Iron Man 2 (2.5 of 4)

The biggest problem with this arc-reactor powered action movie stems from an overly star-powered cast. John Favreau probably had a meeting the first day of the shoot that went something like this: “Thanks for showing up, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson, but we have less than two hours of movie to work with, mind sharing?”

Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark only this time he’s less of a public phenom and more of alcoholic, egotistical prick. And he likes it that way. The conflict arises between his irresponsibility and the great pressure put on him by the world leaders to keep peace around the planet (Iron Man negotiates treaties to stop nukes?).

Sam Rockwell plays Justin Hammer, owner of an arms manufacturing company, he bails out criminals and deals closely with US Military Generals. I know what you’re thinking: “How does he cover up a wicked evil scheme like that?” I don’t know. I only watched the movie. I do know it looks very easy.

Iron Man 2 introduces roughly 912837 characters it doesn’t need. Among them are the wonderful Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson. Sadly, as wonderful and talented as they may be, they are merely excess here. In a movie filled with some of my favorite actors I was surprised to find myself bored of them. There were moments sitting in the theater where I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for the next relevant thing to happen.

What I was given was some interesting background development of Stark. His dad, his ego and his shortcomings are all explained in a rather implausible but highly effective scene where he watches his dad’s company’s old promotional video. They bond through time and the magic of home videos, it’s touching, but we have 912837 characters to think about so let’s move on.

Stark’s father and Ivan Vanko’s (Mickey Rourke) father worked together, Ivan is sort of angsty about the way that Tony has used their fathers’ brilliance. So when his father dies, he does the only reasonable thing and become a super-villain. I’m not complaining, Rourke’s character is cool. Very cool. Vanko trying to kill Stark on a race track is hands down the best scene in the movie, and includes some of the coolest effects (the briefcase to Iron Man costume change, and Vanko’s energy-whip arm extensions).

After the assault however, Vanko is locked up in “maximum security.” Hammer creates an elaborate escape plan for Vanko and then hires him (he has lots of US military money to spend) to construct an army. The army will serve two purposes: 1) It will make trillions of dollars and 2) It will turn Hammer into a rock star which is very important. Vanko double crosses Hammer (surprise!) and recreates his own arc-reactor suit to fight Iron Man again. The movie ends in a 20 second final battle that redefines anti-climactic.

The acting is solid, the action and effects are (when they happen) fantastic, the players are cool. However, the 35 minutes that are devoted to Jackson and Johansson should’ve been given to Rourke. Vanko as a character was far more interesting and fun to watch. I liked the movie, just not as much as I could have. 

A true enemy was never fully grasped, Favreau had the opportunity, he put a great villain on the screen, made him look fierce and then forgot about him so everyone could see Johansson in a bra. In short the movie wasn’t long enough to do the characters justice and the characters were why we came back for round two in the first place.

Avatar (3.5 of 4)

                  Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully, a paraplegic United States soldier, who is chosen to “pilot” an avatar. The avatar is a synthetic body of a Na’vi alien. It becomes his mission to go to Pandora, the planet where the Na’vi live and learn about them so he can ask them to “move away” from the location of the planets biggest and most lucrative deposit of Unobtainium, a metal that humans want very badly (a classic MacGuffin).

                Turns out that the Na’vi people don’t want to be kicked out of their life-long home, this should not be a surprise, but it does surprise the US businessman and US military sent to Pandora.

               Jake Sully, through his experiences in the avatar body, begins to see the culture of these alien people for what it really is, pure and peaceful. His guilt for his role in their destruction leads him to abandon his military duties and fight on behalf of the Na’vi against the invading humans.

                    The movies central message is two-fold but fairly straight-forward in both circumstances. One, don’t take things from other people. Two, respect nature.

                  From this point on Avatar sort of slowly devolves into blanket generalizations and contrived characters that should be familiar to any movie-goer.

                   Essentially Avatar makes a native, naturalist people group out to be pure or perfect, and makes the humans out to be the evil and menacing hands of iron and steel. This can be compared to many things. Early Americans taking American Indian land, the industrial world destroying the planet, our involvement in the Middle East… The problem with the movie is that the “pure” people aren’t really that pure.

               If you take a closer look at the world of Pandora and the Na’vi, they are as bigoted as the humans are. They do try to kill Jake Sully even when he looks like one of them let’s not forget. The Na’vi people fear change and hate outsiders who might influence them; this is foolish pride not pure-heartedness.

                 Avatar also reverses roles so blatantly it’s shameful. The more advanced civilization, the humans, has no understanding and no regard (besides Jake and Sigourney Weaver’s character) for the weaker and less developed civilization. However, the Na’vi, an extremely undeveloped civilization, have more (strangely enough) humanity. It is amazing to me that a civilization that can travel the universe and withstand hundreds of years of political, social and cultural turbulence (like the US has) is so naïve to other civilizations needs. Not to mention it is supposed to be 2154, according to the video logs Jake Sully must keep.

            I’d like to back up a bit and make a point about how unlikely it is for Jake Sully to be chosen for this mission anyway. According to the movie he was selected because his doctor brother (who is talked up so much he’s practically a demigod) was killed. Tragic, I know, don’t worry Jake doesn’t seem to really care too much about his dead bro. In fact, it’s never mentioned. But they choose to let him pilot the avatar because it would simply be too expensive to make another one—give me a break. Too expensive? Too expensive to make a new avatar for someone actually qualified to do work on another planet with an alien civilization? Sure, I’ll buy that hook line and sinker.

            As many complaints as I have for the story of Avatar, which has plot holes bigger than the Hallelujah Mountains, it is a fairly spectacular movie.

            The excuse of a plot the movie has becomes almost obsolete when meshed together with the special effects, acting (for the most part), visuals, shot framing and cinematography. 

            James Cameron is a master of mise en scene. Every shot is framed in a way that shows exactly what the audience wants to see. Everything on screen seems to interact with the characters. The planets’ foliage is sensitive to touch, so when characters walk on grass or brush past a small shrub it illuminates itself in response. This sort of intense depth of environment and actor interaction becomes a purposeful trademark of the film.  

            The planet is, in my opinion, the greatest achievement of the movie. It is spectacular. It’s a futuristic Garden of Eden, complete with exotic animals and a perfect people. A still of nearly any shot in the movie would be like an artist’s masterpiece painting.

            The camera work (or at least how a camera would have worked, had most of the movie not been CGI) is remarkable. It moves around in the environment like a lofty dream. Stand out scenes are the flight sequences with Jake’s new dragon friend, the ending battle-sequence and the first moments of Jake in the avatar body.

            The view the camera has is impossible to achieve without CGI, but Cameron shows it is not impossible to imagine. From dizzying camera techniques in his first moments as a Na’vi to the incredible angles presented in the flight sequences. The speed and the accuracy of the cinematographers and Cameron’s framing are breathtaking. The audience in the theater gasped at multiple points.

           Even some close-ups of characters have a sort of magic about them. The lead Na’vi woman pulling back on her bow-strings or the US Army commander sipping coffee in his warship, shots like these make the film all-the-more powerful when we are shown sweeping establishing shots.

           The editing is nearly flawless. Fast paced back and forth dialogue, combat, chases, wide-to-tight angles and they all are seamless. There is not a noticeable cut in the movie it just feels right. Somehow at the same time transitions are achieved in a classic way bringing attention to the shift as well as the content of the screen.

             The social message of the film is extremely important to Cameron. Avatar becomes a sort of soap-box at points for a message of an eco-friendly and culturally diverse utopian ideal. Avatar ever so slowly says: “We must respect the world we live in and the people of it, lest we loose it forever.” And while at times the message is lost in the explosions and hand-to-hand robot combat, it resurfaces in the end with a reminder that there is still good in humanity.

No Impact Man (2 of 4)

           The documentary No Impact Man tells the story of Colin Beavan, a Manhattan writer who decides to live an entire year doing his best to have “no impact” on the environment. His rules: No toilet paper, incandescent bulbs, disposable razors, magazines, newspapers, television, planes, trains, automobiles, elevators, plastic bags, shopping for anything new, or creating any trash.

            His guiding thought a question, “What would it feel like to try not to hurt the environment?” Colin Beavan and his wife set out to slowly cut out every modern convenience from their lives for an entire year, but from the first appearance of his wife the plot thickens.

            His wife, Michelle, doesn’t want to do it. She likes the idea and hates the practice. She’s a Starbucks junkie whose periodic indulgence into high-fashion clothes makes her a challenging live-in participate and opponent for Colin.

            For its filmmaking qualities it is good, but nothing groundbreaking. Standard lower-third labels meshed with hundreds of head and shoulder interview segments. I watched it on Netflix, it’s an instant play movie, so I’m not sure if that affected the quality but many shots appeared to be soft on focus. The lighting was almost always done with available light, and at times the music accompanying the final cut of the movie made it seem like a cheap reality TV show rather than a documentary feature.

            But my complaints aren’t with the filmmaking.

            Colin tried hard. He enforced the laws he made for his family and the conviction and sincerity in his voice during the first ten minutes of the film, make the “experiment,” as he calls it, seem very noble and humble. However, that attitude gets lost throughout the year, and even compression of a year down to less than two hours can’t hide it.

            I blame the death of that nobility and inspiration on his wife. She seemed to play the role of Eve, constantly trying to feed Adam the apple. She cheated on his rules when she was alone, complained constantly when around him, and never seemed encouraging to his dream. With time, it wore him down. It wasn’t hard to see the stress in Colin’s eyes by the film’s end.    

            I wondered at the start of the movie, why make a movie out of it? Colin is a writer after-all and he’s turning the story into a book. The only plausible reason I could come up with was to inspire people. Inspire people who will watch a movie (but not read a book), to do more (or less) for/to the environment. I haven’t seen a lot of “green movement” movies, but it’s hard not to compare this to other environmentally focused films.

            I think of An Inconvenient Truth or The Human Footprint and I think about how they affected me. I felt like unplugging the refrigerator and turning off all the lights in the house. And honestly—that’s good. That’s what the movie should do to its audience. It should make you want to change. It should inspire you to be a better steward of the incredible planet God gave us to live on. Sadly without that, No Impact Man becomes nothing more than a stunt.

            Watching Colin and his family withdraw from the easy life in the name of protecting the environment was interesting enough to finish the movie. And to witness him take up the challenge in the middle of New York City made it an even more difficult challenge and a more appealing story.

            There was one great scene I’d like to mention. It’s a scene with some friends of theirs; they’re having a party to celebrate the six-month mark. They play charades the adults laugh, the baby coos, and it’s just captured so naturally. As if, somehow, a group of real people forgot the camera was there for a moment.

            I don’t doubt Colin’s heart or ferocity on the issue. I think he learned a lot over the year, about himself, his wife, and stewardship. But the display becomes lavish and then weakens when that same heart for a moral action fails to be passed on to the  audience. When the movies over, I don’t feel like I have to do anything. In fact, I’d be more motivated to be a witness at divorce court for Colin and Michelle than turn off a light—and that’s the wrong response.

              I hope that I’m unusual in this feeling. I hope that more people will see the film and say, “Ya know, giving everything up might be hard and impractical, but I can at least do my little part better.” That’s the response I would have liked to have had. I enjoy being inspired to better myself and the world—why shouldn’t I? But I didn’t have that response.

 

Day 1 Creation

And Tyler said: “Let there be reviews, and there were reviews. And he saw that it was good.”