Winter Holiday Review-A-Palooza 2009

Below are reviews for Avatar, The Blindside and Up in the Air

Avatar Review

As much a victim of its own hype as a genuine disappointment, Avatar rides in on a wave of hype largely the fault of the marketing department. But The Dark Knight did too, and it delivered the goods.

I think it’s worthwhile to compare the two. Both are hyper-expensive tentpole pictures from big name directors with premises that can easily lend themselves to videogame-like movies.

The Dark Knight ascends above that potential pitfall and offers a rich, complex story. It’s not just an epic in scope and budget.

On the other hand Avatar is an epic only in name. It’s super-expensive and probably represents a step forward technologically in the field of film. Story-wise, it’s not the same story.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’re probably vaguely familiar with the premise. Basically, to put it simply, it’s Pocahantas. Or Dances with Wolves. Or every archetypal Western ever.

Sam Worthington is well cast as the central tough, paraplegic Jake Sully who finds his legs in the body of the indigenous Na’vi people of the planet Pandora. He does a fine job with the role, his rough and tumble charm keeping the audience on his side.

Really the performances in general are great, and Cameron’s tech improvements make the Na’vi performances the most realistic captured in this type of film, definitely outshining LOTR‘s Gollum.

But the characters are thin, sometimes laughably, particularly the antagonists. Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate sleazebag is offered no shades of gray, neither is his cigar-chewing military commander lackey.

The story is a heavy handed allegory for every white man conquest ever, from the American venture into Native American territory to colonialism all over the world.

And the sci-fi “world” is not really all that creative. Almost all the creatures are just facsimiles of animals on Earth, just adding a leg or an eye or gills. The Na’vi’s culture calls to mind generic presentations of Native Americans in countless films, with a shade of Christianity.

The action is perfectly fine, sometimes stunning just in terms of scale. But Cameron’s not reinventing the wheel with any of this, only on a tech level.

It supposedly took years and years to get this project off the ground. Maybe that time would have been better spent polishing the script.

Final note. “Unobtanium”. Seriously?

The Blindside

This film does avoid a lot of the sappy sentiment the story could easily have fallen into and for that the filmmakers deserve credit. Unfortunately it does not avoid them all.

In general there’s a gloss to presentation, a sort of mainstreaming, that calls to mind a Hallmark movie of the week. I think this is most clearly seen in Oher’s “tough guy” friends, who might as well be out of “mean black guy” central casting. Sandra Bullock clearly is playing the “star” role, and it’s sad to see Oher’s character, who has the real extraordinary story, shifted to the background.

Quinton Aaron does a really nice job with the role, and the few character moments he gets (such as stuffing dinner rolls into his pants at Thanksgiving) play nicely. But he’s rendered into a sort of mute giant, who only changes when prodded by supportive white people. While the movie is by no means racist it does miss an opportunity to tell a great story about a black man.

I just personally found the film sometimes corny, what with Oher’s 98th percentile “protection instincts” and other moments like that. Watching photos of the real Oher being drafted by the Ravens I couldn’t help but think his real story was likely much more grimy and real, and probably a lot more interesting.

Up in the Air

This movie was the top pick of the National Board of Review and the DC film critics, and right now it looks like a frontrunner for Best Picture come Oscar time. I think that’s a bit sad. Here’s why.

Up in the Air is a fine movie, well-made, well-acted and with a worthwhile message. It has things to say about isolation, the economy, relationships, and contemporary technology’s distancing effect.

But it feels at a distance too. It might be a natural byproduct of Clooney’s character, a career loner who fires people for a job. Maybe it’s the way the move sort of coasts by not really putting Clooney to the test until the very end.

After that very strong moment involving Clooney’s love interest (a stellar Vera Farmiga), which I won’t spoil, the film seems to have no idea how to end.

I don’t buy the notion it’s a bravely ironic ending, I think Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner genuinely did not know how to end their film, so they just stopped. It’s a very unsatisfying ending that doesn’t really say anything in my opinion.

There are some really strong moments here and there, particularly a wedding day cold feet scene involving Clooney and Danny McBride. But really I think the reason this is leading the pack right now has more to do with the lack of competition than the merits of the film itself. It feels important and right because of the relevance to the economy, and other great movies (Inglorious Basterds, District 9) are more identifiably genre pictures and therefore considered frivolous. Bull.

Certainly not a bad film, but I think vastly overrated.