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.
Since they were young girls growing up in the Midwest Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) have shared the same dream--to become the next biggest thing to hit musical theater but so far performing in an airport lounge is the closest they've come. Their lives change however when they witness a murder by some nefarious drug dealers and in an attempt to escape end up in Los Angeles which has "no dinner theater no musical theater no culture at all." It's the perfect place for them to hide out and all goes to plan until Connie and Carla happen upon a local drag club. Suddenly they see an excellent way to elude their pursuers--and fulfill their need to be on stage at the same time. Pretending to be men dressed as drag queens Connie and Carla are soon headlining at the club belting out the show tunes they love. They become a huge hit getting the fame and recognition they've always wanted--but as time wears on the whole charade turns out to be a real "drag" ("pun intended " as the gals like to say) especially when Connie falls for nice guy Jeff (David Duchovny). Still with the killers hot on their trail Connie and Carla have to stay incognito--at least until they can find a way to come out of the closet without getting killed or disappointing their growing legion of fans.
The very charismatic Vardalos wowed audiences with her first feature the smash hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding and is probably feeling more than a little pressure to follow up with something just as good especially since the Big Fat Greek spin-off TV series failed miserably. Luckily she succeeds with Connie and Carla due in large part to her co-star Collette who finally--after a string of dramatic movies such as The Sixth Sense and The Hours--gets to use the comedic skills she deftly showed in her feature film debut Muriel's Wedding. Together the actresses' natural rapport and infectious charm permeate the film and despite a sometimes hackneyed script they keep things lively and boy can they sing! Vardalos and Collette make the most of their musical theater backgrounds working the stage and making the film's musical numbers truly memorable. Vardalos also displays a fair amount of chemistry with Duchovny as the straight Jeff desperately struggles with his burgeoning feelings for someone he believes is a man. The last little plus is C and C's supporting cast including the bonafide drag queens the girls befriend at the club. Led by the Tony-winning Stephen Spinella (Angels in America) as Robert/"Peaches " who also happens to be Jeff's estranged brother the supporting guys/dolls add that certain La Cage joie de vivre.
As she did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding writer/actress Vardalos' script speaks from the heart with genuinely fresh funny and down to earth dialogue. Apparently she did loads of dinner theater in her early years so she's familiar with the subject. Unfortunately she relies on a contrived Some Like It Hot plot about vengeful drug dealers to get Connie and Carla to L.A. but once the film gets into drag it zings. Connie and Carla is also in capable hands with director-actor Michael Lembeck (The Santa Clause 2) a former song-and-dance man himself at the helm. The broad comedic style he picked up directing countless television sitcom episodes serves well here and he turns the musical numbers into mini show-stoppers each one topping the next. The last is the best of course when the girls launch into "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" from Oklahoma capped by a special guest appearance from the musical theater goddess herself Debbie Reynolds. Classic.