Avatar (2009)

Posted: 26th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Social pressure has made me ashamed to admit this, but for a long time, I was a Na’virgin. Yes, it is true. I was one of the last people in the known universe who had not yet seen that Avatar movie that is talked about so much on the Internets.

If thirty years ago, you had told me that in the not-so-distant future there was going to be this movie that breaks box office records, people love it so much they get depressed when they have to leave the theater, they call it the newStar Wars, and it is about a village of blue people, my first response would have been, “Cool, I love the Smurfs,” because at that time I would have been a little kid. But then when you told me, “No, no, it is not about the Smurfs, but about this group of big, blue people and they have this ponytail that connects into animals, and…” I would have laughed at you before you could finish the rest of that sentence.

And thirty years later, here I am, trying to keep an open mind . . . for the sake of science.

For the handful of you who have not yet seen Avatar, or like my wife, will never see this movie, I’ll give you a little background so we can all be on the same page as I do this review.  So it’s the future and humans have found this new planet called Pandora. I like to think they named it after the website. Apparently, the human race has messed up Earth. They never show us what happened, but I figure it was a Wall-E style trashing, so the humans have moved onto destroying a new world.  Pandora has an Earth-like feel, except it is low on atmosphere, the people are blue and the landscape sometimes glows like a midnight bowling alley.  The humans have set up a mining operation on the planet because they are looking for this new resource discovered only on Pandora, which has been creatively named “unobtainium.” Perhaps the name “howaboutwebemorefreakingobvious-ium” was taken. Anyway, all we know is this rock goes for a grip-load of money back home on Earth, and the humans, led by Giovanni Ribisi, want it.

In the mining camp, there is also a group of scientists trying to study the indigenous people, the Na’vi (the really big, really blue people who run around the forest, use bows and arrows, ride horse-like creatures, and are really in touch with nature. Other than the blue part, does all this sound vaguely familiar? It should.) And turns out, of course, this new resource just so happens to be right under the Na’vi, under the great big tree they live in, also very creatively called “home tree.”

The movie plays out like I’m watching someone play a great big video game with awesome graphics. We are brought up to speed mostly by the main character’s internal monologue, and then by the clunky dialogue delivered by cliché characters. The main villain is the embodiment of how cliché this movie was with regards to its characters. He is the head of security at the human’s base, an ex-marine, and of course every time we see him, he is doing something we’ve seen in every military movie ever made. I was waiting for him to say how much he loves the smell of roasted blue people in the morning.  He is introduced to us as he is giving a drill sergeant-esque speech explaining the dangers of Pandora, which if you are too lazy to listen to, is visualized for us through the scars he has received on his face from something dangerous on Pandora. He had no character development, no arc, only one purpose…to be a grade A, evil douche bag.

On the flip side of that coin is our good guy, an ex-marine, who has been paralyzed from the waist down and has been allowed to take part in the avatar program. See the humans are so advanced that they have figured out a way to clone the aliens with a mix of DNA from a human so that once these cloned creatures are full grown, the person who donated the DNA can use some sort of virtual reality machine to enter into the mind of the clone to control it. It is about the only original concept in the movie, but is never really explored or explained. How does it work? Why did they decide to use this program and not just talk with Na’vi face to face?  What are the ethical implications of the avatar program? I mean, come on, you are breeding living beings to be puppets, to dance at a whim. Don’t those creatures have rights? A soul?  Where is the public outcry? The media? PETA? Or what about when the Na’vi find out about it, why weren’t they a little more disturbed over these experiments. I thought it would have made for an interesting angle to at least explore.

Anyway, the main character controls his very own avatar and he can walk again. Long story short, he ends up being allowed to hang with the Na’vi, learning their ways, winning their trust, falling in love with a girl Na’vi and all the while is supposed to be trying to get them to move out of home tree so the humans can get at that sweet, sweet, unobtainium.

The plot is essentially a re-tread of Pocahontas, less singing, more violence. On the one hand I wouldn’t be that bothered by that since I do think that history repeats itself, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that if we do find life on other planets that will we crush it to take their resources. In fact, I would expect if that life form found us first and wanted our resources, they would do that to us. On the other hand, if you are going to retell a story, bring something new to the table. And mainly, something that is believable. I know you want ‘splosions and stuff, but I just didn’t buy that the native Na’vi, running with bows and arrows and flying creatures, could go head-to-head with tanks, helicopters, missiles, etc.. The humans have enough firepower to wipe the planet clean. In the real history version, the conflict was interesting because each side had strengths and weaknesses, not one side with sticks and the other with automatic weapons, napalm, gas or whatever.

When I first saw the trailer, for some reason I thought all of the humans were going to be in avatars because maybe there was no atmosphere or they needed to be just like the aliens in order actually be able to harm them in a fight or something. Something like that would make the fighting more interesting at least. Or maybe the aliens would have acid for blood and jump out of people’s chests. No, that would never work. Well, (spoiler alert) whatever you chose to do, filmmakers, don’t make it so the planet’s spirit/goddess has to help out the Na’vi people during the fight by sending in other animals to get the job done because the natives can’t do it themselves. This is the very definition, almost literally, of a deus ex machina (God in the machine), and in my opinion, a cop out and bad story telling.

So had JCameron focused more on the character development and less on having cool, 3-D action, Avatar would have received higher marks from me. And I know it is possible. A great example how good the rest of the movie could have been was when the female lead Na’vi character learns of the male lead’s betrayal, she has a wonderful emotional reaction scene. It has an impact because just with the little development of the relationship between the characters we saw, we care about them. Imagine what it would be like with more. I believe it is one of the first times I have actually seen a decent emotional scene come from a generated character, and it is because of a combination of the new technology, combined with great voice acting, with a dash of character development.

Did I love the visuals? Absolutely. And for that alone, because I am nerd, that is where the high marks for this movie come from. But don’t just visually take us somewhere we haven’t been. How about writing a story that explores a subject in a light we haven’t seen? Otherwise we could have just watched IMAX presents: Pandora.

Will you have fun? If you can shut off your mind and just go with it, of course you can have fun. Of course, that’s true for just about anything you do in life, and perhaps happens more often than it should. I think we can, and should, ask more from our movies because otherwise we get a bunch of neat special effects and 3-D images galore, but we lose the great art of story telling in the process.

Pac-Man on Google

Posted: 22nd May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Yesterday, I got a little blast from my past thanks to Google. For Pac -Man’s 30th birthday (I can’t believe the little guy has been eating power pellets for that long), Google installed a playable version of the Google logo on their homepage.

Hurry to play it before it is gone from the homepage.  Just “insert a coin” to be transported back to the 1980’s. They even included the great arcade music. Insert two coins to play a two player game with Ms. Pac-Man.  I love the little surprises Google comes up with every now and then, and what a great way to celebrate a legend.  Here’s to you Pac-Man. So be on the lookout  for Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde and be forewarned, it is just as addicting as the original.

Star Wars: Episode IV

Posted: 19th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Little Man Critic (Age 4)

What is the movie about? About fighting. Darth Vader is bad.

Why is he bad? Because he is taking over the world and he doesn’t want to do the things star wars do and Luke Skywalker he fights them and goes up in the ship. He doesn’t want Darth Vader to take over the world.

What you think about it? It was good because Darth Vader was bad. And he is so bad, Darth Vader, he just open his light saber and Luke Skywalker does and they just fight. There was a lot of R2D2, he’s a robot because he got killed.

What did you like about the movie? I liked Luke Skywalker and he is good.

What did you not like? The guy that kills people. He is blue and has blue things in his hands that makes people die. (Editors note: We believe the reviewer is referring to the Emperor, and may have been confused as to which episode was under view. This was not cleared up at press time as the reviewer had to go to bed.)

Would you recommend it? Yeah, because he is so bad.

Star Wars: Episode IV

Posted: 19th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Little Miss Critic (Age 7)

What is the movie about? It is hard to explain. It is about Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia trying to stop Darth Vadar from taking over the world.

What did you think of the movie? It was kinda bad because I don’t like the fighting as much, it is weird because Little Man Critic likes fighting and I don’t.

What did you like about it? Princess Leia

Why? Because she is a princess

What did you not like? The fighting because I don’t like fighting.

Would you recommend it? Maybe. Maybe not because of the fighting is not good for little ones

DC Super Friends: Riddle Me This!

Posted: 19th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Little Man Critic (Age 4)

What is this book about? It is about Batman and the Riddler man. Flash runs reallly fast and he can run up to Superman, and he takes away his stronger thing. Cyborg is not easy with superman. Batman says there is a clue and Robin and Cyborg says there is cotton candy apples. The Riddling Man is in the carnival. Cyborg picks up a hammer and the mirrors go crash, crash, crash. and you turn to the next page, Batman picks him up and Superman picks up a broom and says it is time to clean up this mess unless you want to go to jail and have some fun. And that’s it.

What did you think of this book? It is good, because Batman is very good.

What did you like? I like Batman and Flash because they are so fun.

What did you not like? I don’t like the Riddling Man because he is really, really, really, really bad.

Would you tell your friends to read it? Yep. Because he is really, really bad. Batman is not bad, I guess.

The Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne

Posted: 19th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Little Miss Critic (Age 7)

What are the books about? It is about a brother and sister (Jack and Annie) that found a tree house and they figured it out that it was magic and they wanted to know who owned the tree house.

How is tree house magic? They can go back in time or forward in time by pointing at a picture in book in the tree house.
What do you think about the series? It is great.
Why? Because lots of parents, kids, teachers and librarians like it.
What do you like about it? The places where they go. I get to learn a lot about that place.
What do you not like? Nothing because everything is great.
Would you recommend it? Yes because of the adventures they have.

How to Train Your Dragon

Posted: 19th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Little Man Critic (Age 4)

What is the movie about? I don’t know. they just fly, the dragons.

What did you think about it? it was good
Why? Because there was 3-d glasses, big, big glasses
What did you like? I liked the glasses and we ate skittles at there.
What did you not like? The screen, the TV, the screen was a computer.
Why didn’t you like that? Because it was boring
Would you recommend it? Yeah because it was so nice.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Posted: 19th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Reviewed by Little Miss Critic (Age 7)

What is the movie about? Vikings. and this one little viking wanted to capture a nightfury.
What is a night fury? A dragon that is black. It goes into the sky and you couldn’t see it and the dragons attacked when it was night.
What did you think about the movie? It was good because I liked the dragons
What did you like? Dragons because the dragons looked real, not really real, but cartoony.
What did you not like? The fighting, the killing the dragons. Because I don’t like killing.
Would you recommend it? Maybe because the killing was bad.
What did you think of movie being in 3-D? It was cool. It looked like viking ships were coming right at you when you would see the part with the viking ships.

No Impact Man

Posted: 17th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
Before I start this review, I feel the need to explain my background when it comes to the topic of environmentalism. You see it is not my fault I’m screwed up. I am a child of the consumer culture of the 1980s. I have been brainwashed by branding, I know all the jingles, I like the packaging, and advertisers seem to have implanted a chip in my head that makes me want more, and more, and then throw it away in the landfill, and then get more. But then I headed into the 90s, and the message shifted on me to let’s start saving the planet, the charge lead mostly from the likes of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

As an aside, I remember as a kid being cognizant of the threat of acid rain because it seemed to be big in the news, so when it would rain at recess, my friends and I would run and hide under the play structures, and then run out into the rain suffering horrible, acid-burning deaths. You have to make environmental problems fun. You know, make lemonade, right?

So anyway, now I know that Styrofoam is bad, I know I should cut up plastic pop holders because animals get caught in them, and I know the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. And has that changed my consumer lifestyle? No. I know that my lust for things is killing the planet, and I do feel really guilty about it.  But apparently not guilty enough to stop or do anything drastic about it.  It is just so embedded into my programming that I don’t know how to stop it. I want to try. Show me how to make a difference besides the little I am doing through recycling some stuff, composting some stuff, and turning off lights.

thought Al Gore could help me with his An Inconvenient Truth. He sold me on the fact that the planet is in trouble.  I believe global warming exists and think we need to fight it, mostly because I don’t like hot weather.  I’m a mild climate kinda guy, sorry.  Anyway, I thought he’d give us answers on what we could do to save the planet, but the movie came up short. I’m sure that really wasn’t the intent of the film, so I am interested when I hear of other films that might answer that question.

No Impact Man (2009) is a documentary which follows Coln Beavan, a man writing a book with a similar title, just a little bit longer, No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process. In sum, Mr. Beavan decides that the premise of his above referenced book will be that he and his family (a wife and young daughter) will try to live their lives in New York City for a year without having an impact on the environment. Ah, perhaps this film with have the answers I seek.  He sets certain rules: buy local food, don’t buy new stuff, ride bikes, no elevators, reduce trash, compost, no toilet paper, no electricity, etc., which he phases in throughout the course of the year. So your telling me it is not truly a year with no impact? Already I feel betrayed.

Ultimately, to me the very premise of the experiment is flawed. Just through the simple act of breathing, or eating or pooping, a human has an impact on the environment. There is no way for the subject of the experiment to have zero impact unless he ceases to exist. Maybe it wouldn’t have bugged me so much if he called it “Low Impact Man,” but I assume that doesn’t sell books, does it?

And at the very least, if he was really trying to see if he could make zero impact, he should have gone out to the wilderness, abandoning his city digs which by their very existence have a huge impact on the environment. Instead he stays in the city, becoming a mooch, living symbiotically off of those around him, a parasite. At one point, his wife is forced to “borrow” ice from a neighbor in order to keep their food cold since “No Impact Man” insisted on giving up the refrigerator. He begins to work in a community garden that is already set up, and starts to talk about how easy gardening is, and the guy who runs the garden is like, “Ya it is easy. Because I already did all the F-ing work.”

I’m not sure what the directors of the film, Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, intended on conveying with this movie.  On one hand, the movie felt like a long trailer for Mr. Beavan’s book. But on the other hand, the movie shows Mr. Beavan with flaws which I appropriated seeing. He was shown as selfish for putting his family through this experiment with very little input from them. He requires that they be open and on board with the sacrifice, yet he could still use electricity when he was blogging. And they also showed scenes where, even though his wife wanted another child, he wasn’t open to the sacrifice that came such a change in lifestyle.

We do not get the sense of what impact the experiment had on the family other than a general grumpiness at giving up caffeine or air conditioning. And it is the little things that are left out that make you wonder, like did they give up hot showers, or to really have no impact on a water supply, forgo showers all together.  We don’t get the reaction shots of what people thought about their clothes since the clothes were washed in the bathtub, or how they smelled since I assume they gave up toiletries and toilet paper.

Furthermore, the film does not answer what impact his sacrifices made on saving the environment.  How much did he save the earth by not using electricity? How much was saved by eating locally?  We don’t know because the film just assumes the impact is apparent.

The premise played out no better than an extreme publicity stunt, à la David Blaine. This was highlighted by  Mr. Beavan’s several appearances on morning talk shows like Good Morning America, which last time I checked used electricity to broadcast. So how is that having no impact?

And we have seen these stunts before, with the guy who eats only McDonalds for a month, or the guy who tries to live the rules of Bible literally for a year. And to show us what? Fast food is bad for you? No kidding. To show you that taking the Bible literally is hard and sometimes outdated? You don’t say. To show us giving up electricity and toilet paper is hard? Wow!

My biggest concern with these experiments is that it reinforces the myth that liberals are out of touch with the rest of society.  It is all well and good that these guys can take a year out of their lives to make so many sacrifices all in the name of making a point, or saving others or saving the planet. But there are a lot people who would love to option of buying local, but can only afford to buy off the dollar menu. They give up on electricity but not by choice.

So was it just a ploy to sell a book that will, by the way, have an impact on the environment since I assume it is printed on paper? Maybe, but I think Mr. Beavan’s heart was also in the right place, and perhaps the book does a better job of giving us answers and explaining things. Ultimately, I appreciate that Mr. Beavan is trying to highlight something that I agree is a concern.  I’m glad that he is tackling this issue rather than trying to prove global warming doesn’t exist, or making “Huge Impact Man.” So taken in that light, the movie sparks discussion and controversy (as evidenced by a quick google search of the movie title), which is a big plus in my book, and therefore it gets a 3 out 5 from Mister Critic.

The Lovely Bones

Posted: 10th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Is there ever “the right moment” to watch a really depressing movie? Lately I am finding it increasingly difficult to work up the motivation to watch certain films. When I’m in a good mood, the last thing I want is some movie bringing me down, and when I’m in the dumps, it is not a wise idea to be exploring dark places. Good luck finding any middle ground.  And thanks to Netflix, my procrastination goes unabated because I receive movies with no due date to work against. So there sat The Lovely Bones, taunting me for the past few weeks.
The movie The Lovely Bones (2009) is based on a novel by Alice Sebold, published in 2002.  It is the story of a young girl, Susie Salmon, age 14, who is murdered and watches from the afterlife as her family copes with the loss. See what I’m saying about depressing?
Now before you yell at me about spoiling the movie plot by revealing that she was murdered, that tidbit is revealed early in both the book and the movie.  In fact, it is in the first line of the book, which is one of the aspects that I really liked about the novel. The author took a risk by subverting the conventional suspense behind whether a main character is going to die and cut straight to the aftermath of such a tragedy, focusing instead on the impact of the main character’s death on the other characters. I thought that focus really worked in the novel. Not so much in the movie, though.

I am usually interested in how a novel I have experienced will be interpreted on the big screen, and that was especially the case when I heard that Peter Jackson was directing this film. Mr. Jackson has experience in faithfully adapting novels as evidenced by The Lord of Ring Trilogy, a work of art, in my humble opinion.  And he recently directed a remake of King Kong, which got the job done, but was not as impressive to me as the Rings.

On the positive side of things, I could tell that Jackson really loved the novel, The Lovely Bones, and stayed true to the general feel of the book. He did a great job capturing the time period, the early 1970s, with the clothes, hair, and technology, and as my wife pointed out, at times the film had that look that color photos had from that era. I thought he created some interesting visuals with his interpretations of things like Susie’s afterlife, although at times it felt like he was trying a little too hard to be artsy or quirky. It felt like we were treading upon familiar ground, similar to What Dreams my Come, and this detracted from what should have been a character driven movie.

And that’s where I found the movie to be lacking. I wanted more depth to the discussion of the impact of Susie’s death on the family.  The title comes from Susie observing how her family and friends grew after she died, and seeing how the connections they made were “the lovely bones that had grown around [her] absence . . .”  A similar statement is made in the movie, but it does not hold as much weight in the film because the director provides very little evidence of said growing or changing or connections.  Instead the movie seemed to want to play more with the suspense behind how the death happened, or whether the murderer would be caught, turning it into more of a crime thriller.

Perhaps one reason I felt this lacking, was due it part to Mark Wahlberg’s portrayal of the father. For whatever reason, Jackson chose to essentially cut out a huge part of the mother role which completely wasted casting the talented Rachel Weisz.  Susan Sarandon, as the grandmother, was also wasted as comic relief rather than channeling her dramatic talent. So that left Wahlberg to carry the water in order to show the impact on the family, and he spilled most of the water.

First, Marky Mark was an odd casting choice. He just did not read as the father type in this movie. He seemed more like the big brother, or worse yet, the creepy uncle. Maybe it was the 70’s hair, or the fact that I will never disassociate him from Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights.  Also, thanks to Saturday Night Live, my wife could not stop saying, “Say hello to your mother for me,” whenever Wahlburg spoke.

Now I give the guy a B- for effort, he tried to emote the desperation of trying to find his daughter, or the pain associated with the loss, but this movie needed more from him to make that character work. He did good job with anger, that is his “go-to” emotion, however in one scene, where he was looking at his reflection in a window, he just looked constipated.

Overall, the lack of depth in a majority of the characters left me detached from this movie for the most part, which is the polar opposite of how I felt reading the book. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood, or maybe reading the book spoiled it for me. Don’t get me wrong, the very thought of losing my daughter in such a manner tears me apart, but other than the scenes described below, the movie allowed me separate myself emotionally, which caused me to lose interest.  And perhaps that’s just my problem because every time I looked over at my wife she was sobbing through the entire movie.

What really saves this movie for me is the performance by Stanley Tucci as George Harvey, the child predator.  He does a fantastic job portraying this monster, right down to the odd speech patterns and creepy mannerisms.  Excellent work and a very well deserved nomination for Best Supporting Actor. There are several scenes with Mr. Tucci that will haunt me forever, and will teach any child not to trust strangers. Those were the times that I was hit very hard, right in the gut, emotionally by this movie, and I found most of his scenes very difficult to watch, even though I knew how they would end. Ultimately, it is because of Mr. Tucci’s performance that I would recommend this movie as a good rental.

Right after the movie ended, my wife and I ran to check on the kids to make sure they were safe, which is what any self-respecting, really depressing movie should make you do. When it is all said and done, you should appreciate your life and the ones you love, and in that respect The Lovely Bones did what it needed to do. But if you are looking for more, stick to the book.