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. At a certain age, most of us have given some thought to what we might say to our younger self if we had the opportunity to go back in time. The familiar phrase goes, “Hindsight is 20/20”, but what if we had foresight? What if we knew the best choices to make, and the bad decisions to avoid? Director Shawn Levy (the “Night at the Museum” franchise) reunites with his FREEGUY (2021) actor, Ryan Reynolds, to bring us a crowd-pleasing time travel movie with a personal twist. The script was co-written by Jonathan Tropper (“Banshee” creator), TS Nowlin (“The Maze Runner” franchise), and Jennifer Flackett (“Big Mouth”).
Twelve-year-old Adam (Walker Scobell in his first film) is the kind of wisecracking kid that attracts bullies at school. He lives with his mother (Jennifer Garner), and they are both still mourning his dad who died in a car crash. Ms. Garner is saddled with the film’s most obvious line when she lectures young Adam, “… the future is coming sooner than you think.” When adolescent Adam stumbles on an injured astronaut in the garage, it takes a while before he figures out that it’s actually his own self from the future (2050 vs 2022). When you have a wisecracking 12-year-old, it’s only perfect casting to have wisecracking master Ryan Reynolds play the older version. Despite some early friction, or maybe because of it, the two enjoy playing off each other with snappy one-liners and comebacks.
As with most time travel stories, things get a bit complicated, and the only solution involves taking a bigger risk and adding more complications. Not to give anything away, but the two Adams are forced to make a joint time-jump to find dear old dad, Professor Louis Reed (Mark Ruffalo). The purpose is not to save dad’s life, but for other personal reasons that involve Zoe Saldana as Laura, and Catherine Keener (miscast as the villain) as Maya, Professor Reed’s not so ethical business partner. It’s this section that offers the most action and tension, although the film is best delivering for the audience when the wisecracks are flying between Reynolds, Ruffalo, and Scobell).
Director Levy has constructed a charming film that proves quite entertaining for mainstream audiences, and he adds little touches like a family dog named Hawking, and classic rock from Led Zeppelin, Spencer Davis Group, Boston, and Pete Townsend. He even avoids the temptation to add a line of dialogue, “Hey Dad, wanna have a catch?” Outside of one sequence, the special effects are minimal considering it’s a time travel movie, and at its heart, it’s a story about coming to grips with family and who you are as a person.
Greetings again from the darkness. We are at the 10 year mark of the new Marvel cinematic universe that began with the revolutionary IRON MAN (2008). This 19th movie in the franchise is actually Part 1 of 2 films that will (supposedly) be the lasting legacy of The Avengers. The second “half”, much of which was filmed simultaneously with this one, is set for 2019. Co-directing brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo were responsible for the two most recent Captain America movies (and also one of my all-time least favorites: YOU, ME AND DUPREE), and have now taken on the biggest budget, biggest cast, and longest run time yet of any Marvel movie. In fact, it’s so big, it could only be named ‘Infinity’.
Being that the fan base for this movie is highly sensitive to anything resembling a hint, much less a spoiler, this review will tread very lightly, and instead function as an overview with very general observations. There are a few key points, most of which are quite obvious from either the trailers or the previous movies in the series. First thing to realize is that this is a Thanos movie. He’s the first big (I told you everything was big), bad, nearly omnipotent villain. It should be noted that Thanos sees himself as misunderstood, which leads to the second key point: melodrama abounds – moreso than any previous comic book movie. It seems to be reminding us that Superheroes are people too (but are they really?). The third point is that if every character with a speaking part simply said “I am Spartacus”, it would still likely be the longest ever comic book movie. There are at least 28 characters with “key” roles – and that’s not counting the end credit stinger, or the missing characters we thought we would see, or the one that gets a logo tease as a coming attraction for part 2.
Co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus had their hands full in working to come up with a coherent story, while allowing so many familiar characters to have at least one moment in the spotlight, if not a few. The fact that AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR divided the group actually allows for multiple segments to play out concurrently. Though we never doubt these fragmented cliques and isolated individuals will fight to save the galaxy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they get the band back together. In fact, it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy who are a much more cohesive group than our beloved Avengers. But fear not … there is plenty of fighting and action to go around.
Thanos claims he is saving many interplanetary civilizations and restoring balance with his plan to eliminate half of all living beings. While there might be some scientific evidence to back up his plan, it doesn’t sit well with the good guys. More focus is given to his cravings for ultimate control and power provided by tracking down all six Infinity Stones (Tesseract/Space, Mind, Time, Power, Reality, and Soul) to complete his Infinity Gauntlet. Many of these stones are in quite inconvenient locations and require some ingenuity and brute force from Thanos.
Perhaps the travel agent had the biggest challenge as portions of the film take place in New York City, Knowhere, and Wakanda (good luck finding a brochure on those last two). We also get a budding romance from Vision and Scarlet Witch, as well as annoying quasi-romantic banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. And while we are on the “TMZ” portion of the review, it should be noted that both Black Widow and Captain America (introducing himself as Steve Rogers) both have new hair styles – though only one of them sports a beard.
In the realm of comic book movies, this would be considered an epic. It has stunning action sequences, remarkable special effects and some terrific comedy mixed in. Of course, you’ll have to accept the melodramatic emotions and fear that we haven’t been previously subjected, and know that the final finality doesn’t arrive for another year. It’s very long (more than 2 ½ hours) but it seems to go pretty quickly. The filmmakers have mostly succeeded in the monumental task of remaining true to the history in order to keep comic book fans satisfied, while also creating something that most should be entertained by. Despite lacking the upbeat, feel-good ending we’ve grown accustomed to, there is a welcome Stan Lee cameo, a post credit stinger (after about 10 minutes of rolling credits). And to top it off, we get “Rubberband Man” from The Spinners. Now that’s big!
Greetings again from the darkness. Are you ready for a new brand of Marvel movie heroes? You surely know Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, but it’s high time you are introduced to Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, Groot and Drax – known collectively as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead of dark, brooding and super-serious, this group is not just funny … they are actually FUN!
The plot is admittedly a bit simple. Everyone is basically chasing a ball (the orb) around the universe. Instead of good guys vs bad buys, it’s actually kinda bad guys vs really bad guys. See, the heroes of our story are, for the most part, criminals themselves. The main difference is, they aren’t on a quest for intergalactic super power or mega destruction like Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan makes for a pretty menacing villain, complete with a voice that shakes the theatre!
The band of misfits thrown together by circumstance actually provides much entertainment. Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation“) is the self-nicknamed Star-Lord, better known as Peter Quill. The film begins in 1988 when his mother lay dying and he is abducted by aliens. Quill’s criminal activity has him crossing paths with Gamora, a green assassin played by Zoe Saldana; Rocket, a brilliant wise-cracking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper; Rocket’s bodyguard Groot, an unusually mobile tree with a limited vocabulary voiced by Vin Diesel; and the hulking, knife-wielding, bent on revenge Drax the Destroyer played by WWE star Dave “The Animal” Bautista. It’s a rag-tag group of heroes unlike anything we have seen before.
Other colorful supporting work comes courtesy of a blue-faced Michael Rooker, who controls his lethal arrow through a series of whistles; Djimon Hounsou as a sparkly-eyed warrior; John C Riley as a galaxy cop; Karen Giillan as a smooth-headed daughter of Ronan; and Glenn Close as a community leader. We also get the traditional Stan Lee cameo, plus Benecio Del Toro as The Collector (teased in Thor: The Dark World). The music actually plays a strong supporting role with such classics as “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, and “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps”.
Despite the lack of familiarity with these characters for most viewers, writer/director James Gunn (Slither) does a terrific job of having us quickly connect and even groot … err, I mean root … for these guys. Quill’s possession of a Sony Walkman to play his mother’s mix tape of songs from the 1970’s and 80’s give the film a very different flavor, having the familiar songs pop up at just the right time.
Pratt does an admirable job in the lead, although compared to the GQ of Tony Stark/Iron Man, his Quill is more Mad Magazine (funny and easy to like) The best comparison I have for Quill is Han Solo, and for the movie it harkens back to 1978’s Superman … both very high compliments. It’s also the first time I have been completely caught off guard and laughed out loud at a Jackson Pollack reference!
**NOTE: If I had seen this movie as an 11-year-old boy, I would probably think it’s the coolest movie ever made. Of course, they didn’t make movies like this when I was 11, so I have to enjoy them now.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a comic book fan but kinda tired of the all too familiar string of Avengers OR you just want to sing along to some classic songs of yesteryear (please don’t sit by me)
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a talking raccoon and tree are likely to give you nightmares, no matter how funny their lines are.
Greetings again from the darkness. Who in the world thought this would be the right time to release this film? Between holiday shopping and the new release schedule chock full of Oscar bait, dropping this hard-edged little film into theatres was box office suicide. And what a shame that is because there is definitely an audience for this exceedingly well acted snapshot of 2008 Rust Belt misery (has quite the holiday ring to it, eh?).
The steel mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania was once thriving, but is now on life support … just like the father of Rodney and Russell Baze. Casey Affleck plays Rodney, the brother who viewed enlisting in the Army as his way out of Braddock. When we meet him, he is about to leave for his 4th tour in the Iraq war. Russell (Christian Bale) is the more grounded, trying to do right brother. Russell dutifully works in the mill while trying to make a life with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana).
Since life never hands folks in these towns a break, Russell ends up in prison, Rodney’s fourth tour leaves him scarred physically and emotionally, the dad dies, the girlfriend bolts, and the sleazy drug and crime world congregate right on top of the brothers’ heads. Rodney goes deeper into the ugly world of bare-knuckle fighting in an attempt to pay off his gambling debt to a local crime head played by Willem Dafoe (in yet another reptilian role). If you think cockfighting is merciless, the bare-knuckle fights held in backwoods Appalachian Mountains make that look like child’s play … and no tamales! The film is at its best when the nastiest of all these characters is on screen. Woody Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat (great character name!), the soulless crime and drug lord of the area, who also runs (and fixes) these brutal fights. Harrelson is at his most menacing here, and even has Dafoe’s character a bit jumpy. Harlan DeGroat has no redeeming values, and admits to having “a problem with everybody”.
The story itself is quite predictable, but Bale, Affleck and Harrelson keep us glued to the screen. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Dafoe have moments, but mostly their characters are underwritten here. Sam Shepard adds blue collar royalty as the uncle of the Baze boys. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) re-wrote Brad Ingelsby’s script, and it suffers from leaving us wanting more in regards to background and makeup of these characters. Still, the strong performances and the excellent score from Dickon Hinchliffe, keep us engaged and make this grimy, hopeless world something we can’t turn away from.
**NOTE: for a prime example of why so many of us consider Christian Bale one of the finest actors working today, check out the way he reacts to his release from prison … breathing fresh air for the first time, nervous energy that goes with freedom, pure joy in seeing his brother.
SEE THIS MOVIE: if you are looking for a movie that absolutely should not be viewed over the holidays, but you get a kick out of hillbilly evil
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the family is looking for a light-hearted, feel good flick for group viewing after a day of feasting on the Christmas beast and opening presents.
Greetings again from the darkness. There is always a bit of uncertainty when discussing or reviewing anything Star Trek related. So many rabid fans are more knowledgeable and keyed in to all the details. I am not. While I enjoyed the Gene Rodenberry TV series, and the subsequent movie versions, obsession never hit me. Because of this, my views will vary from those Trekkies and sci-fi experts.
Director JJ Abrams re-invented the franchise in 2009 with stunning results. That “new” Enterprise crew returns here: Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov and Simon Pegg as Scotty. The new addition is Alice Eve as Carol, daughter of Admiral Marcus (played by RoboCopPeter Weller). Abrams is wise enough to know that this story needed a great villain so he revisits Khan and casts a spectacular Benedict Cumberbatch (the sleazy dude from Atonement).
This movie works because of the crew’s chemistry. We believe they like and respect each other … even while breaking orders. The film works even better thanks to a villain that establishes a believable threat. Cumberbatch plays a super-human force with a mixture of Shakespeare and Hannibal Lecter. He delivers lines in a way that you have no cause to doubt his intent. This is a nice contrast to the warm fuzzies coming from the crew members.
It can’t go without mention that there is a shocking display of crystal blue eyes on display. Chris Pine, Peter Weller, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alice Eve all flash baby blues that jump off the screen in 3D. The only reason the sea blue peepers weren’t more distracting is because of what I refer to as FXOD … a special effects overdose. It seems as though each summer blockbuster feels the obligation to go bigger on the visual effects to get noticed. As often happens, the effects are just too much. Luckily, the characters and story are strong enough that it stayed on track.
If you are a casual Star Trek fan, this is one that will entertain you. If you are a Trekkie, you have no doubt already seen it twice and have blogged about all the errors. Next up: 2016 for the third entry in the Abrams franchise.
**NOTE: It’s a pleasure to see the great Leonard Nimoy make another appearance as Spock, but it’s a shame that Abrams and William Shatner haven’t been able to come to terms.
**NOTE: While gratuitous sex in movies often draws much attention, it should be noted that a gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her skivvies seems to be the main reason her character exists.
Greetings again from the darkness. Kids and dogs. They can get away with just being cute. Screenwriters don’t get to settle for cute. Their words must deliver a story that we care about. First time co-directors Brian Klugman (Jack’s nephew) and Lee Sternthal also co-wrote this script (and the story for Tron: Legacy). Their idea is cute. A movie featuring a story within a story within a story within a story. Unfortunately, the third level brings the film crashing down towards a conclusion that is so poorly presented, that the good parts of the film are quickly forgotten.
Rory Jansen (played by Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer who is sitting on two unpublished novels. Dora, his extremely supportive girlfriend (a requirement for a struggling writer) is played by Zoe Saldana (showing much more range than Avatar allowed). They receive financial support from Rory’s good as gold dad played by JK Simmons. Rory takes a job in the mailroom at a publisher and tries to keep writing. It’s clear he’s going nowhere despite his dream of becoming the next great American novelist. And then … just like THAT … his life changes. He discovers a manuscript hidden in the secondhand leather portfolio that Dora bought him. Rory confronts the Faustian dilemma in a way that either changes who he is, or exposes who he is.
The manuscript is published and Rory becomes famous and rich. And they all live happily ever after. Well, until one day Rory is reading in the park when an Old Man (Jeremy Irons) strikes up a conversation. Soon, he is deep into the story about the events that motivated him to write the story some 60 years ago. It’s a fascinating love story that combines war, Paris, heart-breaking loss and true love. In other words, the kind of real life story that creates a story like the one Rory is getting credit for. Plagiarism is a horrible crime and intrusion made most humiliating once exposed.
The flashbacks during the re-telling of the Old Man’s story are extremely well done (featuring Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder) and make a terrific parallel to Rory and Dora’s story. Unfortunately, the bookend structure around these stories involves Dennis Quaid as an author at a reading of his most recent book. He has actually written the story that we have just seen. Yes, the one involving Rory and the Old Man. The film plays it coy as to what the real source is for Quaid’s book, but at this point, we just don’t care. If we aren’t disappointed enough, we get Olivia Wilde as a grad student plusting after Quaid and the story behind the story. Talk about letting the air out of the balloon! Their scenes together are excruciatingly bad.
In real life, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife really did leave the originals of his early writings on a train, lost to the world forever. That forms the basis for this film, but as is often the case, real life proves much more interesting than fiction. On the plus side, Bradley Cooper steps up from his lackluster string of performances to show he has more to offer than just being cute.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF:you want to see Bradley Cooper flash some acting chops OR like me, you always give a shot to films about writers
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hope to protect yourself from the excruciatingly painful scenes featuring Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde OR you get really annoyed when screenwriters ruin a promising premise by trying to be too cute
(12-20-09) Greetings again from the darkness. Any lover of movies has been anxiously awaiting this “next film” from James Cameron. If you have lost track of time, it’s actually been 12 years since Cameron’s “Titanic” became the ultimate mega-box office champion. Finally, people can stop asking him what he’s been up to!
This is a very difficult movie to review or critique, so here is how I will describe it: it is a Film spectacle … I mean that in a good way. “Avatar” is an event similar to “Star Wars” or even “The Exorcist”. Much anticipation for seeing something we had never before seen on screen! And make no mistake, there are MANY things in this one we have never before seen. You will not find the list here because I believe this one should be viewed with as little upfront knowledge as possible.
The star of the film is not the actors, and certainly not the script, but rather the technology and special effects. Be sure to see it in 3-D, the way Mr. Cameron meant for it to be seen. Some segments are breathtaking in beauty and creativity and splashes of color. I was fascinated by Pandora, the planet where most of the action takes place. The plant life, creatures and inhabitants are truly a new world from the mind of Cameron and crew. Wow.
On the downside, the story is ho-hum at best and downright cheesy in more than a few scenes. Fans will easily pick out the influence of “Aliens”, “The Abyss”, the “Terminator” series … heck, even the song over the credits reminds of Celine Dion’s claim to fame. Another negative is Sigourney Weaver’s completely over the top and unbelievable scientist, and Giovanni Ribisi’s mugging corporate puppet. Who would have even imagined the usual laconic Mr. Ribisi was capable of overacting? Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are actually very good as the leads. Especially Ms. Saldana, who emotes a wide range of emotions despite heavy make-up (an understatement), and is really the best non-technical thing about the film.
In a year of terrific, accessible sci-fi (Moon, Star Trek, Avatar), this one comes up short on story, but makes up for it with awe-inspiring imagery and visuals and sound.