Friday, December 25, 2009

Review: Avatar

This review contains SPOILERS
Avatar is not a movie meant to be seen. It's a movie meant to be looked at. A lot of money was poured into the cauldron to make James Cameron's vision a reality, but money alone cannot account for the sheer beauty of Pandora. Over and over again the movie gives us gorgeous vistas, awe-inspiring floating mountains and fantastic creatures that look like amalgamations of prehistoric and present day beasts. Light plays an important role, as nearly half the plant and animal life seem to be bioluminescent. Creepers glow when stepped on, unearthly, spiral orchids give off gentle yellow light and are sucked into the ground when touched. My brain tells me it's all CG, but me eyes find it difficult to believe . When James Cameron says it took twelve years for technology to catch up to his vision, he isn't lying.

But if the visuals are the films strongest selling point, the story and dialogue are the weakest links. While not particularly bad, Avatar employs every hackneyed cliche, every stock character and every predictable plot twist to tell the tale of a soldier who starts sympathising with the enemy and jumps ship to fight the good fight. Sam Worthington is Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine brought to the alien planet of Pandora as a replacement for his twin brother who was murdered in a voice-over. Since he is genetically identical to his brother, he has been indoctrinated into the avatar program. Avatars are lab-grown Na'vi, natives of the planet and are basically shells into which the consciousness of certain handpicked humans can be transported so they can mix freely with the local population.

The reason for this incredibly convoluted diplomatic exercise has to be laziest Mcguffin in cinematic history, a mineral called, of all things, unobtanium. Apparently it sells for twenty million dollars a kilo on earth. Why, we never have the privilege of knowing. Of course, evil suit-man who represents the organisation financing the operation and fanatic military leader who is charged with protecting it, would rather just blow up the locals and take the unobtanium, if only it wasn't such bad press. So the strategy is to infiltrate them with avatars, introduce them to earthly pleasures like roads and schools and diplomatically drive them out of their happy hunting ground. Of course avatar-Jake gets to be part of the local Na'vi tribe, and of course he realizes that their way of life (which is somehow almost identical to Native American philosophy) is so much better than his, and of course he falls in love with the local princess, and of course this makes the Na'vi general angry because HE was supposed to marry the princess, and of course they fight, and of course the princess renounces him when she learns of the truth, but only temporarily, and of course he ends up saving the world against the evil white man....oops, earthling. Not a step outside the tried-and-true.

The story would be a deal breaker in almost any other film. But to Cameron's credit, he keeps it moving, and does not allow the viewer to get bored. The characters may have no shades of gray, but the scenery is usually a riot of colours. Set-piece follows set-piece, whether it's a a battle with some of the local fauna that look like jet black jaguars blown up a hundredfold, to Jake's first flying lesson where he takes control of his dragon-like mount to soar and sweep and glide through the air as the camera savours every little nuance of this gorgeous world Cameron has created. And then there are the battle scenes. Shots of giant steel mechs clanking into battle against the twelve foot tall Na'vi, or the humongous airships firing rockets at dragon-mounted warriors are done with remarkable precision. Any good battle scene needs to be choreographed like a piece of music, with the tension rising and falling at precisely the right moments. The final battle of Avatar, which is more than half an hour long, proves Cameron's still got it.

Another high-point of the movie is Cameron's attention to detail. There is no doubt Pandora is a fully realized world inside his head. Little things like how the Na'vi have four fingers but the avatars have five (presumably to help the human mind adjust to the new body), to the dragon-flame decals that adorn every mech, plane and tank by the humans. Experts were brought in to develop a Na'vi language, and botanists were consulted to ensure the plant life of Pandora follow basic biological principles. While not dramatically influencing the experience, such attention to detail definitely help in making Pandora feel like a living-breathing world of its own.

Cameron's handling 3-D is also mature, as he eschews gimmicks like things rushing at the screen in favour of more subtle uses for this technology. Sure there are moments where spaceships zoom by and animals rush at the camera, but mostly it's about using the added depth to immerse rather than shock. Glowing embers seem to pop out of the screen, sheer drops stretch out to eternity. Instead of making the viewer flinch every moment, the 3-D builds a cocoon of visuals around him, cradling him into this world.

The problem with Avatar, and the reason why the review seems to teeter between two extremes is where it's bad, it's very insipid, and where it's good, it's mind blowing. The story has been told a hundred times before, and mostly told better. The visuals on the other hand, are truly revolutionary. Never before has a world been created from scratch with such depth and precision. If the lack of a story kills the whole experience for you, avoid this movie, but if images are more important, or if you know what to expect and go in with a mind open to enjoying the good bits, Pandora is a hell of a ride.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: Lord of War

Disclaimer: This review contains SPOILERS.

Nicholas Cage is an actor who can't seem to take his role anything but seriously. I have a suspicion that the man just can't do camp. Which is why Ghost Rider was such an incredibly jarring movie, even for a certified comic book geek like me. However, in a movie like this, where everything hinges on his character and his unique point of view, Cage's faith and intensity raises what could have been a mediocre movie into a very good one.

Cage plays Yuri Orlov, an Ukranian - American who witnesses a shootout in a restaurant and realizes that the only people who profit from random (and not-so-random) acts of violence are the people who deal in the hardware. Pretty soon he is selling his first submachine-gun and realizing that he is a bloody good salesman. In a profession where a customer can blow your head off using your own product, Yuri's silver tongue and quick thinking come in handy not just in keeping him alive, but also in making him very rich, very fast. Helping Yuri in his ascent is his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), who has reservations but goes along because Yuri is family. However, it is clear that Vitaly, although almost as quick witted as Yuri, is far more deeply affected by the violence their products are used to perpetuate.

All this happens at a breathless pace and about 40 minutes in, Yuri is already at the top of the heap and the film starts branching into multiple subplots as he has an affair with a model( who he has loved ever since he saw her on billboards as a young man), juggles mercurial clients and suppliers, outwits rivals, and evades the law in the form of Interpol agent Jack Valentine, who knows what Yuri is doing, but can't nab him because he is too by the book to break - or even bend - the law himself. His run - ins with Valentine are almost black comedy, as he uses various ingenious (but never violent, at least, not directly) ways to remain just out of reach.

Cage plays Yuri with a hint of a swagger, but not too much . After all, many of his customers are temperamental people who would be too happy to put his own products to use at even the hint of a perceived insult. But he knows he's good at what he does, and continues to justify his profession with various rationalizations just so he can continue to keep dealing in weapons. As he says in a rare moment of vulnerability, it's not the money, it's because he's good at it. Utterly unaffected by morals, Yuri will sell to anybody (except Osama, but not for the reasons you might suspect). So good is he at distancing himself from the violence he peddles every single day, that when he is forced to pull the trigger himself for the first time, he goes through severe hallucinations and feels he is 'cursed'. In his own way, Yuri is a dreamer, walking through a bubble of self-created hypocrisies where he is simply a cog in the machine, where his actions mean nothing because someone else would take his place anyway and where he does no evil because he is not forcing anyone to use his guns.

The movie is shot beautifully. From the huge Ukranian army bases where stacks of guns and gunships lie unused, to the dingy war - torn streets of Liberia where the dictator's son brandishes his gold plated AK-47 in the middle of abject poverty, all have a gritty feel to them. However, the visuals are perhaps a little too heavy handed in their use of symbolism. Take the shot where a vulture is standing over a prone body as Yuri enters his hotel in Liberia, or the little girl asking him if her severed arm will grow back. They all try to hammer home the point that what Yuri is BAD. A pity really, because even if you never sympathize with him, you understand Yuri. You see that he comes alive only when he's making a sale or eluding the law. People chase their dreams all the time. It's a pity his involves selling helicopter gunships to warlords.

If the film has an issue, it's that it tries to be too many things . It's best seen as a faithful look into the world of international arms smuggling through the eyes of a fictional dealer. Unfortunately, it also tries to be a thriller with Valentine repeatedly attempting to close in on Yuri. This does not get enough time and as a result, end up being rather choppy sequences of confrontation between the two separated by periods where you almost forget Valentine even exists. There is no tension, and almost no feeling of Velentine slowly closing in on his prey. Ethen Hawke is perfectly serviceable as the steel eyed agent, but really gets almost no screen time. I guess it was necessary to have some kind of closure to the story, but it could have been handled better. However, it is still a brilliant and authentic look at the gun-running and what it means to the world at large.

There is an elegant sequence where the camera slowly rolls over an AK-47. In most action movies it would be basic gun-porn, but here it really shows how Yuri sees his products, as smooth, beautiful, elegant, reliable, even sexy machines. The fact that the voice-over in that sequence has a distinct sigh to it and it cuts in right after he's started undressing a woman in a hotel room is not a coincidence. I guess it's also why many ordinary, law-abiding people get excited by guns. Sometimes it's best not to think too far. Yuri made an entire career of it.

PS. This movie might have one of the best opening credit sequences I have ever seen. Here it is in its entirety.