Holiday Movie Guide


Directed by James Cameron
Now showing in 3-D at the Esquire IMAX on K St.
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

“Avatar” is littered with mediocre acting, plot twists you could see coming with (or without) a telescope, and faux-science that would make the writers of “Star Trek” blush.
Oh, and by the way, you just won’t care about any of that.

That’s partly because it is the most richly-detailed, immersive world to come to the big screen in years. You don’t so much watch this film as step inside of it—especially on the IMAX screen, which is so big you don’t really see anything else. From the initial shots swooping down into the misty forest of the planet of Pandora until the predictable-yet-satisfying ending, this isn’t so much eye-candy as a $230 million eight-scoop ocular ice cream sundae. Add to this that many of the main characters are sexy cat people trying to defend a home planet that’s like a day-glow version of the Amazon—what’s not to like?

Sam Worthington does a workable job as the hero, a paraplegic ex-marine named Jake Sully. For reasons I won’t explain here, he’s offered a mission on the faraway planet without the training he should have had. Using a neural hookup, he controls a manufactured alien body—the “avatar” of the title. The film sparkles when “Jakesully” is in his avatar body, and drags when he’s in his wheelchair on base—something which is kept to minimum.

The arrangement allows him to step inside the world of the natives, a race of athletic, ten foot tall blue people with tails and titanium bones (see above RE: “science”) called the Na’vi.

It’s a long time until Halloween, but look for lots of Na’vi among the tall and thin next October. While they seem to have a hodgepodge of native culture traits drawn straight from an anthropology textbook, they most closely resemble normal movie concepts of American Indians—they’re scantily clad, shoot bows, ride animals that look a lot like horses, and have a spiritual connection with their planet that forms much of the basis of the story.

In fact, the whole thing is pretty much “Little Big Man” meets “The Matrix.” Politically-speaking, it’s pretty fair to say this Hollywood product has a strong liberal bias. One of the main bad guys is a corporate scumbag (Giovanni Ribisi) who seems surreally unaffected by the wondrous world outside the windows of the mining base. He’s interested only in getting as much of the absurdly-named “unobtainium” that resides in the ground of Pandora—an energy source incredibly powerful but some how stable enough that you can hold a chunk of it in your hand without a problem (again, “science”).

But the real villain is the aging-yet-pumped-up Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as the rapacious military commander of the base, who seems to have fallen straight out of a Vietnam War flick. He constantly locks horns with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a humanitarian scientist who wants to help the Na’vi. Again, the politics of a scientist arguing fruitlessly with a corporate drone and a bloodthirsty military officer are a pretty familiar trope.

Oddly, what works well here is the love story between Sully and a native woman, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Usually in action movies, the romance usually has a tacked-on feel, as though designed to give something to women who were dragged there by their boyfriends or husbands. This time, there’s something jarring about a giant blue woman falling in love with a disabled human half her size—and something oddly beautiful about it as well. Amid the explosions and occasional clichés, this blockbuster has more soul than most.

Avatar – A Second Opinion

Tony Sheppard: Avatar is an unremarkable story remarkably told. In 2009 terms, it’s “Battle for Terra” meets “Surrogates.” It’s every “Stranger in a Strange Land” story ever written boiled down to common bullet points and then polished for double cameras. Films that are this dependent on visuals and this lacking in story are normally the work of either Terrence Malick or a San Fernando Valley pornographer. But this is hollowness on a FAR grander scale – so grab your popcorn and glasses and go and admire Pandora’s bucks.

It’s Complicated

Directed by Nancy Meyers
By Tony Sheppard

“It’s Complicated” is my pleasant surprise of the holiday season. I’ve really liked other recent movies, such as “Up in the Air” (and others yet to be released in Sacramento, such as “A Single Man”) but then I expected I probably would. Not that I didn’t think I would somewhat enjoy “It’s Complicated,” it’s just that I thought I would like it purely for its leads, Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin (with Steve Martin in a supporting role). I was essentially expecting this year’s version of “Last Chance Harvey” (2008), a stunningly formulaic romantic comedy made enjoyable only because of the appeal and chemistry of its stars, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

But “It’s Complicated” is straight-up funny. Very funny. I can’t recall ever missing quite so many lines of dialog while watching a movie, simply because of the extent of the laughter from the audience and it becomes infectious as it continues. Streep and Baldwin are predictably good, but the movie also scores with an appealing performance from John Krasinski (“Leatherheads,” TV”s “The Office”) as the son-in-law who is the only character to witness the apparently on-again romance between the long ex-married couple of Streep and Baldwin. The family is drawn together for a college graduation, and Baldwin’s Jake is drawn to Streep’s Jane, his ex-wife, despite still being married to the woman who broke them up. Martin plays Adam, Jane’s architect and alternate suitor, in what is essentially a straight-man role to the shenanigans going on around him.

“It’s Complicated” has opened well, especially with female audiences, despite being a distant fourth in ticket sales behind “Avatar,” “Sherlock Holmes” and the Chipmunks sequel (or “Squeakquel”) in the biggest box office weekend ever. On many other less blockbuster-oriented weekends it might have been a sales winner, but it still scores big on laughs and enjoyment. It’s an easy movie for me to recommend.

Sherlock Holmes

Directed by Guy Ritchie
By Tony Sheppard

“Sherlock Holmes” is disappointing, despite having multiple factors in its favor: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, and inherently appealing source material. But the result is oddly flat and dull, not to mention littered with bad directing choices by Guy Ritchie.

The inherent appeal of the Holmes character is his ability to deduce and reason people’s actions. However, there’s a limit to this before it becomes both ridiculous and distracting. In one early scene, Holmes plays through an entire, complicated fight sequence in his mind, as he thinks it will progress in practice. We are shown every punch and every reaction in great detail. It would then have been enough to show us him walking away from a downed opponent but, instead, we are shown the fight in real time exactly as he predicted it. He’s supposed to be smart, but this is both anti-climactic and counter-productive. In other scenes, we’re shown outcomes first and then led back through the actions that led up to those outcomes with so many intervening and unlikely steps that it
makes almost any result seem arbitrary. At some point, I lost interest.

Throughout the movie, we’re given hints and glimpses of an unseen nemesis, to the extent that “Sherlock Holmes” ends up playing like an elaborate prologue to a Sherlock Homes meets Moriarty sequel to follow. Initial box office response to “Sherlock Holmes” makes it seem likely that such a film will be forthcoming. One can only hope that once the production team have the enemy they seem to have wanted from the beginning, they might actually make an appealing movie that plays like more than just a hint of things to come.

The Young Victoria

Directed by Julian Fellowes
By Tony Sheppard

Queen Victoria was Britain’s longest-serving monarch. She came to be much loved and respected – but things didn’t start out easily. Princess Alexandrina Victoria was the only offspring of three brothers and the niece of King William IV and, as such, was not just the heir to the throne but also a resource to be manipulated and played by the adults around her.  
She grew up in the “Kensington System” at Kensington Palace, isolated from others, including King William’s court. She was so protected by her mother that she wasn’t allowed to sleep alone or walk up or down stairs without having somebody hold her hand. As she approached the age of 18, William’s health was poor and she was put under great pressure to yield her inheritance to a regency, which would have put her mother and mother’s primary advisor in power until Victoria was older.

This is an interesting chapter in the life of a remarkable woman. Victoria was played for political gain, especially by Lord Melbourne, the Whig Party Prime Minister, and she had to overcome this level of control even from those who were ostensibly her allies. The flaw in the movie is simply that it shows only a very limited period in her life, without delivering a bigger picture impression of her reign. But that can be found elsewhere. “The Young Victoria” is a good pick for those who enjoy historical non-fiction, as well as those who will enjoy it as a costume drama without caring so much about the history and politics. It’s also a cool film for girls and young women for its depiction of one of history’s strongest female role models.

New digital/solar cinema opens in Folsom

Normally a new movie theater wouldn’t warrant a mention in this space. But the new Palladio 16 Cinema on Broadstone in Folsom is the area’s only all digital projection theater. While movies themselves have been shot in digital formats—rather than traditional film—for years, the actual projection of movies for audiences has stayed mostly with film projectors because of the huge infrastructure changeover costs. In fact, film studios and movie theaters have been fighting for years over the cost of the new systems. Starting in February, the Palladio will also be powered by a rooftop solar array. The space was christened recently with a benefit for the Mercy Foundation and Folsom Lake College.

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