Saturday, August 22, 2009

An Early Look At: James Cameron's "Avatar"

So I managed to get passes to that free Avatar screening. I really didn't get it. It was 15 minutes long, started with the dude from Daily Planet telling me to put my glasses on, and the cloaked bald kid with wind powers never showed up at all!

Alright, I'm just joking.

James Cameron's Avatar is an upcoming fantasy film which takes place on a bizarre alien world, and is not to be confused with M. Night's The Last Airbender.

Knowing next to nothing about the film save for the general premise and what a few of the toys looked like, I didn't know what to expect from the free 15-minute show in Imax 3D.

After a brief introduction from the director [he basically says, "Here, have this instead of a trailer"], the audience was treated to a series of clips from the first half of the movie - "no major spoilers," as Cameron's 3D image put it.

Avatar takes place in the 22nd Century. There's some kind of hostile and very dangerous alien world called Pandora which a military unit will be visiting, but the audience doesn't know why. The world is inhabited by creatures who fight with neurotoxin-poisoned arrows and they really don't sound friendly! One of the humans is a marine in a wheelchair by the name of Jake. From what I understand, he's the main character.

I had a very hard time watching that first segment due to the 3D. This ain't no blue-and-red-plastic crap - this Imax 3D actually works! It just takes a while to get used to, and until I did, the image seemed blurry and I felt rather dizzy. But once I got used to it [which didn't even take five minutes], I had no problem at all enjoying the scenes in stunning 3D. Small details like floating leaves and 3D subtitles were particularly nice touches.

Anyway, Jake travels to some kind of lab on Pandora, where he has his mind technologically transferred to the body of one of the strange blue Pandorian creatures. The creatures are taller than humans, have large yellow eyes, a tail, stripes, and look rather feline. [Other humans undergo the same procedure; perhaps this is how they survive on the dangerous world.] The characters referred to Jake's new body as his "avatar," the new being that he controls. In his strange new body, Jake is able to do things he couldn't in his human form - such as use his legs. He is free from his wheelchair, and proceeds to ignore orders and leave the lab.

Outside, the 3D really shines. The dense jungle is brought to life and the creatures look even more terrifying. A note to parents - the giant creatures of Pandora really do look creepy, and I imagine that a scene in which Jake is chased by a huge predator would terrify children, even if it wasn't in 3D.

In his new body, Jake makes contact with the blue creatures, one of which he's currently using, and the following scenes suggest that he becomes part of their tribe, or learns their way of life. Jake is how the audience learns about the world of Pandora - they must watch him struggle with creatures and customs of the world.

In one scene, Jake tries to catch himself a winged flying dragon-like creature, with help from the blue Pandorans. In order to control the creature, they have to link minds. This is done by him first physically subduing the beast and forcibly inserting the tentacles from his long hair into an opening on the dragon's antenna.

Yes, I watched a blue furry rape a dragon -- in glorious 3D.

The last 30 seconds of the screening was a fast-paced montage of other shots from the movie - the humans arrive, and they bring their tech. Trucks that look like the Warthog from Halo, mechs and aerospace fighters that look like they were lifted from the G.I. Joe: Sigma 6 line.

What I saw was impressive because the 3D was so good, but also because the world of Pandora was so beautiful. The huge jungles, the strange life forms, the unusual rock formations, the glowing green flowers in the night - it's an alien world, all right, and it sure looks like one.

I couldn't help but get a video game feeling from what I saw - hero takes on this "avatar," explores a strange world, learns new skills, and probably will have to save it from the bad guys. Sounds like pretty much any game I've ever played.

The free screening was great, but I'm more indifferent than curious, or excited. I know slightly more about the movie than I did going in, but still not enough to care. Let me guess, this alien world is threatened by the humans instead of the other way 'round - oh no, the tables have turned! Admittedly, 15 minutes of footage taken from other several scenes can't do the movie justice. It looks like an epic fantasy adventure with sci-fi elements, and the 3D is great. But I really don't like nor care about the blue furries, nor the actor who plays Jake. But hey, that's just me.

James Cameron's Avatar opens on December 18th.

Friday, August 21, 2009

An Accurate Look At: "Inglourious Basterds"

It's not often that I look forward to a movie. But when I heard that Quentin Tarantino was directing a war film, I was excited. The trailer thrilled me and made me laugh. And for once, it didn't feel bad to play $12 for a movie ticket this summer.

Say what you want about Tarantino, his directorial style, his choices of music and actors, and his themes. He makes damn entertaining films which are fun, packed with action, and very memorable. I still ask people for sips of their Sprite to wash down tasty burgers. Though I probably won't be quoting Inglourious Basterds, it's still a Tarantino film to the core. [I'm not sure what Tarantino's film has to do with 1978's Inglorious Bastards, but if I had bothered to look it up, I'd probably figure something out!]

Basically, Inglourious Basterds stars Brad Pitt as a Lieutenant from Tennessee who commands a team of Jewish-American soldiers, a unit codenamed "Basterds." This highly-trained special mission force does terrible things to Nazis behind enemy lines in order to strike fear into the German army. And have fun while doing it.

The film opens with a title sequence. Tarantino loves his opening credits and makes them long with plenty of music. Basterds' is no different. I found myself laughing during the credits, possibly due to the various fonts, or the over-the-top seriousness. At any rate, it was a good sign of things to come.

But don't be misled to believe that it is a just a comedy, however. Don't let the trailer and TV spots make you think it's some kind of messed-up action flick. There IS comedy and action, but they are balanced well with suspense and drama. The first Chapter of the movie, "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France..." could have been lifted from a serious war movie. [There was a particularly fourth-wall-breaking line that got a laugh from the audience, but it was actually a plot device and does not take away from the scene as much as I initially thought it would.] The writing, acting, and atmosphere of this first scene were all great and made for a powerful, suspenseful introduction to the film and two of its main characters. I don't think I'll be able to drink milk again without thinking of World War II.

Though Basterds featured many characters, the many of them had their nicknames and backstories explained through dialogue and flashback. For some, it might just be a single cutaway or a brief mention of what the Nazis call him, but the little information that the audience gains helps to make them care about the characters. He's not just some serious-looking commando, he's an accomplished author and specialist in German cinema. I particularly enjoyed one of the Basterds because his nickname was so damn funny and he reminded me of the Scout from Team Fortress 2. Grass grows, birds fly, sun shines, and brudda, he hurts people. [UPDATE: I'm not the only one who made that connection!]

Since the movie featured characters from different countries and of various backgrounds, there was a certain amount of stereotyping that I guess couldn't be avoided. Or, perhaps more likely, was included to make the characters easier to understand. For example, Brad Pitt's character was a brash, redneck American, and the British characters said "jolly good," called each other "chaps," and didn't understand what Winston Churchill was saying. That's not to say that the film wasn't internationally accurate. Large portions were spoken in their "proper" languages. The British spoke English, the Germans spoke German, the French spoke French, Norwegians speak Norwegian, the Greeks are taught their Greek. I much prefer it this way rather than Hollywood's typical "bad guys speak English with German accent" approach.

Speaking of dialogue, Bastards continued a Tarantino tradition - a lot of talking. Some scenes dragged on longer than they should have, and due to the nature of the film [time period, subject matter, setting, characters], the dialogue was not necessarily entertaining [don't worry, it's not as bad as Death Proof's]. You won't hear anyone ask, "You know what they call a quarter-pounder with cheese in Berlin?" The dialogue was important to set up the atmosphere and push the story forward. Sure, there was a lot of talking at times, but that's because there were several stories going on at once. Some have more talking than action, that's all. Fear not, however, as the film included another Tarantino staple - violence.

If you're squeamish and don't have a sense of humour, you probably shouldn't be watching a Tarantino film in the first place. Basterds had its share of violence - shooting, stabbing, beating, punching, head-butting, strangling, whipping, etc. I didn't find there was that much blood or gore, but some shots involving knifes were particularly bloody.

And if you're wondering about another Tarantino convention, yes, Samuel L. "Bad Muthaf#%a" Jackson is in Inglorious Basterds, in an uncredited role. Keep your eyes and ears peeled and you might catch him.

I thoroughly enjoyed Inglourious Basterds. It had me laughing, it thrilled me, it kept me guessing, and I left the theatre satisfied, eager to tell people just how good the movie was. It's not perfect - I really don't like the climax and ending, but maybe it just needs a second viewing.

If you're a fan of Tarantino and aren't offended by the subject matter, then you MUST see Inglourious Basterds. It exceeded my expectations and to say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement.

Friday, August 7, 2009

An Accurate Look At: "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra"

Have you ever had to listen to someone speak of something they know nothing about? Or had to listen to someone explain something they know nothing about to other people? If you answered "no," your answer will change if you are unfortunate enough to end up at a screening of G.I. Joke: The Return of Sigma 6.

The movie takes place in the "not-so-distant future." What does that mean? To put it simply, it means that they can introduce crap that neither makes sense nor is plausible in the Joe-verse for the sake of it: things like "pulse" energy weapons, active camo pyjamas, solid hologram projectors, vehicles/weapons/armour that belong in a bad sci-fi B-movie, and, of course, the "nanomites." This is the sort of crap you'd expect from that godawful '80s GI. Joe cartoon, which is even worse than this Hollywood attempt at G.I. Joe.

If you asked, "What are 'nanomites'?" I'll be more than glad to answer your question. In this generic action movie, "nanomites" are tiny little robots that can pretty much do anything because of the lazy writing. These silver plot-devices somehow turn green and can be used as weapon and/or medicine and/or brain controlling device. Open palm, insert face.

Haven't you heard? This is the TECHNOFUTURE where crap doesn't have to make sense!

And what terrible Hollywood movie would be complete without unlikeable characters? First, there's "Duke," who looks and sounds even more like a douchebag than the Duke we already know and loathe. His black comic-relief sidekick is a Wayans brother. I don't think I need to say anthing else.

But I will. There is little to no characterization for most of the important characters, besides for the occasional "oh gnoes, I has emotions" moments. There is not much to say about the acting, since there's hardly are there. I have literally "seen better actin' in fast-actin' Tenactin."

The characters are very underdeveloped. You meet them, they fight, stuff blows up, hurray. But you know nothing about them, and honestly, you don't have any reason to care about them. "Okay, she has a crossbow. That guy talks funny. That guy doesn't talk. Hurm. Is that it?" And as for the characters that DO have backstories which they bother to reveal, whoo boy. All of the storytelling is done by flashbacks which either feel very over-the-top and excessively dramatic, or not serious at all. So kids fight, and some douchebags want to get married. Who cares?

And speaking of the characters, the writers really went out of their way to make it feel like a soap opera. It seems like every character somehow knows each other from something they did in the distant past -- CUE FLASHBACK SEQUENCE!

The characters have been "internationalized." Rather than Fort Wadsworth's motor pool housing America's finest, this new international Pit has people from all over the world. G.I. Joe is once again Action Force, this time an Action Force made by the combined power of multiple governments. Probably easier to market the flick internationally this way.

Yet, despite the "internationalization" of the characters, the one they mess up the worse is the one best known for BEING from a foreign land. How ironic that this new reimagined Baroness is simply some American broad with badly dyed hair. That's it. No accent. Just some random white girl in a slutty costume. Hooray for plot devices. Way to go, Hollywood! Other characters just look really, really stupid - take for example "The Doctor" or the "Vipers" with ugly helmets with huge eyes and metal grins. These characters look like badly-designed comic-book villains. Unfortunately, the comic book they're from is NOT G.I. Joe.

Despite the movie taking place in the "not-so-distant future," the civilian ground vehicles are from the present day. Wait, what? How can there be airships and VTOL carriers out of Star Trek or Ghost In The Shell, but the ground vehicles remain the same? Did the governments of the world decide to ban new cars and instead invest that money into developing shuttlecrafts and bizarre submarines? Nah, it's just product placement. They can call it a "Steel Crusher APV" if they want, but it's just a lame-ass Hummer.

And speaking of "not-so-distant future," let's briefly talk about the Joes' equipment, shall we? Crossbows with self-navigating shells? Arm-mounted hologram projectors? Fancy suits of mechanical armour? What the crap? Does G.I. Joe buy gear from Stark Industries? If not, Tony should sue them for blatantly ripping off his armour. That shot of the ankles sealing up was more than just an "homage."

Honestly, though, "Delta-6 Accelerator Suit"? Come the hell on. Here I was thinking S.N.A.K.E. Armour was lame, and then they pull THIS out of their ass. Of all of the Joe eras to include in the flick, Sigma 6? WHY? If you don't believe that they intentionally tipped their hats to Sigma 6, stay 'til the end of the movie. If you can.

Like most recent generic Hollywood action flicks, this one features gimmickry such as shakycam, too much slow-motion, and plenty of sparks/explosions to get in the way of seeing whatever is supposed to be on the screen. The fight scenes aren't that entertaining and the chase scenes aren't much better. Stuff's moving, camera's shaking, can't see what's happening, some sort of explosion, a flip or two, some slow-motion, repeat. Again. And again. And again. Truly groundbreaking filmmaking.

There is some good among this sea of mediocrity. Dr. Who plays Destro and they did a good job with his character. They also explained a bit about one of his ancestors in what was probably the best scene of the movie - not that that's saying much. The new take on Zartan is fantastic. Much more plausible than the shape-shifting hologram-using ab-revealing Aussie biker gang leader.

There are several references which older Joe fans will pick up on. Don't be fooled by a few lines, an alternate costume, something to chew on, or a red helmet. Just because you might have chuckled at a line doesn't mean you didn't facepalm a few scenes back, and in no way begins to make up for the flick's numerous flaws.

The story is terrible, the acting is just awful, the music is generic, the gags aren't funny, the action is uninteresting, and the plot twists are foreseeable. Do yourself a favour - buy some Joe comics or a figure instead.