Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Three-dimensional ... to a point: "Avatar"

Yes, it's that time of year when your humble blogger usually manages to see more than one movie a month. Between the holiday time off and the buildup to the Oscars, this typically is when I can do the most damage at the cineplex. And I'm not talking about the last stall after I've had a jumbo popcorn.

This week we're knocking out a couple of "Gotta See on the Big Screen" pics, the first being James Cameron's latest labor of love. I heard of "Avatar" several months ago, then saw the trailer ... over the summer, I think. Neither the plot not the trailer really wowed me, but with favorable -- some might say fawning -- reviews and the accolades over the technology, I felt obligated to give this tale of tall blue aliens a whirl.

You know the story by now: In the future, our planet is vaguely in a bad way, so we're trying to mine a faraway world, Pandora, for a precious mineral. The natives, however, are more than restless. They really, really, really don't want to make way for the white man. To get in their good graces -- and minimize the threat of all-out war -- the big bad corporation and some scientists have come up with a way to "inhabit" alien-like bodies and mingle with the vox populi. That's handy, since the atmosphere is poisonous to humans.

Into this fun stumbles a Marine (Sam Worthington) who is paralyzed from the waist down. His twin brother was part of the avatar program but died, leaving our hero as the only guy with the same DNA who can inhabit that body. Before long, our man has wormed his way into the tribe, to the great interest of the lead scientist (Sigourney "Deal of the Century" Weaver), the corporate guy (Giovanni "The Mod Squad" Ribisi) and the top soldier (Stephen "Band of the Hand" Lang).

Raise your hand if you know what happens next. I mean, we've all seen "Dances with Wolves," right? Our hero becomes one of the tribe, falls in love with the hot young warrior girl (Zoe Saldana, not that you'd recognize her) ... blah, blah, blah. Then there's the repercussions and violence, and it ain't pretty.

Make no mistake: Cameron has created an impressive alien world, throwing in all sorts of weird creatures, geologic impossibilities and an array of lights and colors. And I saw this bad boy in 3D, which made things pop even more. It's not so much the "Look out! Something's coming right at us!" What really jumped out at me (pun intended) is all the layering. We see stuff in the foreground, stuff in the background, stuff floating around. It really did look like the screen sunk way back into the theater. Neat effects, and it definitely helped bring this strange place alive.

The story and performances? Eh, not so much. Saldana is alluring in a way, and Lang nails the grizzled vet thing before becoming a cartoon. But really, nobody dazzles with anything beyond their one-dimensional roles. The plot is maybe a step above pedestrian. There's a nice "one with nature" aspect, and the effects play to that. But it never really dips below the surface, which could be by design since you may not want to draw brainpower away from processing the visuals. Still, I think I could have taken it.

In the end, Cameron shows once more how he can deliver something new in the effects department. "The Abyss" gave us shape-shifting water, while "Terminator 2" had that liquid metal. Then there was the epic destruction of "Titanic." Here we get the latest CGI and a lot of motion-capture in 3D, and the long, tall aliens are cool, I suppose. Think Gollum, but bigger and better. Still, it is only special effects, and with more than half of the scenes using them, you're going to notice a few holes. Put another way, the aliens didn't look real all the time.

That's a tiny thing, of course, and on the whole "Avatar" is a sight to behold. Not the total package, maybe, but a big-screen experience -- I imagine in 2D as well as 3D. But then you wouldn't get those cool glasses.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The “Meatballs” heir finally gets it right: “Up in the Air”

It’s one of the most trite sayings in the history of the English language, and if it weren’t so overused – yes, even by me – I’d go look it up to see how it all began. But hell, I’ll just say it anyway: The third time is a charm for director Jason Reitman.

You may recall how much I grimaced at the drooling over “Juno” a couple of years ago. Come on … it was OK, but just that: Oh. Kay. Don’t get carried away by all the too-cute quips and uber-precociousness of Ellen Page (whom I’m actually fond of, by the way). Just … no. For my money, Reitman’s first major feature, “Thank You For Smoking,” was more impressive. True, I thought it could have been even more biting, but I applauded the effort. “Juno” was a decent follow-up, but the lovefest became downright sickening.

In a perfect world, “Up in the Air” gets that adulation and more, since it’s not only a well-told story with real people – in some cases, literally real people – but also the perfect movie for these times. How’s that for hyperbole?

Our story follows the alone-but-not-lonely Ryan Bingham (George “From Dusk Till Dawn” Clooney), a guy who makes his living by flying around the country and firing people. The work allows him to rack up an astonishing number of miles, points, etc., and he’s quite comfortable living on the road, with all the routines and perks of die-hard business travelers. Clearly he never gets stuck in the middle seat in front of the crapper, where he finds the flight ran out of snack boxes 10 rows ago.

This happy existence is disrupted by two women. The first (Vera Farmiga) is a another frequent flier turned on by his “accomplishments” as a road warrior. They enjoy a liaison and decide to try it again and again. The second (Anna Kendrick) is a new employee at his company who wants to change the business by firing people via the Internet. Not good for a guy who wants to be in the air as much as possible. Before the company commits, though, the kid joins the old guy on a swing through a few cities to see how this cold-hearted business actually goes down.

So yeah, you can say this is a pretty timely movie. Apparently the back story is that Reitman wanted to make it several years ago but got caught up in the other two movies. Good luck, that. In this era of downsizing, this theme is pretty powerful, especially in a can-you-top-this way: You think outsourcing the layoff process is sadistic? Just wait until you get the news via webcam! Yow.

(Sidebar: Some people who are shown being fired early on are non-actors who recently were fired from their real jobs. Yep ... real anger and despair there.)

As this tale unfolds, we follow our hero’s would-be romance to his hometown for a sister’s wedding. So we have a guy normally focused on making connections in airports now trying to do the same with real people – his estranged family and his new paramour. As you might guess in this happy day and age, the results are mixed at best.

Because of his nature and charm, Clooney doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting. Even so, he’s a great choice for the role and executes as expected. Farmiga, who I thought was only OK in “The Departed,” is better here, playing her part as Clooney’s equal in frequent flying and whirlwind romance very well. But the real find may be Kendrick, whom I had never seen before but I now see is in those “Twilight” movies. Nice move by her to get this role, and her evolution as a character who has more depth that you initially thought is pulled off perfectly.

Other pros show up in smaller roles, from Jason Bateman to Sam Elliott to J.K. Simmons to Melanie Lynskey to Danny McBride. But the lead trio are the money performances, held together nicely by Reitman’s direction. I got a whiff of a couple of other directors at times, like Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, but you can do worse than to borrow from those guys.

And really, Reitman laid the groundwork for “Up in the Air” – and more to the point, a conflicted and flawed protagonist who nevertheless oozes charm – with his first two movies. As I said up top, this is where he pulls it together, and this might be the best movie I’ve seen this year. But only because I missed “G.I. Joe.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Must be at least *this *moody and sarcastic to ride this ride: "Adventureland"

I vaguely remember this one sneaking up on me while in theaters and not hanging around long, failing to get the traction of a “Superbad,” “Knocked Up” or other more well-known crude-with-a-heart-of-gold tales. Too bad, because this little story of love and apathy in a 1980s amusement park is one of the better movies of its ilk in recent years.

Directed by Greg Mottola, the same guy who did “Superbad” and a few eps of the unparalleled “Arrested Development,” “Adventureland” introduces us to new college graduate James (Jesse Eisenberg), who plans to spend summer in Europe before heading to grad school in New York. Alas, his dad’s setback at work result in the family moving to Pittsburgh and our hero working at the local amusement park. What a curious turn of events.

As you might guess, the park holds all manner of characters, from boss Bill Hader to sidekick Martin Starr (Bill from “Freaks and Geeks”) to tramp Margarita Levieva to maintenance man/local band member Ryan Reynolds. Oh, and there’s the sulky-cute girl in the form of Kristen Stewart, and since I haven’t seen one second of a “Twilight” movie, I’m not sick of her yet.

The kids knock around the park, then drink and smoke pot at night. Our couple forms a bond, albeit a relatively chaste one, with Eisenberg doing his typical teen angst thing – even if he’s in his 20s now. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, his would-be paramour is hooking up with Reynolds, who happens to be married. Doesn’t seem like she’s much into him, but just sees it as something to do.

Helping this somewhat simple story is the setting and atmosphere – from life in the amusement park to some seriously good ‘80s music. And no, I’m not talking about Cyndi Lauper and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. (Although the monotony of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” makes for some hilarity.)

While there are plenty of laughs, this movie separates itself from other recent comedies because of the true notes struck by both Eisenberg and Stewart. Compared with “Superbad” – where I didn’t quite buy the drunken love confessions of the two lead guys – I totally bought these two getting together, then having issues. Reynolds also was believable as the older guy who seems to have it together but is more than a little pathetic.

Yeah, you can say this one got to me a little bit beyond the ha-ha stuff. The latter alone makes “Adventureland” worth a look, but the matters of heart give it more depth and really round out the story. Kind of like those pants rounded out Lisa P.’s butt. Pow!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Twice the vice: "Duplicity"

Interesting experiment here.I generally like Clive Owen. I generally don't like Julia Roberts. Their last collaboration, "Closer," was somewhat tolerable because (a) I was curious to see who would end up with who, (b) Natalie Portman did the stripper thing and (c) Owen turned out to be, as Bridget Jones' mum would say, "quite the little sh*t." But on the whole, I find Julia Roberts neither that talented nor -- and this may hurt a little -- that hot. Not even the girl next door thing. And as we saw from her Oscar Awards speech, she's not exactly keeping the company of Stephen Hawking.

All that said, "Duplicity" had potential for some good fun, and it is an intriguing hybrid of romance and caper. Directed by Tony Gilroy, the guy who did "Michael Clayton," our tale introduces a couple of spies, Brit Owen and American Roberts, who meet cute in Dubai. One wrongs the other, and we catch up with them years later, when they're both working for a big pharma corporation that is locked in a death struggle with a rival company. Roberts is a sleeper agent in the rival, and Owen is her new handler. Hijinks ensue? Yes, but not as you might expect.

We soon jump back and forth in time, seeing where these two actually met between the first and most recent times. Turns out there's something more there, and it could mean big bucks at the expense of these two megacorps, headed by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson (seen wrestling with each other at an airport as the movie opens).

The twists and turns were enough to keep me watching, and you can't help but wonder if these lovers/partners will get away with it. Owen also has a pretty good scene where he seduces a woman in the rival company's travel department. I mean, can you picture this guy saying an appletini sounds good? Me, neither, but there he is ...

I'll confess the ending was a bit of a letdown, and to say more would probably ruin the twist. But I'll say this: For a couple of people who were such pros at espionage and so careful otherwise, the key shortcoming was hard to swallow. Even so, Owen and Roberts are both pretty good. Roberts is older than 40 now, and carrying a little more curve. It suits her, I think, and while I'm not sure I buy her as a spy, she did better than I thought.

And Owen is ... Owen. I haven't seen all his work, and I'm betting I'm not missing anything with "Derailed." But from "Croupier" to "Sin City" to "Closer" to "Inside Man" to "Children of Men," the guy is good, and he's a great fit as a spy not quite up to Roberts' level. I still wish he had taken a shot as James Bond, but if that's not going to happen, this turn as a corporate spy will have to do.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Dead man stalking: "Zombieland"

Yes, another zombie movie. That makes, oh, 147 this decade? And it's not even the first ha-ha one, with "Shaun of the Dead" leaving some big footsteps to follow. That said, this little comedy is thoroughly watchable, thanks to the two leads convincingly going through the tried-and-true Odd Couple motions.

After an opening montage, accompanied by Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some," that shows how most of the planet got sick and/or killed by zombies, we follow young college student Jesse Eisenberg as he tries to make his way from Texas to Columbus, Ohio. He tells us the rules of survival, which are amusing. He also soon meets up with a redneck zombie killer (Woody Harrelson) who calls himself Tallahassee, since that's where he is headed. The geeky kid? He's now "Columbus."

Some stomping of the undead ensues, but the real story here is how these guys get along, and it's a pretty good pairing. Eisenberg doesn't have much range, but he does the sensitive dorky thing all right. The flashback of his life before the zombies -- and what about it made him able to avoid being infected -- is pretty good. Meanwhile, Harrelson plays the hick role to the hilt, a caricature of a man who doesn't care about anything anymore but killin' zombies.

This dynamic duo run across a couple of teenage sisters -- "Wichita" (Emma Stone) and "Little Rock" (Abigail Breslin) -- who aren't remotely helpless. Eventually, they fall in together and head west to an amusement park that supposedly is zombie-free. Um, OK. Once in El Lay, they hunker down for a while in a celebrity's house -- a sequence that may be the best part of the movie. I won't ruin it by divulging the celebrity, but this person is as game as ever. Good stuff.

There's not a lot of story here, true. But it's great fun, and in a less British way than (the still superior) "Shaun of the Dead." I mean, if the serious tales of the undead get you down, you could do worse than Woody plugging zombies while on a quest for Twinkies. Talk about a man possessed. Dude, it's not like they're those red coconut-covered Zingers. Oh, mama ...