include: Jemaine Clement as Billy Wearsiter who retired in Hawaii at age 40 after selling his tech company; Mike White (the film’s director) as successful movie director Nick Pascale whose house is featured in Architecture Digest; Luke Wilson as hedge fund manager Jason Hatfield who married into money; and Michael Sheen as Craig Fisher, a best -selling author and frequently seen on TV political commentator. In comparison, and by today’s societal levels of achievement, Brad views himself as a failure – a man whose early idealism didn’t change the world, and instead prevented him from reaching the capitalistic heights of his friends.
There are a couple of elements that allow the film to work. First, Ben Stiller softens his usual snark, making him more relatable than his usual woe-is-me character. Next, the film isn’t as harsh on the white man as we’ve come to expect. There is no feeling sorry for Brad, but there is at least compassion … space for him to explore what he’s feeling and take stock in his life. The difference maker is Mr. White’s script. The underside of human nature is explored with a deft comedic touch and incisive societal observations.
Stiller’s tightly wound Brad contrasts with Troy’s easy-confidence leading to some unusual father-son scenes. When Troy questions whether his dad is having a breakdown, we understand that the existential crisis is actually fairly common. We certainly enjoy watching as Troy’s Harvard friend, and fellow musician Ananya (Shazi Raja) listens patiently before slapping Brad with the dose of reality he so desperately needs. Ananya’s beyond-her-years wisdom leads Brad to a moment of self-awakening during her concert of Dvorak’s “Humoresque”. Ms. Raja’s role is given much more weight than that of Jenna Fischer as Brad’s wife/Troy’s mother, who inexplicably only appears about every 20 minutes as a check-in during the boys’ trip.
Keeping up with the Jones is a no-win approach to life, and if a Hollywood film can help a few more people understand this, then it’s a beneficial way to spend a couple of hours. The Mark Mothersbaugh score has a sharpness to it that mirrors Brad’s tarnished idealism and search for self. We are reminded that normal insecurities can blow up if we focus too much on what others have, and not enough on what we do.
Greetings again from the darkness. Uninspired sequels often prove quite annoying for a true movie fan. However, dedicated followers of a franchise often overlook the flaws and are just happy to see their familiar heroes back on screen. Back for a third time in 15 years, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) show they can do this in their sleep … actually I think Mr. Jones really did doze off a couple of times.
Fortunately there are a couple of things that make this one entertaining enough. Josh Brolin‘s spot on imitation of Tommy Lee Jones may be better than the real thing. Brolin seems to be enjoying himself and realizes he is the featured attraction here. There is also a very creative segment that takes place at Andy Warhol’s Factory … with Bill Hader pulling off the Warhol look and voice quite well.
Obviously with the Warhol segment, time travel is involved. That’s the real disappointment here. Outside of the Apollo 11 segment and listening to Status Quo play “Pictures of Matchstick Men”, the trip to 1969 is really a wasted opportunity for plot and humor. Also scarce is the use of aliens that were so prevalent in the first two. This time around, we get an overdose of Boris the Animal played by the always interesting Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”).
Also back is Emma Thompson in a couple of brief scenes as Agent O. In addition to Brolin, we get new life from Alice Eve (a young Agent O) and Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin … a less annoying version of Joe Pesci from the Lethal Weapon series. Director Barry Sonnenfeld has stuck with this franchise for all three entries. Let’s hope it’s now allowed to rest in peace.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a huge fan of the MIB franchise OR you want to see Josh Brolin’s impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you were hoping after 15 years, there might be something new … heck, even Will Smith looks exactly the same!
Greetings again from the darkness. I fully expected this to be an all-out raunch-com in the vein of The Hangover, and I was absolutely mistaken. The film only slips into slapstick and physical punchyness at the lowest part of the actual dinner. The rest of the movie is pretty basic and set somewhere near real life.
Often, real life situations bring the most humor. Sadly, that’s not the case here. Most of this one is just plain boring. There are some very talented people associated and they all do a fine job. It’s just that the pieces don’t make up an enticing whole. The film basically rides on the shoulders of the talented Steve Carell as Barry. Barry is a genuinely nice guy whose wife left him for his boss (Zach Galfianakis), and his hobby is making intricate displays of dressed up dead mice … his “mouseterpieces”, he calls them.
Paul Rudd plays Tim, another genuinely nice guy trying very hard to make it in the business world. He has the right car and a great apartment and a beautiful girlfriend (Stephanie Szostack) who doesn’t think it’s time for them to be married. Tim seizes an opportunity at work to go for a promotion. This gets him invited to his boss’s monthly dinner party where all the managers bring a guest with extraordinary skills … the titular schmucks. The point is to have a good laugh at the expense of the idiots. Obviously Tim runs into Barry and the guest list is complete.
Tim explains to his girlfriend that there is a “me you don’t know” who has to do things in order to get ahead at work. I really wanted to see more of THAT guy! Instead, we are subjected to another film that just doesn’t know how to take advantage of Paul Rudd’s talent. He is a funny guy and you would never know it here.
If not for Steve Carell and an outlandish performance by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as an “artist”, this film would be totally flat. Instead, there are a few laughs and an underlying theme about the sweetness of some people. It tries to ask the question, who are the real schmucks? Director Jay Roach is responsible for the Austin Powers and the Meet the Parentsfranchises. He obviously knows humor. He takes this one from a French film directed by Francis Veber called The Dinner Game. In that film, we never actually get to the dinner. In this one, the film sinks to its lowest point during the dinner. Lesson learned. Best part? Hearing the Beatles during the opening and closing credits.