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.
Not content to let the lifeless zombies of 2004‘s Polar Express define his legacy as a pioneer of 3-D Christmas movies (a genre to which incidentally he remains the sole contributor) director Robert Zemeckis is back for another go at it and this time his inspiration isn’t just some fly-by-night Caldecott Medal winner; it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol perhaps the most cherished piece of Christmas fiction of all time.
While other filmmakers have tackled Dickens’ most famous work before none adapted it in the way the author would have wanted it to be presented: as a big-budget three-dimensional motion-capture animated spectacle starring the legendary Jim Carrey. Thankfully for us Zemeckis stepped up to the plate.
For the dozen or so who are unfamiliar with A Christmas Carol’s simple yet powerful story a quick rundown is in order. On a snowy Christmas Eve in 19th-century London a notorious miser named Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Carrey) is visited by three ghosts (also played by Carrey): Christmas Past Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. Together the terrifying apparitions conspire to teach Scrooge an unforgettable lesson about the folly of his avarice and the virtue of charity and compassion.
Unlike Zemeckis’ previous literary adaptation 2006’s Beowulf there isn’t a whole lot about A Christmas Carol’s tale of yuletide redemption that cries out for the 3-D treatment — nor does the star of Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective seem especially suited to play the part of Scrooge. And yet both creative decisions prove surprisingly successful in this movie. Zemeckis’ 3-D animation is wondrous to behold and Carrey is simply terrific as the bitter old grinch.
The problem is Zemeckis can’t resist falling in love with his technology and his star; consequently A Christmas Carol overdoses on both. The first time the camera glides through the streets of Dickensian London or soars above its snow-covered skyline the experience is breathtaking like being plunged into a world of Thomas Kinkade paintings. (And I mean that in a good way — even the fiercest detractors of the Painter of LightTM’s mass-produced portraits have to admit they hold a certain romantic appeal.) But by the fifth or sixth time it devolves into tedious showmanship.
Similarly while Carrey’s total immersion into the Scrooge character is remarkable his manic mugging as the Christmas ghosts is all too often distracting. Don’t ask me what the Ghost of Christmas Present was talking about during his sequence; all he seemed to do was laugh like a drunken Viking and blather on with an exaggerated Scottish accent.
But in the end neither Zemeckis’ overreach nor Carrey’s hysterics can obscure the impact of A Christmas Carol’s timeless message. As with previous adaptations of the story I couldn’t help but tear up a little when Tiny Tim uttered his trademark closing line “God bless us everyone!” — even if he did kinda look like a cartoon zombie.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!
September 25, 2002 12:54pm EST
After Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a mentally disturbed woman who mutilates her body takes a typing course she goes looking for a job and is immediately lucky. Lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader) obviously not very demanding hires her as typist in his shabby and not very busy office. Grey is immediately annoyed with the errors in Lee's letters. Fortunately Lee has the support of her overly protective mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) and devoted boyfriend Peter ( Jeremy Davies) another loser with parents proud of his job at J.C. Penney's. But Lee and Edward both recovering from nervous breakdowns develop a sadomasochistic relationship which has the duo enjoying spanking and masturbatory sessions at the office. Lee grows so fond of the abuse that she purposefully makes mistakes to provoke Edward. Eventually Lee realizes that she doesn't love Peter and she and Edward acknowledge the perversity that binds them.
Gyllenhaal is charmless as Lee; the very talented Spader seeming to want to carry on with the Bud Cort banner is wasted in his role as lawyer Grey; Davies usually interesting in a variety of offbeat roles here phones in his familiar goofiness as the boyfriend; and Warren who triumphed as the slutty gang moll in Victor/Victoria has absolutely nothing to do here as Lee's overbearing mother.
Writer/director Steven Shainberg favors meaningless close-ups tacky sets and settings lugubrious and phony characters and lame material all around. He fails to make kinkiness amusing his characters compelling or his story dynamic.