Archive for December, 2009

Review: Avatar

Posted in Reviews on December 21, 2009 by C.F. Varnau

* * * * out of four stars

“Avatar” is visually stunning. It quite possibly replaces the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in the art department. Writer-director James Cameron (“Terminator 1 & 2,” “Aliens,” “Titanic”) does a beautiful job with the atmosphere, the feel, and the emotion. This is the grand cinematic finale of the decade.

Shot half live-action and half-CGI motion capture animation, “Avatar” takes place in the twenty-second century, where Earth’s resources have been depleted and now man must turn to the stars for other means to survive. They’ve come to the planet Pandora, which contains rich complements of a substance called unobtainium, something the humans can’t do without. Inhabiting the planet are the Na’vi, a blue-skinned, peaceful race who simply wish to live in harmony with their surroundings.

The humans, especially Colonel Quatrich (Stephen Lang, “Gods and Generals”), who is mega-ready to kick some local tail (in a literal sense, as the Na’vi have tails). Opposing Quatrich are our heroes, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, “Terminator Salvation”), Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, “Alien,” “Galaxy Quest”), and their special military team that runs the “Avatars.”

An Avatar is a Na’vi body linked to a human computer which is hooked up to another human. When Jake Sully lays down into the Avatar chamber, he becomes one with his Na’vi host, and can see, feel, and sense all the things the Na’vi feels.

Trouble happens when, while on a scouting mission, Jake’s Avatar gets separated from the group and is found, by luck, by one of the Na’vi, a young woman named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, “Vantage Point,” “Star Trek”). Now Jake is in a good position, and his mission is clear. Get inside the Na’vi home and convince them to leave.

The world of Pandora is a beautiful backdrop for the film. Floating mountains, gigantic rock arches, huge trees in endless jungles, plant life that mystifies and animals that dazzle and frighten at the same time. Our hero Jake is crippled in his human body, but when he transforms into his Avatar, he can not only walk, but leap, run, dodge ferocious animals and swing from tree to tree, and that’s just a little of what he can do.

The Na’vi are a beautiful race. Graceful, exotic and gentle. Our heroine of the film, Neytiri, is strong-willed, brave, tough, and sometimes kind, when she’s not being impatient with Jake. She’s also possibly the sexiest animated female lead to grace the screen since Aki Ross in “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.”

Cameron is at his very best here. He’s been wanting to make this film for twenty years, since before “Titanic,” and now that he can, he’s doing so with a vengeance. His vision is brought to life with an elegance seen in only the finest filmmakers. If I haven’t used the word “breathtaking” in this review until now, consider it used. An awesome spectacle, not to be missed.

Review: Me and Orson Welles

Posted in Reviews on December 20, 2009 by C.F. Varnau

* *1/2 out of four stars

There is one true reason to see “Me and Orson Welles” and that is cinematic unknown Christian McKay, who plays the part of Orson Welles as if he was born doing it in his sleep. He’s so great on the screen that we really stop caring about everything else, and every moment he’s not there we miss him.

The story is based on a novel by Robert Kaplow and centers around a young boy named Richard (Zac Efron, “High School Musical”) who just happens to impress the great Welles one day with his musical abilities and knowledge of Shakespeare. He lands a part in the upcoming “Julius Caesar” right then and there, and is added to the ragtag team that makes up the Mercury Theatre.

Soon, he’s love-struck by secretary Sonja (Claire Danes, “Romeo + Juliet”) who will do anything to get ahead in show business. Despite the fact that she is an older woman and he isn’t even eighteen  yet, he makes an attempt to seduce her anyway.

There are a lot of colors here, plenty of smiles and laughter, but one can’t help but feel like they’re watching community theater. Director Richard Linklater (“Waking Life,” “A Scanner Darkly”) keeps the pace fast and the direction clean, but the whole feel seems fake. It feels too much like we’re watching people in costumes rather than the real thing.

But there is plenty here to maintain interest. The story is amusing enough, and as I said before McKay is so fantastic to watch. It’s a shame they couldn’t have centered the story around just Orson Welles. Then perhaps the film would have been more interesting.

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Review: The Princess and the Frog

Posted in Reviews on December 19, 2009 by C.F. Varnau

* * * out of four stars

While James Cameron sits across the street churning out the mega-budget, larger-than-anything, computer-generated 3-D flick “Avatar,” the Walt Disney Studio is returning to its roots with a hand-drawn, simple comedy they like to liken to “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” I’m not so sure it’s that good, but it’s a welcome break from “Ice Age” and “Madagascar.”

It’s called “The Princess and the Frog,” and it retells the story of “The Frog Prince” in early twentieth century Louisiana. As always to Disney movies, there’s a catch. We can’t just give you “Hamlet,” we have to give you “Hamlet… with Lions!”

So in this story, our princess, who originally kisses the frog, who then turns into a handsome prince and marries her, is nothing but a down-on-her-luck waitress at the local diner. Her name is Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose), and she aspires to one day own and run her very own restaurant. When handsome (and broke) Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) comes to town looking for a young rich lady to settle down with, Tiana’s rich best friend (not knowing Naveen is broke) sees an opportunity to marry royalty. However Naveen is tricked by a Voodoo master and turned into a frog!

There’s the set-up. What eventually happens is, Naveen, as a frog, convinces Tiana to kiss him. Little do either of them know it isn’t exactly how the spell works. Tiana is then turned into a frog and they must journey through the dangers of the bayou to find a way back to normal.

The wonderful Disney humor is here. I snorted a number of times at the trumpet-playing alligator and the love-stricken firefly. And Naveen himself, so inept in his “suaveness,” is a hoot too! There are plenty of laughs in the film, but where’s the music? Let me be more accurate… where’s the really good, hummable, memorable music? Walking out of the theater I couldn’t remember a single tune in the whole movie and there had to have been at least seven or eight! Remember “The Little Mermaid,” and how “Under the Sea” was instantly pounded in our heads for all eternity? Why can’t I remember a single tune from this movie?

The music isn’t the only problem with “The Princess and the Frog,” but it is its biggest. Another problem with the film is its hesitation to get on with the story. The first twenty minutes or so take too long in developing the plot and characters and surroundings in the human world. This makes for very dull storytelling, as the humans are some of the more boring characters. It isn’t until our heroes are frogs that the film really takes off.

All this said, I really did like “The Princess and the Frog.” It had its heart (and Louisiana soul) in the right place, it was quite funny, and above all, it left me smiling.