Red Tails

Producer George Lucas took on an ambitious project when he set out to make Red Tails. He had to finance it mostly himself because, as he later said in an interview, studios didn’t want to make the picture because there weren’t enough rolls for white people. (Check out this link at 5:00.) Interesting that liberal Hollywood tried to stop a film with an all-black cast. Political commentator Alfonzo Rachel would later say that Hollywood did so because they don’t want young blacks to start wanting to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen (our protagonists, the first black squadron to see combat in WWII), because if they do, they’ll learn that most of them, like most blacks of the time, were Republicans. While there might be something to this theory, I tend to think Hollywood’s reluctance has less to do with the racial politics of the ‘40s than with those of today. Certain stigmas on the portrayal of blacks in film can make it really hard to make a good movie with too many black characters. Red Tails bears the marks of these stigmas – not as deeply as some movies, but they’re there nonetheless. Consequently, a movie that could have been another Memphis Belle had to settle for being just another Flyboys. It has some good action and a few good lines along the way. It also contains one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in awhile, as Cuba Gooding Jr. trying to play the grizzled, old Major Stance. He spends the whole movie sucking on a pipe, doing his best General MacArthur impression. Hilarious. Terrence Howard does considerably better as Colonel Bullard. Red Tails works fine as a popcorn flick, but gets annoying at times because it thinks it’s in the same league as Saving Private Ryan. It isn’t.

The first reason for this is its total lack of intensity. For all the action, the squadron suffers two dead, one wounded and one captured through the whole movie. The text at the end says that the historical Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 men with more wounded, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the film. This is because, even as Red Tails seeks to tell a story disproving racist claims of the past, as I said above, it bears the marks of the racism of today. Hollywood continues to be afraid to portray black characters as having any flaws, needing to learn anything, or failing at anything they do. Consequently, we see ridiculous things in this movie. In addition to the lack of casualties, we actually see Lightning (David Oyelowo), the squadron hot shot, blow up a destroyer with machine gun fire. This is slightly more realistic than the destruction of the destroyer in Mega Piranha. Slightly.

You can see from Red Tails why it’s so hard to make good movies about black people. This movie never breaks a sweat. We know the Red Tails can’t lose, and can hardly suffer a setback, so there’s never any suspense or sense of danger. The movie tries to build up some tension with ominous talk of the new jet fighters the Germans are developing, but when it comes down to it at the climactic battle, even the most cutting-edge technology is no match for the coolness of Hollywood-packaged black guys.

When I saw The Memphis Belle, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I desperately wanted the bomber crew to make it home, and I wasn’t sure that they would. With Red Tails, I never worried.

What’s more, the film suffers from a drive to inflate the contribution its heroes made to the war. The film opens with a scene of white fighter pilots abandoning the bombers they are supposed to escort, and the line by a man on a bomber, “Damn those glory-grabbing bastards, again!” The bomber squadron is then cut to ribbons by the Germans. Later, a general tells Bullard that “We need to change the way we fight,” and he is giving the Red Tails a chance because he needs fighters that will stay with the bombers. The first time the Red Tails rendezvous with a bomb squadron, the pilots of the lead bomber are disappointed when they see that their escort is black. (Humorously, the black pilot they are looking at is several hundred feet away, and obscured by two canopies, and his whole body is covered, except for his eyes. How can they even tell?) Then, when the Red Tails refuse to chase a German “decoy squadron,” the bombers are shocked. “They’re giving up glory to save our asses!” Toward the end of the movie, a white squadron who is supposed to relieve the Red Tails fails to even show up. All this is, frankly, a loogie to the face of every non-black man who risked or sacrificed his life to save the world from Hitler and Tojo. Throughout the war, every flier on all sides knew that the job of the fighters was to protect the bombers, and non-black fighter pilots consistently did so. What is portrayed in Red Tails is nothing more than fiction concocted to make the Tuskegee Airmen seem revolutionary. The historical Red Tails fought with courage and dedication, but they did not turn the war around.

Can you tell which of these pilots is black? Here’s a better question: can you tell which of them is a brave American defending his home?

A lot of commentators have complained about a lack of interest in movies that focus on black people, and have blamed racism for it. But what racism is actually doing is taking the life out of such movies as they get made. Great war movies put us in the reality of the moment, to get some sense of the fear and the pain of war (if only through a glass, darkly). They have us wrestle with the questions the men wrestled with and make us understand the moral uncertainties that come even when you believe in what you’re fighting for. There is a moment in The Memphis Belle I will never forget, during the protagonists’ final mission. The copilot of the Belle is angry that he has spent the whole war in the cockpit, and doesn’t want to go home without being able to say he shot some Nazis. Before the last mission, he slips the tail gunner a pack of cigarettes to let him take over shooting for part of the mission. When the moment comes, he slips into the turret and begins blasting away. Before long, he knocks out a high-flying German fighter. He whoops with delight as the fighter plummets … Straight into an American Bomber. The bomber is cut in half, and the copilot listens, over the radio, to the pitiful wails of the men aboard as they plummet to their deaths. Obviously, words fail me. But I remember The Memphis Belle because the characters were real, not supermen. I jumped every time a bullet came through the wall of the plane. I felt with the plane medic as he struggled to save a wounded crew member, then wrestled with the urge to drop him out of the plane with a chute, hoping the Germans would take him to a hospital.

Something that’s interesting to note about Saving Private Ryan: Steven Spielberg, a Jew, included a Jewish character in the story, named Mellish. For some reason, he made Mellish one of the least likable characters in the movie, and ultimately had him lose to (of all people) a Nazi in face to face combat. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to do this, but, whatever his reason, it shows a certain contemplative humility that either white guilt or black narcissism just won’t allow into films like Red Tails. If the makers of black cinema want to see a wider interest in their films, they need to start putting their characters in a realistic light.

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Act of Valor

Rarely do pure-bred patriotic American films come along anymore.  The current military flicks are usually filled with destructive characters, government conspiracies, and the horrors of war—elements of a layered, involving anti-war film.  Here comes along Act of Valor, all but wrapped up in an American flag, showcasing ‘real active-duty Navy SEALs’ in fictional combat missions.  These men aren’t fighting a war they don’t believe in.  They don’t lack any trust in their government.  Almost unbelievably and contrary to every other mainstream action film, their government isn’t tooling them around under a sort of shadowy guise of sinister motivations and political coverups.  These fighting men are cut-and-dry American heroes saving the nation one mission at a time.

So how do I review this movie?  It’s completely two-dimensional, utilizing real commandos who make for minimalist actors when the booms aren’t going off.  Yet, this isn’t a documentary either.  To my complete surprise, the film actually has a standard narrative (Hollywood formula and all).  The story features a squad of SEALs deployed to rescue an abducted undercover CIA agent being held captive and tortured for information by a drug cartel kingpin, Christo.  The U.S. government takes further interest in Christo when they understand his connection with a group of extremist Islamic terrorists plotting a massive multiple-location attack on American soil.

Either action movies have gotten it all-too-right over the years, or Act of Valor screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) saw little value in ditching a completely formulaic plot involving drug cartels and an insurmountable terrorist threat.  I’ll be blunt here—this film isn’t about plot or characters or anything remotely related to storytelling.  This film is about showcasing Navy SEALs as elite patriotic warriors, not as actors.  Audiences will be captivated, as I was, by the reality and passion invested in the combat missions that usually emulate a real-life visceral version of Call of Duty gameplay.  Yes, if you are a 25-year-old devoted to that game, you will be enthralled by Act of Valor.  While I could have gone without some of the first-person view behind the crosshairs, and a little less shaky-cam within the action, I consistently believed in the threat that the filmmakers painstakingly portray with unabashed realism.

Non-gamers will appreciate this too.  Valor makes for a very heroic film that ultimately asks us to respect our soldiers rather than question their sanity and protest their manipulating government.  While the film struggles when the men are asked to ’emote’ and carry dramatic weight, especially within a continual focus on two of the main soldiers, I believe its flaws are negligible in comparison to what directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh are trying to do and happen to do very well—give audiences the cold hard combat they came to see.

Many critics are chastising this effort as a propaganda piece more akin to a recruiting poster than an actual movie.  However, the film never sidesteps the mortal consequences of these guys’ effort to fight for American freedom.  I can’t imagine anyone so immediately inclined to join the ranks after the film’s heartbreaking closing moments.  I don’t care if this isn’t a ‘true movie’ since its efforts are meant to shed the trappings of movies and deliver an experience instead.  Forget actors.  Forget scripts.  Grab your flag and run behind enemy lines with a courageous squad of fighters.


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War Horse

Steven Spielberg has always been a fan of history and science-fiction.  Often the master director will release a big-budget science-fiction blockbuster and a profound historical drama within the same year.  We’ve seen this in 1993 when Jurassic Park dominated the box office and Schindler’s List lifted a Best Picture Oscar.  In 1997 he returned with the Jurassic Park sequel and the overlooked slave drama Amistad.  In 2005 he unleashed Tom Cruise’s greatest worldwide hit War of the Worlds and followed it up with the Oscar-nominated Munich come awards season.

Within a matter of days Spielberg has managed to deliver his first animated film The Adventures of Tintin, an action-adventure closely mirroring Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he now aspires to melt icy hearts with the overtly sentimental War Horse, a World War I drama seen through the eyes of a horse sent off to fight for both the English and Germany.

Set on the eve of WWI, War Horse tells the tale of Joey, a young horse purchased at an auction by Ted Narracott.  Ted is a drunken war veteran and owner of a farm on the verge of financial collapse.  The survival of the farm depends on Joey learning to plow.  Ted’s teenage son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), develops an instant bond with Joey, and he becomes determined to train the young steed to plow for harvest season.  That determination unsurprisingly pays off until a rainstorm floods the entire field of crops and leaves the Narracott family unable to make ends meet.

Ted sells off Joey to an English regiment officer (Tom Hiddleston) about to leave for war.  Albert flips out, chasing Joey down and pleading for his companion back.  Unable to sway the genuine soldier, Albert promises Joey they will be reunited.  The horse heads off to war and survives a massacre after an intercepting German fleet overruns the ill-advised English troupe.

Joey becomes German property and ultimately finds his way into the hearts of every man overseeing him.  The story has Joey entering and exiting the lives of several different individuals, each drawn to the animal’s power, understanding, and gumption.  From young boy soldiers, to French civilians, to artillery gunmen, Joey persists in survival.

The story eventually returns to Albert having finally entered the war years after we first met him.  We know at some point the story will in fact reunite Joey and Albert, but the journey in getting there is simultaneously beautiful and obtuse.  Spielberg has over-fattened the calf with a 2 and 1/2 hour epic that wastes too much time on thinly drawn characters.  Despite well-intentioned performances from an extended cast, War Horse strays too far from Albert before sticking him back in the thick of the plot.  Joey dominates the proceedings while the humans fade into the background.  The horse being constantly intercepted by a new set of characters only hinders the film because those small side stories never amount to anything substantial.

Since the film is built entirely on coincidence, such as the fact that Joey never encounters a ruthless overseer in his WWI experience, the film falls victim to too much sappiness.   The characters, the writing, the dialogue – all of it bathed in soapy sentimental hogwash where scenes exist and speeches are made to simply extract tears from the viewer.  There’s no authenticity behind it.  Spielberg has walked this territory before, such as Hook and Always, but never masking it as earnest sincerity.

Even though War Horse stalls, it is more a dramatic miscalculation than a complete mess.  When a movie attempts to manufacture emotion rather than draw it out naturally through well-written characters, I tend to immediately disconnect from the narrative.  However, Spielberg’s film still creates lasting imagery that imprints on your mind and sticks with you despite all of the faults.

The film boasts an involving musical score and amazing cinematography.  The combat sequences aren’t shortchanged for all the heart-melting.  A particularly memorable sequence has Joey leaping through an open battlefield, fleeing over trenches of men and nearly escaping before slamming into a heaping of barbed wire.  If prestigious award ceremonies gave out nominations for memorable scenes, War Horse would bring in a few nods.

And what about the horse Joey?  After all he’s the main character of the story.  Really, this isn’t Albert’s story.  This is Joey’s. I’ve heard reports indicating that 8 or so horses were used to portray the character.  It’s a marvelous effort.  Joey comes to life and really delivers as the hero of War Horse, portraying just as much emotion as his human counterparts.  That in and of itself makes War Horse a small miracle worth checking out.

I think many people will overlook the flaws here and end up loving this movie.  I also think many people, like me, will be turned off by how schmaltzy it is.  This isn’t just a tip of the hat to old school filmmaking.  I can appreciate that as much as the next film lover.  The problem is that War Horse boasts a level of schmaltz that detracts from the story.  Spielberg keeps it from being a colossal failure.  His attempts are genuine, but the story is convoluted.  Upon understanding that the source material for the film is a children’s story, I can understand why.  For a gorgeous film that’s minor-Spielberg, a man from which we are burdened with great expectations for, War Horse is both a major and minor disappointment.


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World War I rocked. It’s not like the population of Europe was actually decimated, or the world thrown into political upheaval that it’s never fully recovered from. Millions of men didn’t really claw through the rest of their lives, battling the scars left by poison gas and shell shock. No, the real story of WWI is one of teenage heartthrobs strutting around in designer-made period costumes, and flying brightly decorated airplanes through dazzling explosions that don’t hurt main characters. Or at least that’s the impression you get from Flyboys.

Actually, if you were to watch films made during WWI, you might think the same thing. WWI fighter pilots were made celebrities and national heroes. In reality, the airplane contributed precious little to the outcome of the war, which was won on the ground. But there’s nothing entertaining about watching a man starve and freeze in a mud-hole until he’s blown to bits by a shell fired by unseen enemies. So let’s crank the propellers and fire up Flyboys!

For all my cynicism, this is a genuinely entertaining movie. The story of Americans who volunteered for the French military, it has every cliché in the book. James Franco stars as Cocky Young Guy who joins up because he thinks it would be fun to fly airplanes. Martin Henderson plays Grizzled Veteran. “Let me guess: you’re here because you thought it’d be fun to fly airplanes.” They have all the standard dialogue.

Veteran: You realize if you die here, your family name dies with you.

Yes, Franco's plane is mostly canvass, and yes, he flew through that blaze, and yes, he's fine.

Young Guy: Psh. I don’t plan on dyin’.

Veteran: None of the guys in the squadron cemetery did either.

Young Guy: Psh.

The two then fly deadly missions together. In between them, Young Guy woos Indigenous Girl (Jennifer Decker) while he should be training. She starts counting the planes every time his squadron flies out and flies back. Eventually, he has to save her from some German foot soldiers. To do this, he steals a plane from the squadron hanger. He is therefore sent up for military discipline, until his French commanding officer (ever notice how there’s never a French guy in a movie that’s not played by Jean Reno?) conveniently looses the paper work and slips him a medal.

Meanwhile, Veteran, an aviation progeny with over 20 kills, is driven to fly extra missions to hunt down the Germans that killed all of his friends. He is haunted by the specter of his last remaining adversary, Smirking Face with no Dialogue (Gunnar Winberg). In their eventual confrontation, the Face kills him, so who goes toe-to-toe with the Face at the climax? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

The cast of war movie cut-outs is rounded out by Philip Winchester as War Hero’s Son Who Can’t Fill the Shoes (from Lincoln Nebraska, I might add), Abdul Salis as Angry Black Guy, Tyler Labine as Racist Guy, and Michael Jibson as Religious Guy. Together they fly through all the standard scenarios, involving daring dogfights, civilians in need of rescue, and eeeeevil Germans. The fuselage of this movie is riddled with clichés from nose to tail, but it’s one of those movies that show you why the clichés exist – because they work! It’s easy to thrill to the dogfights and lose yourself in this one until you forget your troubles. Yes, you’ll predict everything that happens in the movie, but you’ll still care about the characters (even if you forget their names). I could say that this film is an insult to the millions who suffered and sacrificed during the Great War, but that would be a cliché in itself. Rent it tonight, make some pop corn, and see what you’ve been missing out on.



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Battle: Los Angeles

When will Hollywood filmmakers learn how to design an engaging extra-terrestrial?  I sat through the entirety of Battle: Los Angeles wondering why the movie was even made if the creatures the film is to be about seemed as though they were cobbled together on the last day of post-production.  Even good science-fiction films feature hokey creatures, such as Signs and War of the Worlds, but with practically limitless technology these days, why resort to such lacking creativity?  And why start out a film critique bashing alien designs?  Because the sheer laziness and lack of imagination brought to the table when considering the science-fiction elements on display here ruined Battle: Los Angeles.

I’m sad to report that Jonathan Liebsman’s stab at the alien invasion epic is an otherwise interesting (although one-note) piece of filmmaking.  Blending Black Hawk Down and War of the Worlds, Liebsman drops us into Ground Zero with a group of confused marines sent into the battleground of Los Angeles following a barely announced invasion circling the globe.  I call it Call of Duty: Worlds at War.  Aaron Eckhart, featuring a full face once again, leads his platoon of one-note soldiers into a combat zone that would have Michael Bay and Sylvester Stallone drowning in envy.  There’s a handful of characters here, but the film has precious little time for back story.  Minutes into this thing the audience is dodging shrapnel and ducking under the smoke clouds.  This is a combat film, through and through, filmed via handheld and edited to make your head spin.

So what’s the mission?  Honestly, there isn’t much of one.  The marines are choppered to the L.A. police station to rescue a group of civilians trapped inside.  From there on out, it’s moving from point A to point B avoiding deadly fire from the outer-space hostiles.  Never mind why the aliens are invading with violence.  We hear a few news clips claiming they are harvesting our planet for water.  Also never mind that their biological composition makes little to no sense.  Part machine, part creature of some sort, they look cheap and biologically improbable to function.  In a head-scratching scene, Eckhart’s character and a veterinarian dissect one of their captured enemies to figure out how to kill it.  To their surprise, the alien has a heart in its chest.  “Aim for the heart!” he cries.  It seemed to me the marines were blowing them in half from the get-go, but maybe that’s just me.  Don’t ask me about the aliens’ spacecrafts either.  From what I can tell, the filmmakers haven’t any more of a clue than I do.  The ships seem like C.G.I. whirlwinds of car parts that can disassemble into smaller aerial drone planes.  There’s no sensible design or calculations to these vehicles.  I’m guessing the artists behind them saw Transformers one too many times and decided to dumb down the concept there.

Battle: Los Angeles clearly left storytelling and imagination out of the greenlighting contract as well.  Cliches abound in the premise and reign supreme throughout.  We have a gruff leader in Eckhart, whose character battles his haunting past amidst the haunting present.  He’s retiring early on in the film after losing his entire unit of men during his last mission.  For his final day on the job, he is supposed to play second-in-command to another officer for a training simulation.  Turns out aliens invade and he’ll have to take on the greatest threat of his career.  Weird.  The plan to thwart the aliens involves taking out their system core that holds their entire power source.  Also original.  Even the minimal dialogue appears to be peeled away from other films.  At least the pyrotechnics are sound, and to be honest, that’s what the film is all about—getting in-your-face visceral.

For a quick action-fix, Battle: Los Angeles will in no way compare to a classic like Aliens (a far-superior clashing of alien creatures and marines—made 25 years ago…), but it will likely tide over young men who have no problem putting down their X-Box controllers to witness some more first-person shooter mayhem.  Complaints regarding the film playing like a kaboom-heavy videogame aren’t far from the truth.  Battle: Los Angeles isn’t striving for good sci-fi.  It’s striving for gritty target practice.  I actually dug the concept of a military action-thriller as the forefront of an alien invasion film.  Unfortunately, while all the technical aspects and extended action sequences of Battle: LA prevail, the aliens and plot do not.  I can shoot second-rate animated robot slugs at home.  For those needing a break from that sort of time-wasting, Jonathan Liebsman’s bone-crunching, ear-drum pounding, brain-thumping epic will do.  And you don’t even need a controller, unless you wait for it on DVD of course.

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Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) directs one of the finest acting ensembles of the year in “Brothers,” an isolating and tense drama featuring a standout performance from Tobey Maguire.

Maguire plays Sam Cahill, a family man marine called back into combat shortly after his brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), returns home on parole.  Natalie Portman plays Grace, Sam’s wife.  During a helicopter mission in Afghanistan, Sam’s chopper is shot down, and he and another private are taken as POWs.  The two are assumed dead.  Grace, her two daughters and the rest of the family quickly hear of this news.  Tommy takes it upon himself to turn his life around and be there for Grace and the kids.

“Brothers” actually surprised me with how low-key the movie plays out (for the most part).  The scenes with Maguire and the torture he endures while taken hostage by the enemy are less intense and sadistic than I was anticipating.  Not to say they aren’t impacting and intense, but Sheridan often cuts away from some of the more disturbing shots.  The film’s greatest strength and source of intensity comes from its many talented actors.   The young actresses that play the daughters are some of the best child actors I’ve witnessed.  10-year-old Bailee Madison, especially, has some remarkable delivery here.  Among the adult actors, Jake Gyllenhaal has a fine understated performance as the distant drunk brother who slowly turns himself into a family man.  Sam Shepherd makes the most of his cliched angry Vietnam vet father spouting off the infamous “the wrong kid died” anger towards Tommy.  Natalie Portman should earn some attention as the confused grieving wife, who in some respects, takes the reigns of the movie.

But above all, perhaps the biggest surprise is Tobey Maguire, showing a side of his acting abilities we haven’t yet seen as we’ve become accustomed to “Spider-Man” and “Seabiscuit.”  Upon his character’s return home following his mind-altering abuse and captivity, Maguire sends “Brothers” soaring with a few select, memorable scenes that ratchet up the tension immensely.  Whether his performance qualifies him for a leading actor role (the Golden Globes thought so) or a supporting actor, it’s disappointing that so many critics’ circles and reviewers are dismissing his performance.  I’ve read phrases like “you either buy his performance or you don’t,” and I can say that I did.  Maguire is finely tuned here, showcasing the dark side of his capabilities.

Overall, “Brothers” often times feels like talented actors and a handful of tense scenes piled on an average “been there, done that” story mixed in with a big anti-war message.  We’ve seen many ‘coming home’ films about the impact of combat and the destructive power it has on its soldiers.  Some of these movies hit (The Hurt Locker, Born on the 4th of July), some miss (Stop Loss), and this one definitely works very well when it works very well.  If for no other reason, the film should be seen for Maguire’s performance and those moments here that are effective.  Otherwise, I found a lot of this to be standard procedure, even if it’s done adequately by a talented cast.

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The Hurt Locker

Here is the sharp, intelligent action-thriller audiences have been craving and probably missed.  Why the studio opted to keep this one in limited release is beyond me.  “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days), could’ve broken the stigma on Iraq-war films and, with some solid marketing behind it, may have easily performed to the tune of at least $60 million, or a total similar to 2005’s “Jarhead.” Oh well, so much for living in the past.  The intensity of the film can still be taken on its own terms, and luckily “The Hurt Locker” has been making the rounds in most critics’ top-ten lists for the year, receiving a lot of Best Picture buzz and wins around awards’ circles.  And the credit is most certainly due.  This film is razor-sharp.

Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later) shows off some acting chops as Sgt. William James, the new team leader of a group of bomb diffusers operating in Iraq.  He has two other soldiers working with him to provide his cover fire as he dresses himself in a protective bombsuit to disarm the weapons.  His rogue-like ways soon test the other members’ trust in their squad-leader, and the risk of their already-dangerous job increases.

This film has a superior director in Kathryn Bigelow, whose amazing talent and feel for the material makes for a truly ambitious film.  Her movie captures much of the action ‘pow’ while keeping it in a realistic, intense, and intelligent environment.  The actors help, especially Jeremy Renner whose performance has received a good deal of attention.  While the film caught critics’ attention last year at film festivals, it is finally earning its keep this year.  Granted, the film didn’t get enough exposure or box office performance to find a Best Picture Oscar, but the Academy nominations are certain, and Bigelow might walk away with a much-deserved “Best Director” statue if she can fend off former hubby Jim Cameron and his “Avatar” opus.  “The Hurt Locker” is easily one of the best war films of the last decade, and I’m glad to see it finding the recognition it’s received this year. 

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‘King of the World’ James Cameron rises back from the depths of the sea after his “Titanic” success twelve years ago to deliver one of the most epic films of all time with “Avatar.”

Let’s get the main two questions out of the way: Is it a good movie?  Heck yes.  Is it a game-changing film that will transform movies forever? Well, possibly.  But can any film really do that?  On a technical level, movies can always advance special effects and what can be accomplished as far as the limits of imagination and reality go.  And to its credit, Cameron’s imagination graces every expensive frame of this movie to an unbelievably believable effect.

I’ve heard much complaining about the simplicity and cliche of his storyline.  I’m at a loss to understanding the reasoning of such complaints.  ‘Avatar’ presents a classic Pocahontas narrative.  In 2154, the American government dispatches a high-tech military unit to ransack the planet of Pandora in an effort to obtain a valuable mineral deposit.  The problem?  An indigenous race of humanoid Na’vi warriors (standing over twice the size of a human) refuse to relocate and give up the forests of their planet for human greed.  The plan?  American scientists are utilized to understand the Na’vi and negotiate a compromise.  After one of the scientists is killed in action, his twin marine brother, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) arrives to replace him and operate a genetically-engineered and remote-controlled avatar of a Na’vi that will infiltrate their race.  The expected happens when Jake soon loses his militaristic ideals, becomes one with their race, and falls for his Na’vi counterpart, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek).

Call the plot cliche or predictable, but I found it to be the perfect setup for Cameron’s world.  Never once does the audience not know where the story is headed, but never once do they know what this incredible director will show us next.  The very world he creates rivals any other cinematic achievement in history to date.  Witnessing the incredible design of the creatures inhabiting Pandora generated serious awe for me, as they felt authentic and extremely realistic.  Even on the human side of things–all of the military equipment: the helicopters, weaponry, and human-operated tank-bots stand as incredible accomplishments in design.  Cameron has pronounced every detail of his endless visionary world.  And I haven’t even mention the 3D factor.

This is, above all things considered, the most profound and immersing use of 3D to date.  It really opens up Pandora and allows you to enter its universe.  I can’t stress enough the level of detail utilized in the film, and the 3D really eliminates all the barriers from receiving a truly monumental movie experience.  Whether or not the movie will play as well at home remains to be seen.  Even without the third-dimension factor, the visual effects still top anything Michael Bay threw at the screen this year.  The motion-capture used to create the Na’vi characters works tremendously well in capturing authentic expression and emotion.  You can actually see the faces of Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, and Zoe Saldana under the layers of computer-animation.  How this was all accomplished is way beyond me, but Cameron fails to let us down after all the hype surrounding the technology he furthered to create his vision.

James Cameron may not be a storytelling genius, but the man knows what works, and he consistently tackles all of his projects with huge success and accomplishment.  ‘The Terminator,’ ‘Aliens’, ‘The Abyss,’ ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day,’ ‘True Lies’ and ‘Titanic’ (all among my favorite films) pushed the limits of filmmaking and what could be done with their budgets.  Luckily, Cameron doesn’t puke throwaway spectacle all over the screen.  He delivers something special and memorable with characters you care about and themes that are universal.  “Avatar” continues his streak as a filmmaking pioneer pushing the boundaries of technology to show audiences the limitless potential of the imagination.  This is certainly one of the best films of 2009, and one of the great movie-going experiences of all time.  Get up out of your chair, head to the multiplex, purchase a big tub of popcorn, and witness this incredible film in all its 3D glory.

-MJV & the Movies

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