U.S.; James Cameron, 2009, Fox
Avatar, James Cameron's planet-shaking, moon-rocking, eco-worshiping, dragon-riding new science fiction fantasy epic-and-a-half, may not be a perfect movie. But it's sure as hell an incredible experience. It's a genre-movie knockout, a cinematic mind-blast and a technological marvel whose feats of 3D motion-capture and CGI pyrotechnics, and the spectacular and endlessly imaginative alternate world it creates -- set on a distant Alpha Centauri moon called Pandora, where the natives are blue and the zeitgeist is green -- all keep blowing you away.
That gargantuan dream-world inside Avatar is so marvelous, so beautiful, so popping with delights ranging from gut-wrenching to lyrical, and from exalting to borderline campy, that your senses and susceptibilities will probably get seduced, even as your more literary sensibilities may flinch at the usual Cameron script shortcomings: the sometimes flat, mostly humorless dialogue, the familiar plotlines, and the standard-pulp characterizations.
Here, those "flaws" seem merely serviceable, while the stunning visual imagery and exploding action around them -- those blue-skinned, golden-eyed Na'vi extraterrestrials and the human-controlled Avatars or Na'vi counterfeits astride swooping semi-pterodactyls soaring above super-rain forest landscapes, in deep-focus shots of astounding detail and overwhelming richness and color -- are almost always transporting.
God, you think as you watch this movie's bounteous gallery of visual wonders -- its vast luminous greenery, willow God-icons, huge stomping robo-thugs and wave upon wave of deep-focus wonders -- if this man could only tell a joke, he really would be king of the world! (Yes, I have seen True Lies.)
The well-worn, well-worked, relatively humor-free but still engrossing story of Avatar hovers on what used to be deprecatingly called, in literary science fiction circles, "space opera" -- a standard Western movie or pulp plot transplanted to other places, other worlds. And the plot isn't just pulpy. It also recalls more adult '50s-'60s ecological sc-fi, like Jack Vance's The Dragon Masters, Brian Aldiss' Hothouse and Frank Herbert's Dune.
In this case, Cameron has taken the old theme of the soldier going native and transplanted it to his Pandora, where the aliens are tall and the trees are taller. There, an expedition from ecologically ravished Earth has shown up to disguise themselves as the natives or Na'vi, talk them out of their most valuable resource (something called, in a moment of rare Cameronian whimsy, the old joke term "unobtainium"), and, if that fails, blow them off it.
He's added a species-crossing romance between the movie's avatar hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington of Terminator Salvation) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the sexiest, toughest, 12-foot-tall blue gal you could ever hope to rub tendrils with, and brought in a supporting gallery of all-worlds-tolerant Stanford scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, a Cameron veteran), corporate douche-bag Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, oozing sleaze) and the macho-beyond-macho, mean-multiplied-by-mean Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). (As we will later learn about his expedition/war/exploitation, the cause is carnage, the goal is theft, the motive is money, and Miles is a Terminator plus testosterone.)
The technology is fantastic. And no, I don't think Cameron's obvious political sentiments -- against corporate mendacity and exploitation, the Iraq War, ecological damage and class and racial bigotry -- are too bald or too heart-and-art-on-sleeve.
Still, as I watched Avatar, I felt a little sad, because, much as I was entertained by Cameron's phantasmagorical knockout of a show, I'd still like to see virtuosity like this more often deployed at the service of an adult story. Something richer, denser, more real and more human. Something like, more recently, The Aviator. Or like the Citizen Kanes, Godfathers, and Casablancas that still top moviemakers' and experts' "all-time greatest" lists.
That's not a knock on Avatar, but simply on the culture that tends to spend almost all its money and invest its most massive cinematic resources on the kind of pop dream-weaving that most 12-year-olds cherish. (Extras: featurettes.)
Crazy Heart (A)
U.S. Scott Cooper, 2009, Fox
Jeff Bridges deserved an Oscar long before he picked one up this year for Crazy Heart. But he had the perfect vehicle for the prize with this wise and street-wise, compassionate, beautifully shot tale of a fading, self-destructive alcoholic country and western star (nick)named Bad Blake -- a role written and intended for Waylon Jennings, but into which Bridges, songs and all, slipped like a well-worn but still sturdy pair of workman's gloves. Lloyd's boy was classily supported by Maggie Gyllenhaal as the young single mother/music reporter Bad thinks is his last romantic chance, Robert Duvall as a crusty old country pal (bringing echoes of Tender Mercies), and Colin Farrell as an old band-mate who made it bigger.
Bridges got all the press -- no one, not even Waylon, could have played the part better -- but Crazy Heart also marked a fine debut by writer-director Scott Cooper. And, sung by Bridges and Farrell, there was a batch of moving, catchy country songs by Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett, including the eventual Oscar-winner in that category, "The Weary Kind." Like a favorite old tune filling the room on a worn old juke box, I loved this movie's hooks and choruses. (Extras: Featurettes.)
Summer Hours (A)
France; Olivier Assayas, 2008, Criterion
A wonderful French ensemble film -- about the Chekhovian disintegration of a family whose mother was a major artist's niece and favorite, whose house is full of rare mementos desired by museums, and whose second generation is plunged, when that mother dies, into conflict and sorrow by the tasks of keeping or disposing of the home and its precious contents. Following in the footsteps of Andre Techine's and Patrice Chereau's excellent French ensemble dramas, and of Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale last year, Summer Hours offers superb writing and performances (by Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier, Kyle Eastwood, Isabelle Sadoyan, and many others), as well as supple, contemplative direction and an ending that heightens the inward emotion by discreetly handling the outer. (In French and English, with English subtitles.)
Vivre sa Vie (My Life to Live) (A)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1962, Criterion
Jean-Luc Godard tells, in 12 precise tableaux, the sad, stripped-down story of an ill-fated young Parisian prostitute named Nana (after Emile Zola's famous whore, of course), played by Godard's then-wife and muse Anna Karina with Louise Brooks bangs, '60s sexy-chic and a heart-melting smile.
This is one of Godard's best films, a prototypical mix of cinema verite style, pseudo-documentary shots, B-movie riffs and classical cinema allusions, all at the service of a lament for the past, masked as a document of the present, robed in a call to arms. When Karina's Nana goes into an afternoon revival house screening of Carl Dreyer's silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, and dissolves in tears at the sight of the shaven-headed Maria Falconetti as Joan, it's one of the quintessential mixed moments from one of the cinema's most inspiring cinephiles and provocateurs. With a cameo by the philosopher Brice Parain. (In French, with English subtitles.) (Extras: excellent commentary by Adrian Martin; interviews with Karina and Jean Narboni; contemporary essays on prostitution; Godard's trailer; stills gallery; booklet with Godard's treatment/scenario; interviews with Godard; essays by Michael Atkinson and Jean Collet.)
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Norma Talmadge Collection (B)
U.S.; Frank Lloyd, Clarence Brown, 1923-26, Kino
The Talmadge sisters -- eldest girl Norma (1893-1957), middle sister Natalie (1898-1969), and youngest Constance (1898-1973) -- were Lillian and Dorothy Gish's only rivals as the preeminent Hollywood sister team of the silent era. And though the Gush Sisters take the prize in the long view of history, the Talmadge girls, beautiful, salty, funny ladies born in Brooklyn, were almost as popular in the Roaring Twenties as their more legendary rivals.
Norma was the biggest star, vaulting to fame at 18 in the silent version of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, becoming a lead star at Triangle and Vitagraph, and staying on top until her retirement in 1930, after playing Dubarry: Woman of Passion (1930). In many ways, she suggests a later Norma; she was the Norma Shearer of her day, a genteel leading lady of warmth, sometime earthiness and innate elegance ideal for epics or romantic dramas. Natalie owed her film career, brief but imperishable, to her great comedian husband, Buster Keaton, who costarred with her in one of his silent feature classics, Our Hospitality.
Within the Law (B)
U.S.; Frank Lloyd, 1923
Norma as a femme fatale: an innocent shop girl falsely accused and imprisoned for theft, who joins a gang of grifters on her release, and plots revenge against the rich family who did her wrong. Romance, as you'd expect, intervenes. A socially conscious thriller/melodrama from prolific and expert screenwriter and Mary Pickford pal Frances Marion and director Frank Lloyd (Cavalcade, the Gable-Laughton Mutiny on the Bounty), with Lew Cody.
U.S.; Clarence Brown, 1926
Norma in a rare zany comedienne role: as a poor Parisian, who rises from chorus girl to mistress and star, thanks to the yen she arouses in the manager of a prime cabaret show (Ronald Colman). Funny, if silly stuff; Norma has some adorable scenes in a role perhaps better suited for her sister Constance. Scripted by frequent Ernst Lubitsch screenwriter Hanns Kraly (So This Is Paris), who also wrote the two Constance comedies below.
The Constance Talmadge Collection (B)
U.S.; various directors, 1924-25, Kino
The Talmadge clan, in my opinion, saved the best for last. Youngest daughter Constance, would be a screen immortal even if, as a spunky 18-year-old, she'd played only one role, from 1916, as the tomboy Mountain Girl in D.W. Griffith's interweaving four-part masterpiece Intolerance. This is a great performance in a great film, full of gorgeous gumption, humor and sparkle, with feisty Constance lighting up the screen whenever she appears. And it's a pleasure to report that Constance also lights up the screen in the two movies in this package, both witty romantic comedies with plush European settings, both directed by that highly polished polisher Sidney Franklin (The Good Earth, The Barretts of Wimpole Street) and both starring the deft and urbanely handsome leading man Ronald Colman. The movies are a delight, and so is Constance. (Silent, with English intertitles and original music scores.)
Her Night of Romance (B)
U.S.; Sidney Franklin, 1924
Rich girl Constance and broke aristocrat Colman innocently share a British country estate for a night, and, embarrassed, feign marriage. Obvious but fun. With Jean Hersholt.
Her Sister from Paris (B)
U.S.; Franklin, 1925
The best movie in either set, and the best Talmadge sister performance of 'em all as well. Constance plays a prim, very moral wife who masquerades as her own seductive and sophisticated sister, a famous dancer of many affairs -- and she also plays the romancer/dancer masquerading as her homebody sister. A Talmadge tour de force; Her Sister from Paris is just a hair and two or three good scenes away from being a classic.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Lovely Bones (B)
U.S.; Peter Jackson, 2009, Paramount
A murdered girl (Saoirse Ronan) travels between this world and the next, haunting the serial killer (Stanley Tucci) who ended her life, and watching over the family she left behind (including Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as the dad and mom, and a grandly hammy grandma from Susan Sarandon). The visuals and effects here are fantastic, some of the acting (Ronan, Tucci and Sarandon) is intense and haunting, but the original novel, by Alice Sebold, seems to me overrated and too slender for all these cinematic riches from the Lord of the Rings team. The movie is better than its critical detractors will allow, however -- and so, by God, is Stanley Tucci! (Extras: Featurettes.)
The Young Victoria (B-)
U.S.-U.K.: Jean-Marc Vallee, 2009, Apparition
This glossy, well-mounted period love story of the princess who became Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) and the prince who became her Albert (Rupert Friend) doesn't, I confess, appeal that much to me, even though it's a first-rate production, and Martin Scorsese was one of the producers. I guess I'd like more Lubitschian irony and less royal/voguish style and Vicky-Albert fan-worship -- though this movie does have one great kingly tantrum from Jim Broadbent. With Miranda Richardson and Paul Bettany. (Extras: featurettes.)
35 Shots of Rum (A-)
France; Claire Denis, 2009, Cinema Guild
Claire Denis, the marvelous French writer-director of Chocolat and Le Beau Travail, is a poet of everyday life. She's a filmmaker who can make magic out of the simplest tasks or events -- whether preparing a meal, taking medication at evening, or dancing after hours in a little restaurant. In 35 Shots of Rum (or 35 Rhums) Denis returns to her favorite subject: the consequences of racial relations between blacks and whites in France and its one-time colonies. And once again, she fills the screen with life and poetry and humanity. Denis also universalizes her subject matter in another way. She turns her story into a classic statement, like those of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, on parents and children, and the pain of parting.
It's one of her best films, I think. In following the lives of her subjects -- quiet African émigré train engineer Lionel (Alex Secas) and his bright biracial college student daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) -- and also of their apartment building neighbors (and prospective lovers), the cheery taxi driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) and the sullen egotist Noe (Gregoire Colin, a favorite actor of the director's), Denis manages to create a little piece of cinema time and space that seems almost flawlessly real. (In French, with English subtitles.) (Extras: interviews with Denis; essay by Rob White.)
The Missing Person (B-)
U.S.; Noah Buschel, 2009, Strand Releasing
Michael Shannon steals a lot of the movies in which he supports others (like Revolutionary Road). Here, playing the alcoholic, Bogartean private eye hero of a reverently crafted neo-noir about a Manhattan husband missing and headed toward Mexico after 9/11, Shannon soaks up attention. But he also unselfishly tosses the light-in-darkness toward the rest of a colorful cast, headed by Girl Friday Amy Ryan, Frank Wood, Linda Emond, John Ventimiglia, Margaret Colin, Paul Sparks, Anthony Esposito and Yul Vasquez.
Shannon is a perfect actor for modern noirs, and he has a great scruffy, surly look here, with a booze-soaked angst permeating his narration. The movie drifts off toward the end, and it would have been better in black-and-white -- though Ryan Samul's color cinematography is about as close to monochrome as you can get. There's a terrific noir-era jazz score, keyed by Thelonious Monk playing his haunting "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You." Written and directed, quite well, by Noah Buschel.
Minority Report (B-)
U.S.; Steven Spielberg, 2002, DreamWorks
A high-grade ultra-flashy science fiction thriller from Steven Spielberg. Tom Cruise is a hard-case futuristic cop, who uses precognitive seers to outmaneuver potential criminals and stop crimes before they happen. Soon paranoia closes is, and he's on the run himself.
The source is a '50s Philip K. Dick story -- not from the better magazines and Dick-buyers like Galaxy, If or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but from the lower tier, more space opera-prone Fantastic Universe. And though it's not one of Dick's best tales (why don't they adapt novels like The Man in the High Castle or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch?), it still grips and shocks. With Colin Farrell, Max Von Sydow, Samantha Morton, Tim Blake Nelson and Peter Stormare. (Extras: featurettes, storyboards, trailers.)