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.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name Fast Food Nation has three intertwined stories revolving around the fast food industry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a corporate marketing guy assigned to put a positive spin on the bad news that fecal traces has been found in the meat. He goes to the meat factory to investigate and doesn’t like what he sees but no one offers him a viable solution. Then there’s Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) Mexican immigrants who cross the border illegally. The only job they can get is in the meat factory. She bears with demeaning sexual advances while he faces the unhealthy and dangerous conditions to try for the American Dream. Finally we meet Amber (Ashley Johnson) who works in a local franchise. She’s just a high school girl trying to pay for her car insurance. This isn’t her future but it dominates her present. The corporate story is a comedy about ineffective management and media spin. The immigrants’ story is a hard drama about a bad life. Amber’s story straddles both lines--a slacker teen comedy but also introspective about what the job is doing to her soul. It may be no secret these days but it’s still fascinating. There is plenty of juicy dialogue for actors to sink their teeth into (pun intended). Kinnear plays the corporate suit as lovably as possible. He’s the put-upon business cog similar to his characters in The Matador and Little Miss Sunshine but funnier because it’s the system that’s futile not his own dreams. Valderrama has a smaller part just supporting his wife going through a horrible life with noble determination. Moreno is as heartbreaking as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Maria Full of Grace. You sense so much potential in her and she’s stuck in the factory demeaned by sexual harassment and unable to save her sister from succumbing to it. She adds new colors of despair to the immigrant experience. Johnson is careful not to make her character too wise beyond her years. She really is just a normal kid. High school sucks so do counter jobs. It’s not about being unique just relatable. Cameos stand out too. Ethan Hawke plays the coolest uncle ever. He comes to town for two scenes spouts off his cool-uncle advice and then leaves. Even though he’s a self-confessed loser he’s convincing. And he buys her beer. Bruce Willis gives a speech on the meat industry with his David Addison smirk while chomping into a burger. We’re sold. Director Richard Linklater does a good job keeping the comedy and drama balanced. He cuts back and forth between stories at sensible intervals. Towards the end Greg Kinnear disappears for a long time but Ashley Johnson’s story beefs up to compensate. Showing the inner workings of the meat factory is pretty powerful. Cow guts falling out and bodies mangled by machinery are not fun things to watch but they are important to remember. It’s all up there on the screen but not gratuitous—and doesn’t have to ruin meat forever. Just think how all foods have processes that we don’t see and still taste good. There are plenty of scenes in which the characters are talking a real Linklater specialty (Before Sunset Before Sunrise for example). Whether they’re talking about meat or minimum wage jobs or life ambitions the conversations have a catchy flow. The satire of corporate America and slacker lifestyles juxtaposed against the drama of immigrant life makes Fast Food Nation both ridiculously funny and appropriately uncomfortable.
Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) is about as average as one can get. He’s an electrician working for the Army doesn’t have any family. In other words he is perfect for playing a guinea pig in the government's new Human Hibernation Project. Joined by Rita (Maya Rudolph) a street-smart hooker who needs to hide out for a while they are to be kept on ice and revived a year later. But when they awaken they find out that they're almost a thousand years into the future. The project was forgotten and scrubbed their hibernation pods became landfill--and now Bowers is the smartest man on Earth. They meet Dizz (Dax Shepard) who's addicted to a lounge chair a bungling doctor (Justin Long) and the president/pro-wrestler (Terry Crews). Guess this means prognosticators--hoping for a better more intelligent future--are dead wrong.. Idiocracy effectively becomes a bunch of one-liners spliced together which really doesn’t do any of the comic talent justice. Still all the performers play rather believable idiots. Wilson turns on his easy-going charm as the least dim-witted bulb in the bunch (but never quite gets what Rita does for a living). The affable actor always shines brighter in a movie that doesn’t have “romantic comedy” in its description. Rudolph does her usual Saturday Night Live shtick while Long (Accepted) as the doctor who checks people in and out as if they were in a Jiffy Lube is hysterical even if the one-note hospital gag gets a tad tiresome. Crews is also pretty clever in his role as the dunderhead president who can't figure out how to save his planet from starvation. Why haven't you heard about this movie? Well that's the true Idiocracy. Fox seems to have rushed this little gem out failing to promote it in anyway much like they did with the cult hit Office Space. Ironically both are directed by Mike Judge (of Beavis and Butthead fame). Judge has put his finger on the pulse of what's wrong with this world and gives a bleak social commentary about our future. For example his version of the classic film of the future is a giant naked butt expelling intermittent gas every few minutes. That kind of fart film is the wave of this future run by live-action Beavis and Buttheads. Maybe Judge means to say that the people of Idiocracy’s future--who watch the Masturbation Channel and Fox News (yes that survives) and shop at stores bigger than small cities--are the descendants of those who run the studios today. Or maybe not.
It’s Halloween Eve in suburbia and while most of the neighborhood kids are gearing up for a candy extravaganza two young‘uns--DJ (voiced by Mitchell Musso) and Chowder (voiced by Sam Lerner)--are fretting and dreading. They’re convinced that the decrepit house across the street is in fact a monster house inhabited by an old hermit named Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi) that will lure kids in on Halloween night. But just as DJ’s parents who naturally don’t believe him to begin with leave for a vacation DJ inadvertently sends Nebbercracker to his death--or so he fears. Now DJ believes Nebbercracker’s monster house will seek revenge on him specifically and to make matters worse his negligent babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal) won’t hear of his yapping. After DJ and Chowder are forced to take action they along with a girl peddling candy (voiced by Spencer Locke) discover how the monster came to be and just how unforgiving she is. When it comes to animation acting the main goal is to make audiences forget that the actors are giving their performances in a studio possibly dressed in their PJs and sans makeup. That goal’s usually achieved but Monster House takes a gamble in supposing that child actors comprising the lead characters will be able to wrap their still-expanding brains around the concept. Somehow Lerner and Musso grasp this despite sounding like they haven’t even been in this world very long! The two are surrounded by a fail-proof supporting cast: it takes a while to recognize Buscemi’s voice as Nebbercracker but once it hits it fits and Gyllenhaal as the babysitter is great if unpredictable casting. Quasi-cameos from Jason Lee as Gyllenhaal’s punk boyfriend Jon Heder as a video-game god and Kevin James and Nick Cannon as slow-moving and -thinking cops garner the most laughs. Not only does it help a film’s box office performance to have Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis onboard as executive producers it helps a film’s director--in this case a rookie director named Gil Kenan. (Zemeckis directed ‘04’s somewhat similar-looking The Polar Express.) While the animation doesn’t quite stand up to say Pixar’s earth-shattering visuals Kenan makes up for it with a fun-filled story (from scripters Dan Harmon Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler) and an overall lively involved effort--and it’s not like the movie doesn’t still look gorgeous. Besides sometimes it’s refreshing to not be so entranced by the CGI that you lose sight of the actual movie at hand. Kenan’s film is one of the scarier animated movies in a while but that still doesn’t exclude many age groups. What the first-time director thrives on is stopping just shy of true horror moments at which point he reverts to feel-good mode without ever being sappy.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
Slackers stars Devon Sawa as Dave a lazy college bum who along with his two cronies Sam (Jason Segel) and Jeff (Michael Maronna) cheats his way through school in a variety of schemes that involve elaborate ways of getting advance peeks at test questions and then paying the smart nerdy kids to provide the correct answers. (Methinks it would be far easier for them to just do the work themselves.) While stealing the midterm test from a physics class Dave meets a pretty girl Angela (James King) and asks her out. It turns out to be a big mistake because Angela has previously attracted the attentions of Cool Ethan (Jason Schwartzman) a psychotic geek who is stalking poor Angela without her knowledge. Happening upon a document that will expose Dave's misdeeds Ethan blackmails Dave and his gang--in return for not incriminating them they must work their magic and get Ethan the necessary information to win the heart of unsuspecting Angela.
Ethan is clearly the film's antagonist and Schwartzman's (who was brilliant in Rushmore) fearlessly repellent performance is as insanely funny as it is completely disturbing. (It's also the one true thing that sets Slackers apart from complete anonymity.) There's no sweet side to this guy that Angela might fall for if she only got to know him. Schwartzman's Ethan is abrasive aggressive unrelenting hyperactive socially inept and full of ill-advised impulses he never filters. Meanwhile Sawa and King come off as a bland cut-and-paste Ken and Barbie who never set the screen on fire. Aside from the sock puppet gag bit Maronna and Segel are wasted as Sawa's slavishly devoted friends. Laura Prepon (TV's That '70s Show) tantalizes us as King's lascivious roommate but we just don't get to see enough of her fine performance.
There's little wittiness found in Dewey Nicks' direction or in the writing though there are a handful of moments that rise above the film's generally uninspired technique. Nicks effectively rips off Spike Lee's floating camera movement in a scene where Dave walks through an operatic graduation celebration and the alternate reality sequences (Cool Ethan's kissing threesome; Jeff's sock puppet; the cheaters imagining themselves as superheroes rap stars and Peter Pan) are genuinely funny and almost innovative. Nicks almost inserts enough of this to make Slackers more than just your routine gross-out romp rife with weird sex masturbation and toilet humor--but just almost. Ultimately in Nicks' hands the movie never rises above its pedestrian plot and dialogue.