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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar & Inglorious Basterds

Avatar (2009)

Avatar is the first movie where I decided to splurge and see it in 3D, and I picked the right one. James Cameron spent somewhere between 200-400 million on this colossal movie (reports are a bit fuzzy) and every penny is certainly up on screen. While my eyes were tired when I was done, I do think the 3D adds to the experience.

First of all, I do believe that Avatar is a groundbreaking movie in the use of new technology to meld special effects and human subjects. Imagine Gollum from Lord of the Rings times 1,000 and you have some sense of this movie. Cameron creates a beautiful world called Pandora, an idyllic planet far away from the Earth that the humans have destroyed. There are 10-foot-tall blue creatures called the Na'vi, original animals, and trees that have magic powers. Everything is depicted in absolutely gorgeous details.

Now on to the story. I think the outlines of the story is good and very interesting. I really liked the way the humans became avatars and how they switched back and forth when they went to sleep or were unplugged. The central love story in Avatar is also good in the sort of broadly romantic way. While I have a few compliments, I can also definitely say that the writing is not the strength of Avatar. The dialogue can be clunky, the themes are a little too on-the-head, and the basic outline of the story is fairly predictable. The movie has a clear anti-imperialist, pro-environment message (no argument here), but it is extremely heavy handed. It's as if every theme has to be underlined 5 times for the audience to get it. I think the best parts of the movie are the battle and action scenes. There is so much to be seen, you can't help but be wowed. I thought the weakest part of the movie was actually the middle, when Sully (our hero) is shown the new world by Neyitri, the babe of the Na'vis. It reminded me a little too much of scenes from Disney's Pocahontas.

As I was thinking about how to grade Avatar, I came back to a few points. If this movie had used traditional animation, what grade would I give it, based on the story? Probably a C+ or a B-. But the effects, the spectacle, and the leap forward in movie technology are definitely something worthy of awe. I settled on giving it a B+. Not the best of the year, but definitely a spectacle worth seeing.

Grade: B

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino came up with a delightfully deranged concept for this movie. Take World War II history, alter the facts, filter it through decades of Hollywood movies, mix it with modern-day violence and humor, and spit it all out. The good news is, he comes up with scenes and images that are among the most memorable and powerful of the year. The bad news is, not all the parts fit quite as well as others.

For being the title of the movie, the sections of the movie featuring the "Basterds" were actually the least interesting moments of the movie. The Basterds are a group of Jewish-American soldiers who are on a mission to kill and scalp Nazi soldiers. While the movie has a loose and pulpy vibe to it, these scenes lean too much on absurdist humor, and I think Brad Pitt overplays his hand. Much more interesting is the story of Shoshanna (the fabulous Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman in disguise who runs the French cinema frequented by the Nazi collaborators. Now they want to have the premiere of a new German film, and she has other plans for the night....

Christoph Waltz has been pulling in every Supporting Actor award under the sun and he is terrific as a brilliant,multi-lingual Nazi commander Hans Lander who is called "The Jew Hunter." He is a magnetic force every time he is on screen. There are so many moments when you know he could snap at the drop of a hat.

There are numerous great scenes in this movie. I'll name my favorite 4: The extended opening, where Hans Lander visits a French farmhouse that has been hiding Jews; the meeting between Hans Lander and Shoshanna in a Paris cafe; a gathering in a French restaurant full of mind games and double crossers; and the brilliant closing minutes where Tarantino indulges in some revisionist history. Unfortunately, these scenes are interspersed with others that don't fully live up to the promise of Tarantino's vision. If Tarantino had kept the energy and film references but cut down a bit on the jokiness, I think it would have been a stronger film.

Grade: B

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