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Avatar brings Hollywood cinema into the 21st century
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

Avatar
Opening December 18


Watching a big screen love scene between 10-foot-tall blue aliens in 3D is officially a weird experience. And these aren't your average 10-foot-tall tall blue aliens in 3D, these aliens are the result of the most sophisticated cinematic technology ever created. And they are awesome.

Avatar is many things. It is the most expensive film ever made, according to inexact estimates by Hollywood type folks. Avatar is also classic Hollywood movie fare. There are un-conflicted villains, beautiful young heroes, wise sages, environmentally conscious natives, chase scenes, explosions, and a wondrous journey into another world. Avatar is a movie directed by an egomaniac with an overblown sense of self importance and a knack for extravagant budgets and movies that make lots of cold, hard cash.

Most importantly, Avatar is a good movie. There's nothing wrong with classic Hollywood fare as long as we don't ask too much of it. The Hollywood style is all about tight continuity editing, solid storytelling, familiar characters, and pure movie magic. Avatar is brimming with all the above.

Here's the skinny: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic war vet selected to work on the Avatar project. This corporate funded science project, headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), grows human/alien hybrid avatars that will allow humans to breathe the air on Pandora, a mining outpost planet being exploited for its natural resources.

Pandora is home to the Na'vi, a humanoid race of blue 10-foot natives with a unique connection to their natural world. Sully gets his avatar and is taken into the Na'vi community to learn their ways. Sully learns some lessons and falls in love. Along the way there are lots of explosions and bad guys, and cool Pandoran flora and fauna.

It's only Cameron's eighth film as director, and he has a pretty good record with me personally. I never saw Piranha II: The Spawning (I think I actually might have seen it once in the '80s, but I was probably on a controlled substance of some sort so it doesn't count for the purposes of professional criticism). Next came the original Terminator: liked it. After that he directed Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, and True Lies: liked it, liked it, liked it, and liked it.

Then came Titanic. I never understood the fascination. I'd have paid double to watch the last 20 minutes twice and be completely spared the hours and hours of Cameron masturbation that went before. It seems all of Cameron's demons that I was able to forgive in the five previous films converged in a perfect storm of bad dialogue, predictable plot devices, contrived tension, overblown music, stock characters, and surprisingly poor acting by talented actors. It was, however, cool when the ship sank.

Which bring us to number eight: Avatar - which I liked. That means I found six of the seven Cameron films that I've seen while coherent worthy of my approval. Even I find this surprising. I would still rather have lunch with David Lynch or Lynn Shelton, but apparently, I'm a Cameron fan.

The key here is that Avatar is pure movie magic. The story is familiar, but with contemporary twists that make it new and fresh. Cameron's strengths are hitting on all cylinders and it seems like somebody is whispering a little cinematic temperance in his ear. Don't get me wrong, the movie is spectacular, but in all the right ways.

Even the 3D was subtle and effective without being intrusive. Cameron stays away from ubiquitous 3D gimmicks that get tiresome quickly (anybody see the Zemeckis version of Beowulf?). The 3D is not so much a marketing stunt here as it's another cinematic tool used to transport the viewer even more completely into the fictional world.

The Na'vi (and the avatars) are gorgeous. I forgot I was watching CGI. The actors are present and their acting comes through due to cutting-edge computer magic and performance capture animation that is too boring for words, but makes for amazing images.

Worthington gets the job done as the paraplegic soldier who goes native. Weaver, as always, is a beautiful and powerful force onscreen, and Giovanni Ribisi steals scenes as the corporate hatchet man.

Special kudos are reserved for one of my new favorite actors, Zoë Saldana. Saldana shines through the CGI as the fiery Na'vi chief's daughter, Neytiri. Saldana stole my heart this summer as the revamped Uhura in the new Star Trek flick, and she doesn't let me down here.

So, Avatar is a good movie. It's a fun ride and the technology is astounding without being intrusive. And it's not as if Avatar doesn't provoke a couple of interesting intellectual questions. What's the difference between a colonizer and an occupier? What happens when the corporation becomes the government? What are the consequences of cultural hubris that assumes a less technologically advanced culture has less advanced ideas?

The problem is, we've asked these questions before. The 20th century was pretty much consumed with these questions. On the other hand, we never got real answers to them then and those answers seem like moving targets in the insanely paced, technology-driven 21st century.

But it doesn't really matter if Avatar provokes intellectual questions or not. What does matter, and what this film was built to do, is that Avatar entertains. This is an excellent example of the oft-derided Hollywood style movie, and one you absolutely must experience on the big screen.


Political Invictus another Eastwood victory
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Invictus
Opening December 11


Realizing the power sport can hold over people, newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) comes to the conclusion that his country's rugby team, the green and gold Springboks - adored by whites but despised by blacks - need to win the 1995 World Cup. It's a tall order, but by enlisting the aid of the team's young captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) he's confident a positive outcome can be reached, and under the banner "One Country, One Team" the duo hope to erase the specter of apartheid for good.

As a director, Clint Eastwood has never been one to stick to conventional wisdom. The man became an icon thanks to his turns in Western classics like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and hard-boiled police thrillers like Dirty Harry, and while he's made sure to play in those genres behind the camera, many films like High Plains Drifter, Tightrope and Unforgiven go along way to deconstructing the Eastwood mythos.

But he hasn't stopped there. The filmmaker has looked at obsession both inside and out of the Hollywood jungle in White Hunter, Black Heart, has attempted a warts and all biopic of jazz great Charlie Parker with Bird, tackled controversy by examining euthanasia in Million Dollar Baby and somehow made Robert James Waller's soapy The Bridges of Madison County one of the purest depictions of love and sacrifice I've ever seen. Now pushing 80, he's embarked on his most ambitious slate of films yet, recently dissecting both sides of WWII with Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, crafting a 1930s Los Angeles mystery with Changeling, and pushing the limits of racial intolerance while also further commenting on his own cinematic persona with Gran Torino.

Now comes the based-on-fact political drama Invictus, an underdog sports story more interested in how a country can unite after decades of intolerance and bigotry than it is in which way the ball bounces or who scores the winning points. This film is a The Queen-like saga of a political leader trying to make the right moves when the wrong ones would be a heck of a lot easier, where bowing to conventional wisdom would have split people apart instead of bringing them together.

This take by Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham (Don't Say a Word), working from John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy, is an interesting one. Where lesser filmmakers would have played up the sports angle, gone out of their way to turn this into a South African rugby version of Hoosiers or Remember the Titans, these two instead focus almost entirely upon Mandela and his decision making, the outcome on the field a virtual afterthought.

This does tend to hurt as much as it helps. Where the political machinations are downright fascinating, and while one cannot help but be moved by Mandela's strength of will and almost miraculous foresight, whenever the film does turn to the rugby pitch it all becomes far less interesting. The scenes of on-field action aren't exciting, and anyone new to the sport isn't going to learn anything to help them to make sense of it. Even though the fate of an entire nation more or less rests on the outcome, the championship game is surprisingly inert, and while a few of the rougher moments do pack the requisite punch, the majority sadly reeks of platitude and cliché.

Thankfully those are complaints I cannot levy against the remainder of the film. Watching Mandela at work, observing the relationships between his staff, his entourage and his security team, seeing him take to his task with the tenacity of a lion and the sensitivity of a lamb is fascinating. For those unfamiliar with how South Africa was able to make such a startling transformation after decades of violence and despair, much can be learned here. It is spellbinding stuff, and as soon as the movie was over I walked right into Barnes and Nobles and purchased a copy of Carlin's book, eager to learn more.

A case can be made that Eastwood's celebrated (and sometimes notorious) restraint and attention to detail work against him a little bit in this instance. The pacing is a tad lackadaisical, and while scenes of Mandela's family strife are intriguing, I'm not sure they're necessary. Many times Peckham's screenplay delicately hints at things the majority of viewers do not need spelled out, only to revisit them in tedious detail later on. While I was never frustrated, I do admit to wishing now and again the movie would just get on with it.

On the flip side, both Damon and Freeman deliver exemplary performances, and even if the accents aren't perfect, the way they dig deep inside their respective characters certainly is. Freeman, in particular, doesn't just rise to the occasion; he embodies it whole, taking one of the most recognizable figures of the last century and making me feel like I was seeing him for the very first time.

Overall, with Invictus, Eastwood not only once again goes in an unexpected direction, he also adds insight to a historical event many know far too little about. Once translated, the title means "unconquered," and when you consider everything South Africa has been through, I cannot think of a better one. This movie is about more than winning rugby games, about more than athletes and politicians working together for a common goal. It is, in the end, about a people coming together to look hardship and tragedy in the eye and rise above for the common good. If that's not a victory worth celebrating, I'm not sure what else would be.


Campy Transylmania too funny for words
by Rajkhet Dirzhud-Rashid - SGN A&E Writer

Transylmania
Now playing


Most directors and actors are busy trotting out their best work, hoping to stick in the minds of the public and hoping particularly to stick in the minds of those who decide who wins come Oscar season. Still, in the midst of all the great films now gracing your neighborhood multiplex screens, it's nice to just settle back and laugh at something amazingly silly and certain not to even get a nod for any awards. This year's guilty pleasure for me happens to be a send-up of several better (much better, trust me) vampire films, and maybe a backhanded slap to what Craig Ferguson calls the "kissy vampire movies" like Twilight: New Moon.

One could dismiss directors David and Scott Hillenbrand's hilarious romp, Transylmania, as overly concerned with potty humor and oversexed teenaged lust, but that would be unfair, because the film is not bad. Campy, yes, but not bad - or at least I thought so.

In fact, as I laughed at obvious gags like a college kid getting his "man's business" caught in a slammed laptop (he slams it closed because he doesn't want his visiting parents to see that he's "sexing up" his online pal by showing her his "naughty bits"), I had no guilt at all. That gag, and others - like the fact that the kid resembles a 500-year-old, very evil vampire - are just too funny for words.

There are gross vomit scenes in a lab where a body swap is going badly wrong, lots of scantily clad vamp chicks writhing around any time they're onscreen, and lots of references to the dorky guy getting better in bed with some "ancient tome" given to him by the aforementioned other dorky guy. Standard schlock cinema (with a nod to Professor Fred's Movie Marvels), but I laughed so hard I nearly peed my pants. It's guaranteed to land on a lot of critics' "worst" lists, I'm sure. Me, I say give me growly vamps with heaving bosoms, creepy castles, and a spell that puts another ancient vampire into a blonde bimbo college girl's body, to highly laughable effect.

Not every film out there this season needs to be James Cameron's Avatar or the latest costume drama from bygone centuries (though, yes, I'll line up to see those, too). Some films just need to be funny enough to make one stop stressing about how thin the budget is and how many more presents there are to buy and how many shopping days are left before the big holiday shows up. So grab some pals, load up on candy, popcorn and soda, and check this one out.




SGN PICKS - Hottest artists of the year, 2009
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Voices Rising, a Queer spoken-word extravaganza
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SGN PICKS - Best metal/industrial/hard rock of 2009: Rammstein's Liebe Ist Für Alle Da (a highly biased recommendation)
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Charles Lloyd Quartet incredible and profound
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NW Bears = Bearracuda
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Avatar brings Hollywood cinema into the 21st century
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Political Invictus another Eastwood victory
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Campy Transylmania too funny for words
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WINDING DOWN 2009: Cake, Deck the Hall Ball
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Q-Scopes by Jack Fertig
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Passion Pit sums up a big year, pick their faves of '09
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Northwest News
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Gift guides and goodbyes
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Deep Inside Hollywood - Romeo San Vicente
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Book Marks
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Radio City Rockettes rock in Seattle
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Seattle Shakes settles for serviceable Twelfth Night
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Santaland Diaries at the Bathhouse
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Dyketown: Sneaking into Women's Chorus rehearsal & rib
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