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Avatar – A Review

December 23, 2009 3 comments

I first started following the news on Avatar about 6 months ago, as it went into post-production. At that time critics were touting it to be the film of the year. Most agreed that it would revolutionise the use of CGI in film. While others said it could be the film of the decade. The first reviews from the premier, on the 10th of December, said that initial thoughts had been right… this was a must see film. But in the last week or so I’ve come across some articles that have levelled some pretty harsh criticism.

So what is my verdict? Well, if I could sum up Avatar in one word it would simply be… Epic. James Cameron has once again revealed himself as a master of his art, and perhaps one of the most visionary directors of our time. Reading his thoughts and watching interviews with him makes one realise the depth of thought that goes into his productions. Above all, he is a story teller, with a keen insight into what resonates with audiences.

Avatar itself is a relatively simple story. The basic premise is that sometime in the future (2154 AD to be exact) humans have travelled to Pandora, the lush, low gravity moon of a planet circling Alpha Centauri, where they are mining for a valuable mineral known as unobtanium. The humans’ presence on Pandora is completely commercial and they will extract minerals at any cost, without regard to their impact on the planet. On the other hand, Pandora is inhabited by an indigenous species called the Na’vi who live in complete harmony with the natural world.

Humans are unable to breathe Pandora’s atmosphere, and peaceful interaction with the Na’vi is difficult. Researchers led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) create the Avatar Program, creating human-Na’vi hybrids. A human who shares genetic material with an avatar can link to it, allowing them to control it while their own body ‘sleeps’. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former Marine who was paralyzed below the waist in combat on Earth. His twin brother was a scientist working in the Avatar Program. When Jake’s brother is killed, Jake takes his place because he is compatible with his brother’s avatar.

While Jake is escorting Augustine through the jungle the group is attacked by a large predator, and Jake becomes separated from the others, forcing them to leave him behind for the night. Jake attempts to survive in his avatar body, fending off dangerous creatures. This attracts the attention of a female Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), who rescues Jake. Though troubled by Jake’s recklessness she takes him to the Na’vi Hometree, the spiritual and geographical home of her clan. The Na’vi decide to teach Jake their ways.

As Jakes learns more about the Na’vi and their way of life he increasingly finds his life as an Avatar to be reality, and his life as a human marine to be ‘a dream’. He also falls in love with Neytiri who is his mentor. Things become all the more complicated as the human quest for wealth begins to have deadly consequences for the Na’vi. In the end Jake must make his choice between the human life he was born into, and the Na’vi life he has learned to love.

The story itself is a timeless one which, in essence, boils down to a story of love between two people divided by race and culture.  Some have said that the visual elements of the film overshadow the storyline and characters, that the story is thin an vapid. But I would argue that Cameron has once again created a story that is simple rather than simplistic, and it is the way that the story is told that draws the audience into the film. It definitely has the feel of a fairy tale.

In Pandora Cameron has created a visual masterpiece. And it is this masterpiece that takes centre stage in the film. In fact Pandora is possibly one of the most important members of the cast. It creates an almost magical backdrop within which the cast can play out their story. And whilst none of the roles are particularly demanding of the actors, it is worth giving a few mentions. Sam Worthington does well as Jake Sulley. He has definitely put himself on the map over the last year or two, and you’ll be seeing a lot more of him over the next few years. In fact he seems to be in almost every action movie of 2010. Sigourney Weaver is excellent as Dr. Grace Augustine. She brings depth to a role where she almost certainly didn’t have a whole lot to work with. Stephen Lang plays a pretty mean bad guy. And lastly Zoë Saldaña is excellent as Neytiri.

All in all Avatar is a definite must see. In fact it’s a film that you will probably find yourself watching more than once. I know I will.

2012 – a bit of a steaming pile

December 14, 2009 4 comments

Roland Emmerich is a man who embodies everything that is American cinema – big budget, lots of action, and huge amounts of CGI. In fact he stands just behind Michael Bay as Hollywood man of the decade. But we have to be honest with ourselves – he’s nailed some real winners over the years – Universal Solder, Independence Day and (arguably) The Day After Tomorrow.

But I think his latest film – 2012 – has gone a little over the top. It feels like Emmerich has bitten off more than he can chew, and even throwing a host of CGI animators and a $200 million budget at the production – it all falls a little flat.

The opening 10 minutes of film set a pretty sad scene. You’re introduced to a range of characters and countries and taken through almost 2 years of backstory. But it isn’t concise… and it doesn’t flow. It kind of feels like being punched in the face a few times, and by the end of it you’re left a little dazed and confused… couldn’t it all have been done in less time, with less dialogue? Unfortunately that feeling remains for most of the film – there’s just too much. Do we really need all the characters, and all the laborious dialogue? The old guys on the boat… who cares? They add nothing to the film, except maybe a few million dollars in extra production costs. And we could also do without everyone phoning their loved ones every ten minutes to bury the hatchet and confess their long overdue love for one another.

So what about the acting? I think it is summed up in the fact that my two favourite characters are glorified extras with about 10 minutes of airtime. Woody Harrelson is pretty cool, albeit pretty insane. He plays the role of an eccentric conspiracy theorist who broadcasts his wacked out views from his camper van at Yellowstone National Park. He also has a think for gherkins. Next up is Johann  Urb who plays Sasha – the Russian man servant – who delivers the most memorable line of the film. Unfortunately both characters don’t hang around very long. So the majority of the acting is left to the large cast of ‘big name’ actors: John Cusack, Danny Glover, Amanda Peet, Oliver Pratt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Thandie Newton. All I can say is that it isn’t their fault that their characters are so wooden and one dimensional. Clearly the script they were provided with was a bit of a steaming pile. And the biggest indictment on this film is that it is Emmerich’s highest grossing to date – having reaped over $700 million across the globe.

So, to bring this thing to a close, if you’re expecting an epic, entertaining and action packed film you’re most likely to be a little disappointed. If you’re paying R39 for a ticket you definitely aren’t getting your money’s worth. So what to do? I’d say you should wait for it on DVD, but then you lose out on the CGI, which is the only thing that breaths a bit of life into the film. So unless you’re on Discovery Vitality, you’re going to Nu Metro on a Wednesday, or you live near a Ster Kinekor Junction – rather leave this one out. Rather go see Invictus and be proud of your country.

Ster Kinekor – Sandton City

December 10, 2009 Leave a comment

Last week I was in JHB for a meeting. When it was done I had a couple of hours to kill before my flight. So I made my way to Sandton City to catch a movie. In the end I went with ‘Old Dogs’… for the review click here. Anyway, I thought I’d take the chance to give you a bit of a cinema review.

The Ster Kinekor at Sandton city was pretty cool. There are some renovations going on, which means that the escalator going directly into the cinema area is out of order. But that wasn’t too much of a mission. There seems to be a few Playstation promotions going on in the area as well – 1 in near the ticket area, and 1 in the popcorn area… which you get to after you’ve gone through the ticket check place. It definitely gives the younger folk something to do while they wait for their film.

The service was awesome. There were more than enough staff on hand for ticket bookings. We decided to use the self service machines though. There were about 4 of them in total, all working, and booking was a pleasure. The popcorn area was also good. No long queues, quick service. I didn’t even have to put salt on my popcorn.

The only criticism I have is that there was a longer than necessary delay between the trailers and the feature film. I guess they were having some trouble in the projection room. But let’s be honest, that isn’t really a big deal.

All in all a pretty good experience.

Inglourious Basterds – they’re… well… glorious

December 3, 2009 Leave a comment

So it’s a little late in coming, but this is my first film review. I wanted to start off with a bit of a bang, rather than reviewing some b-grade trash. So I thought what better way to start than with reviewing Inglourious Basterds.

Inglourious Basterds is a war film that was both written and directed by Quentin Tarantino – one of the most prolific directors of our time… in my opinion. The film tells the story of two separate plots to assassinate the top tier of the German high command, and in so doing ending the war (WW2). One plot is planned by a young, Jewish cinema owner who, four years prior, witnessed her entire family being killed by Nazis. The second plot is put in motion by a team of American soldiers known as ‘The Basterds’ who have been sent deep into enemy territory to masacre Germans.

The film is, in a word, excellent. It is gripping right from the word go with excellent (as always) camera work from Tarantino, a fantastic script, engaging characters and an interesting and engaging storyline.

In terms of individual performances I think that two stand out – Chritoph Waltz is a complete revelation in the role of Standartenführen Hans Landa aka ‘The Jew Hunter’. The character is charming, intelligent, witty, ruthless and violent… a strange combination which leaves you a bit confused as to whether you like him or hate him. But it’s that sort of character that makes Tarantino such a genius. Waltz won the Best Actor Award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for his role, and I reckon he’s got a good chance of winning a little gold man statue.

The other stand out is Brad Pitt as 1st Lieutenant Aldo Raine aka ‘Aldo the Apache’. The character is a hardcore, vengeance driven soldier with his roots in the deep south, who also happens to have a pretty good sense of humour – again making for a strangely endearing character.

It is a definite must see, especially if you profess to know anything about films. Some have gone so far as to call it Tarantino’s masterpiece – including the director himself (pay attention to the last line of the film for the self reference) – but I wouldn’t go that far. I’d say it’s definitely his best work since Pulp Fiction, but they are probably pretty neck and neck in terms of awesomeness. And what makes it even more palatable for the masses is that it isn’t as heavy on swearing and violence as some of his other films – a fact which had a large role to play in it making over $120 million at the box office.

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