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Sigourney Weaver Must Have Felt Right At Home

Sunday 10 January 2010

Herself and I were in a funk for being away from Ashland1, so we did a roll-your-own film festival today. What does this mean? Unlike most normal people, we don’t go to the movies once a month or so. We save’em up, then go for a day, sometimes starting with a morning show and often going until after midnight. This keeps us in fighting trim for the Ashland Independent Film Festival, probably the best shoulder-season entertainment event in Ashland.

Today we saw only four films, but three of those were over two hours, which is an encouraging trend in filmmaking, so it was still a long day. What we saw, in order of viewing:

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Daybreakers
Sherlock Holmes
Avatar (in IMAX 3D)

What did I like? On IMDB’s scale of 1 to 10,

9: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
8: Daybreakers
8: Sherlock Holmes
7: Avatar

Herself was not as generous; she gave them 8, 6, 6, 5 (she does not grade on a curve). Either of us would be happy to watch Imaginarium or Daybreakers again, maybe Sherlock Holmes. Neither of us came away with a need to see Avatar again.

Let’s take Imaginarium first. Terry Gilliam has not lost his ability to write an engaging story with more twists and turns that are not predictable but work within the universe he creates for the movie. The actors can act, the special effects work to provide sufficient but not overdone eye-candy, and the story feels like it came from a classic novel (e.g. The Princess Bride) or a well-known fairy tale (The Brothers Grimm on a particularly grim tear). Heath Ledger performs admirably as the flawed protagonist, Christopher Plummer as the doctor almost at rock-bottom, and Andrew Garfield as The Forlorn Suitor,  but it’s Lily Cole as The Daughter who really is the bright star among stars. Because Ledger died during production, parts of his role are aptly played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell. Tom Waits had a a strong performance as Mr. Nick.

The story is the main draw though. It’s bright as the morning star and as packed with Gilliam’s own imagination as one could want. There’s no place in the imaginations of the main characters that it doesn’t go, and it’s always two steps ahead of the viewer. Like the dialogue in a Mamet play, Gilliam’s plotting is tight and energetic, going helter-skelter when it makes sense and converging to a needle-point when needed. At no time did I feel like it was too long or going somewhere that didn’t ultimately make sense, and never anywhere that wasn’t engaging or moving. I’m looking forward to the director’s commentary, to hear what was going on in his mind at some of the turns in the plot. Highly recommended for in-theater viewing; the visuals will suffer when transferred to the small screen.

Daybreakers was the throw-away filler movie; we had a slot, and it happened to be on then. It’s a vampire story, but no teen angst, moon-y eyes or campy vampire-fu here. It plays just a little softer than John Carpenter’s Vampires. I won’t reveal the main plot twist, but I think it’s safe to say it’s one I haven’t seen before in a vampire flick. Sam Neill is positively viscous as the nefarious corporate tycoon who will sacrifice anything to make his quarterly numbers. It’s good to see him do an evil role, after all his Mr. Nice Guy roles. Ethan Hawke does well as the lead, sorting out the demands of his job against his personal feelings. Willem Dafoe (“What am I, Mom?”) is a human who has a penchant for fast cars and crossbows.

We were pleasantly surprised by Daybreakers. The main plot twist really worked well for us; once one accepts vampires, the other bits are not a long stretch. There are bits–the open range settings played against the dirty urbanity–that feel very John Carpenter. There’s a sufficiency of action to keep the pace up without making it feel like one long car chase. The dialogue works, although none of it was particularly memorable. Gore level is moderately high–not as high as 28 Days Later…, but definitely not for the squeamish. No real need to see this on a big screen; some of the visuals will suffer, but it should work fine on most TVs in standard-def.

Sherlock Holmes was the first of two “big” new releases we’ve seen in a while. We’ve loved Robert Downey, Jr. in many of  his prior roles, and he did not disappoint in this one. His Holmes is not your great-grandfather’s–no deerstalker hat, no Meerschaum pipe, but a wicked ability to assess how to take apart an opponent in an instant, and a much more wicked sense of humor. If you didn’t like the latest James Bond flick, with the complaints about turning Bond into an action hero, you really won’t like this Holmes. Downey’s Holmes is far more physical than prior Holmes, whether it’s going hand-to-hand with villains to rescue the damsel in distress, or in a boxing ring (no gloves, no Marquess of Queensbury rules). Jude Law (second time of the night) plays the youngest and most exuberant Dr. Watson in the franchise’s history. Except for Inspector Lestrade, almost all the other main characters are new to this script.

This is the most athletic and physical Holmes in the long history of the character. He jumps, kicks, shoots, finds traps, and annoys and charms the female characters by turns. It’s the fastest-paced Holmes as well; not a roller-coaster like National Treasure, but more evenly paced like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The period is a return to the late 1800s; the monarch is a queen, the period is after the U.S. Civil War (mentioned in the film), and the Tower Bridge is still visibly under construction. The Ripper murders may be part of the plot by implication, but are not directly mentioned in the script. London is dirty, noisy, and almost entirely populated by criminals and ne’er-do-wells of all stripes. It’s a great setting for this plot.

There’s a little too much invasion of modern pseudo-technology in this film for my taste, and most of it was unnecessary to the story. The story itself is only as strong as most of the others in the history of the character. There is a needless distracting side-plot which adds a character and appears to be there just to set up the opportunity for a sequel. Even so, this was a really entertaining film that probably should be seen on a big screen, although no harm in going to a matinée or using a discount pass.

Last, and quite unexpectedly least was Avatar. Along with every other late first-time viewer, I expect we had inflated expectations based on media hype and word-of-mouth. Most of the characters are so two-dimensional I expected them to disappear when they turned sideways. An exception is Sigourney Weaver‘s character; she got some of the best lines (at least the most of the laughs, wry or otherwise, from us), but isn’t she yet tired of playing the star-crossed heroine fighting an alien force?

The problem here is the story, or lack thereof. From the get-go, every major plot twist is not just foreshadowed but pointed to with big flashing neon signs reading “WATCH FOR THIS IN A FUTURE SCENE”. The dialogue is often wooden (some of the worst lines are actually quoted in IMDB’s “Memorable Quotes” section for the film); I heard nothing that reminded me of really good quotes from films like Aliens. The bad aliens/good locals is played as though the audience is completely new to the concept of the history of conquering invaders and downtrodden natives; contrast this with the really funny send-up of over-the-top PC sensitivity early on in Imaginarium, when the bobby has trouble working out how to refer to Verne Troyer’s character. The lack of imagination (or intentional references to Native Americans) in using human-like natives with human-like voices and emotional responses is unfortunate; more interesting aliens were developed in The Abyss.

The special effects are very good, although the small-frame 3D glasses used at our local theater really felt awkward and got in the frame of the projected image. The owl-eye polarized lenses used at other IMAX theaters were much more pleasant to use. I recall a better experience with Coraline‘s 3D projection, but I don’t recall which style of glasses were used. The 3D visuals were nice, but they were abused by overuse–no opportunity to highlight the 3Dness of the film was left on the virtual cutting room floor. I would have been much happier with better dialogue, more story, and less special effects.

It’s not a bad film, and if one is interested in 3D CGI, this should be seen in a theater with the proper equipment (preferably one with large, polarized lenses). But if you’ve seen The Polar Express, you’ve seen a better film–story, acting, dialogue–than Avatar, and with 3D effects that better support the story and are not the only reason for seeing the movie. But I can’t recommend it to anyone who is not dead-set on seeing it in 3D.

1: So what does this have to do with Ashland? Depression for not being there, and these movies will (may) eventually make it to an Ashland theater. And, it’s my blog, so deal.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. cynthia permalink
    Sunday 10 January 2010 9:48 AM

    Interesting about Imaginarium… I hadn’t heard good things, mostly just the usual focus on Ledger’s passing. I loved Brothers Grimm, so was glad you worked in the reference, made me think more about seeing it. I like vamps so may check it out, but it does sound like a dvd pick. I’m not excited about Downey as Holmes. And as for Avatar, I liked it fine, for the special effects and the whole world as the most interesting and sympathetic character. And I always like Cameron’s women… I guess the planet would count as a woman too. Django just saw it too and we were talking about it last night. He was annoyed about the cardboard villains, but I didn’t expect much different… and to be honest, I sometimes think that isn’t that far off from the ‘its just biz/america’s way of life won’t be compromised’ attitude of our gov. Think of Black Water.

    Django says Cameron is an adolescent boy in his storytelling, big predictable chase scenes…I think he’s a graphic novel kind of dude, or thrill ride creator. Aliens especially reminded me of a thrill ride, and so did this. I was glad for the chance to visit another planet, and glad for the chance to run around the trees and fly on the birds. And I was glad for the heavyhanded message too, by the end of it, though in the beginning I remember cringing.

    • Sunday 10 January 2010 12:15 PM

      I have to admit that I’m not a Holmes aficionado. I have heard from other sources that Rathbone’s Holmes is a later version of the character; this newer version fits the younger Holmes more accurately. If you don’t like Downey’s portrayal, you probably don’t like the earlier Holmes.

      I mind any film (or book, or other media) which is so hyped and so flat in story. Heinlein also had strong women, but one needs the contrast to see the strength. The parallels to the present and conflict between Europeans and Native Americans are so blaringly obvious as to not be interesting–the author needs to make the audience think about his message, not just bash them over the head with a $300 million 3D virtual club. And not show us his entire hand before it’s played.

      I’ve seen enough of Cameron’s work now. He’s great on visuals, but his writing is best when he has others working with him. Look at the movies where he is the sole credit–The Abyss, Titanic, and Avatar–and where he is credited with others. Those three have the flattest characters and the most roller-coaster-like plotting. And I’d say, although they all do boffo business, they are the weakest of many of his movies, as judged by compelling and innovative storytelling, interesting characters, and plot twists that actually startle. I’d love to see he and Gilliam collaborate.

      • cynthia permalink
        Sunday 10 January 2010 11:06 PM

        I agree, he should collaborate more. Everyone probably should. How few of us can do something this big well all by ourselves.

        and what i got from the natives verses foreign invaders was more Iraq than native americans… not in the beginning. In the beginning it was that cringe worthy part about the noble savage and the stupid white guys which is beyond shallow… its anti evolution and complexity, which is truly ignorant and counterproductive. But later on I was picking up an Iraq, Afghanistan vibe, which I thought had a little more complexity than in the very beginning…. But perhaps I was projecting….

      • Monday 11 January 2010 6:38 PM

        I think Iraq and Afghanistan are major stretches. The indigenous people in Avatar are clearly not urbanized or mechanized, are not ruled by an unpopular dictator or warlords, and have too many similarities to Native Americans, right down to braves on horseback waving bows and arrows to be anything but. One can ascribe other meanings to them, as the Chinese apparently have, but I’d be skeptical of anyone saying that that’s what the producers intended.

  2. Sunday 10 January 2010 5:58 PM

    Imaginarium was great. I had the impression, from Roger Ebert’s review, that it would be an aimless, plotless surreal romp, but I think I misunderstood the review. It had a plot, characters with depth and shades of grey, suspense, CGI that I enjoyed more than Avatar – great.

    I agree that the Avatar villains were cardboard. Even in District 9, the government worked hard to pretend to itself that it was doing the right and legal thing (_eviction notices_?!); here the villains were just “Destroy an indigenous people and their way of life? Sure! What’s for dinner?”

    I think that evil people almost always create an elaborate structure of excuses for their evil; these did absolutely nothing, so I don’t believe in them. (Heck, the head _vampire_ in Daybreakers had more humanity.) There was a moment when I thought from his expression that the head suit on Pandora might feel a bit of guilt, but, no, the moment passed. (Maybe he was just having indigestion.) I think that Cameron couldn’t bear to have the least bit of grey in his black hats.

    You _might_ like Sherlock Holmes better than you expect. I expected from the reviews and from the actor and from Iron Man that Robert Downey would be a purely comic-cartoon Holmes, and he wasn’t. He wasn’t as dry as my image of Holmes, and I think that they went to the comic or the comfortable a little more often than they should have, but I think it worked. (But I’d wait for the DVD.)

    I’ve talked about three out of four, so I may as well say that I found Daybreakers to be a tightly-plotted, well-crafted, elegant if bloody, dark science fiction movie.

    ChickenFreak

    • Sunday 10 January 2010 6:38 PM

      As discussed offline, the “Pangs” episode of Buffy had a more sophisticated look at the question of indigenous peoples and conquering invaders (and much, much better dialogue).

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