It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes into a bunch of glowing giddy teenagers but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka an avatar) we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders all created from scratch rendered with uncanny fluidity and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population for an Earth-based mining consortium Jake becomes enamored with the proud peace-loving natives and their groovy granola ways. Soon enough he’s joined their tribe taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana) and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) a bug-eyed musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species) we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar story and character development are treated as obstacles pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet despite its flaws Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
A movie supposedly based on a true story and definitely custom-made for horse lovers Hidalgo ambles along at a leisurely pace taking a full two hours and 20 minutes to tell the story of a man Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen); his horse Hidalgo (T.J.); and their attempt to win the famed 3000-mile "Ocean of Fire" endurance race across the Arabian Desert in the 1890s. (We use the phrase "supposedly" true because although the filmmakers claim the story is meticulously researched certain Arab groups claim no such race ever existed. Certainly Hopkins himself lived but the rest is up for debate. Ah Hollywood can we not have one film this season that doesn't stir up controversy with someone?) At any rate Hopkins' reasons for entering the alleged race are many but mainly he's running from himself. The son of a Native American woman and a white man he's never been able to come to terms with his mixed heritage. Since the Ocean of Fire race has always been exclusively open only to a) men b) Arabs and c) purebred Arabian horses Hopkins' efforts to prove himself--and his mustang--form the movie's underlying theme which is typical Disney fare: It's not about who you are or where you came from; it's all about heart.
With his standout turn as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy Mortensen achieved heartthrob status but the big question everyone's asking about Hidalgo is whether or not he can carry a movie on his own. The answer is a resounding yes. When there's action to be had Mortensen looks like a real pro. He's got the cowboy drawl down pat; shoots a Colt .45 with confidence; delivers sharp one-liners like a kinder gentler Clint Eastwood; and has a great seat on a horse. Even when the movie gets a little slow--and it does a 3000-mile desert race will do that to a movie--Mortensen's onscreen appeal saves the day. There is of course a supporting cast of characters who either help our hero in his quest: Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) who challenges Hopkins to enter the race but ultimately becomes his friend and the Sheikh's daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) a rider herself but prohibited from entering because she's a woman. Obstacles of course also abound: There's Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard) who needs her mare to win the race so she can breed her to the Sheikh's Arabian stud El Attal the purest stud of the purest bloodline in the world. She wouldn't mind if Hopkins dropped out of the race--or into her bed.
There's no question that director Joe Johnston's (Jurassic Park III) production of Hidalgo was a massive undertaking: Eight hundred horses plus camels vultures falcons rabbits goats dogs donkeys leopards and buffalo are featured in the film along with a re-creation of a Wild West show the massacre at Wounded Knee a locust swarm and a desert sandstorm. The locations spanned the globe from the Arabian Desert (shot in Morocco) to the sprawling ranchlands of the American West to the New York City docks. All in all it's a well put together visual display and like its star it feels authentic. The dialogue from scribe John Fusco (Young Guns I and II Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) is engaging if occasionally a little sappy; the relationships (especially between Hopkins and Hidalgo) are meaningful and well presented; and the action scenes are fast-paced and exciting. Trouble is interspersed are somewhat long expanses of time during which too little actually happens which makes the film seem longer than it needed to be.