Avatar: In IMAX 3D!

January 26, 2010

I think that Avatar is the greatest 3D movie ever made.  Not only is the 3D IMAX resolution the most realistic I have ever seen, but the world of Pandora offers panoramic vistas and phosphorescent ferns, floating mountains and massive telepathic forests that give the technology plenty of room to play.  The 3D adds depth to the entire movie; it’s not gimmicky or only usable for certain scenes.  Helicopters swarm out of the sidelines as giant, blue Na’avi swoop in and out of the foreground.  Maybe this movie is really only about the visuals, and that when seen on a normal screen it becomes just another sci-fi blockbuster, rehashing the same old technology vs. nature mores.  It’s definitely a classic Cameron flick, but that’s just fine, as I am a huge fan of Aliens and the Abyss, and I certainly enjoyed seeing some of his old cinematic elements given new life in Avatar‘s amazing Technicolor dream-world.

Before becoming the bazillionaire movie director responsible for Terminator and the Titanic, James Cameron was a truck driver with an engineering degree.  I don’t know what sorts of people he was working with back then, but I have an assumption that the grizzly, gun-for-hire ship crews of Aliens, the Abyss, and Avatar are based on people he worked with on the road.  They kind of look like truckers: the bandana-wearing, tobacco chewing roughnecks that populate the Company cabins.  Some of them are in bad situations, like Avatar’s paraplegic protagonist Jake Sully.  And some of them, like Giovanni Ribisi’s cold-blooded company man, are just bad.

Some of the reused motifs are readily apparent.  The mech-warrior battle suits are almost identical to the ones used in Aliens, Sigourney Weaver looks awful familiar popping out of cryostasis, and there’s Trudy Chacon, the Latina pilot that disobeys orders to protect the Na’avi from attack, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Private Vasquez from Aliens.  The Tree of Souls and other bioluminescent phenomena on Pandora look like they may have a common ancestor with the IndiGlo fish-alien from the Abyss.  But in any incarnation, until now, they’ve never been presented in three dimensions.

The movie is long, but not overdrawn.  The plot is always moving the film along from one gigantic scene to the next.  A minute after Sam Worthington’s character Jake Sully links up to his hybrid Na’Avi “Avatar” body, he is running loose through the exotic jungle, and he keeps up the pace through the entire film.  Jake’s Avatar was originally grown for his deceased, scientist brother, making him the only Marine among a team of scientists that transfer their consciousness into Na’Avi bodies. The Na’Avi are so impressed by his martial skills, that they decide to train him in their warrior ways. So he spends a good amount of time leaping from vivid jungle canopies and taming vicious pterodactyls.  When you learn that a major cache of the prized, anti-gravity-inducing ore, aptly named Unobtanium, is located under the Na’Avi’s sacred Home Tree, and that the RDA (or the Company) plans on demolishing the Tree to get it, you know there are some Braveheart-grade battles to come.  And you’re not left waiting long.

Christmas in the Heart

January 2, 2010

If “Christmas in the Heart” comes across as a goofy spectacle, parading hymn after carol with a drunken smirk, and having way too much fun doing it- well then it should.  Bob Dylan didn’t intend to release an album of serious Christmas music.  He clearly wanted to put a smile on your face and add some holiday cheer to the party, and that he does.

Although the album itself is not serious, especially with the Betty Page-in-garters-and-Santa Hat inside picture, the traditional songs like ‘Come all ye Faithful’ are performed with solemn grace.  He even sings some of the verses in Latin.

His voice has grown even more gravelly and gargled over the years and, though this can easily cause you to laugh during the refrains of ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ and ‘The First Noel’, it feels comfortable and complete and assures that these tracks will become part of the Christmas catalog for years to come.

That voice especially lends itself to ‘Christmas Blues’, which stands out as one of the best tracks on the album with electric guitar, harmonica, and a downtrodden sentiment.  Another key track is ‘Must Be Santa’: a romping polka featuring a call and response with a chorus, and a rapid rap by Dylan of all the reindeers’ names, and even some US Presidents’.  A music video accompanies the song and shows a holiday party with Dylan in his Santa Hat singing along with the accordion player.  Suddenly, a man is chased around the house, and he starts throwing glasses and eventually dives out the window.  Dylan and Santa Claus himself are left on the porch to deal with the mess, both with stone expressions.

Dylan, real name Bob Zimmerman, though Jewish by birth, became a born again Christian during the late ‘70s, though I don’t believe this had a major influence on the album.  He has always been a lover and player of traditional American folk music and it doesn’t get more traditional than Christmas tunes.  He revamps them with his band, and even adds a snappy, feel-good, Rat Pack cadence to tracks like ‘Silver Bells’.

All of Dylan’s royalties from the album will be donated to charities committed to ending hunger and homelessness.  US royalties are going to Feeding America, and overseas royalties to the United Nations World Food Programme.   Unlike other albums and collaborations meant to raise awareness and contributions for social causes, this one is not morose or teary-eyed, but rather glassy-eyed, mumbling, and almost falling down the stairs.

It’s apparent Bob had great time making this album, more so than most will get by listening, but if you can glean even a fraction of his Yuletide cheer, than this record has served both Bob and Santa’s purposes.

Attack of the Clone Wars!

December 21, 2009

The Clone Wars animated series is a collection of episodic tales, almost an epic cycle, of the many battles fought between the Galactic Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems (aka the Separatists) during the time between Episode II and Episode III.  It concerns the exploits of famous Jedi-turned-warrior generals of the Republic Army; Obi Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, his Padawan Ahsoka, Mace Windu, and a horde of other fascinating characters play out new adventures, as the most anticipated piece of Star Wars history comes to life.

The first round of Clone Wars cartoons premiered in 2003. These short, 5-minute segments had animation by Genndy Tartakovsky of Samurai Jack, Powerpuff Girls renown, and their stories lead up to the release of Episode III.  The new series began in October of 2008, following the release of the Clone Wars feature film.  Both the film and the new television series use the same 3D animation.  The CGI appears to be a hybrid of a video game, an anime, and the puppeteer Thunderbirds series from the 1960s

Like the film, this series falls short of the Star Wars ‘dirty future’ aesthetic that the original movies perfectly captured with decrepit spaceships, grimy bounty hunters, disgusting crime lords, and a general shabbiness to space.  ‘Well-used’’ was the description given by New York Press columnist Armond White for Han Solo’s blaster.  In that Galaxy far, far away, technology had been around for a long time.

Clone Wars has none of the living, breathing, desperately-in-need-of-a-shower Universe that made the first films so special, but the meaningful stories and compelling characters make the shows as Jedi as ever.  Each episode begins with a moral: a cosmic fortune cookie that the following adventure elucidates through the action of high-energy lightsaber duels, space battles, and the most badass use of the Force.

As with a comic book, the length of the series (which is now in its second season) allows for more character development.  Jedi Masters like Kit Fisto, the green skinned, fish-eyed, dreadlock from the prequels, get spoken lines, and in Kit Fisto’s case, you learn he has a Jamaican accent.

George Lucas is not only executive director, but plays a role in reviewing and coaching the writers on scripts, making sure the stories contain ample character development and exotic locations.  “It’s very much Star Wars…,” he said on the Late Show with Conan O’Brien, “It’s sort of the first dramatic animated show that is, um, PG-13…”

This mature, animated addition to the Star Wars universe may have trouble finding its place on television, but the depth, imagination, and sheer brilliance of the series, which will play out over 100 episodes, makes it very strong in the Force.  Do not overlook it.

[The Clone Wars shows at 9pm Fridays on Cartoon Network]

The Sorceror Apprentice

December 12, 2009

While the BBC fantasy-drama Merlin might appear to be another Smallville-type re-imagination of a popular myth, showcasing a cast of teenage characters and their insecure relationships, it turns out to be sharp, interesting, and entertaining, although it should not be taken too seriously.

Like Smallville, Merlin is a myth retold.  In the series, Merlin and Arthur’s traditional roles reverse.  Merlin does not appear as an old, wise, and sometimes benevolent wizard to guide young Arthur, or Wart (his nickname before pulling the Sword from the Stone), but rather as a penniless peasant boy in search of employment at the Castle.   Arthur, no longer the lowly servant and unknown progeny of King Pendragon, is the Prince and leader of the Knights of Camelot.  Merlin works for Arthur as his squire, and he must use his magic unseen to guide the Prince on his prophesied path to unite the kingdoms of Albion.

If Merlin were caught using magic, it would make him an immediate candidate for beheading by order of King Uther, who has outlawed the practice.  Luckily, the court physician, Gauis, who had a regrettable hand in Uther’s purging of sorcery in years past, protects him.  Gaius understands Merlin’s importance to the kingdom, and that he will one day allow magic to return.  Merlin also receives guidance from a Dragon secretly chained in the castle dungeon: an elegant CGI creation with the voice of John Hurt.

Although some episodes veer towards the cheesy, they lack the emo, pop-rock soundtrack familiar to other television dramas (i.e. Smallville), which can lead to a reflexive channel change.  Intense action sequences, sword fighting, lances, and, of course, magic helps this novel unfolding of the legend counteract the lethargy of sophomoric relationships.  And there is always the unseasoned protagonist Merlin, who with the grim threat of death hanging over his head, solves the myriad crises with a smile and shrug

If you’re still not convinced to check out the show, you can heed the advice of a BBC telecaster, who wryly remarked after an episode close that it’s “another great reason to stay out of the rain.”

A Statement of Taste

November 26, 2009

It is easy to say that a work of art is the best of its kind.  It is easier to say that it is incredible, or awe-inspiring, or important.  What reflects is a statement of taste about the reviewer.  We are all human beings and our personal preferences are idiosyncratic; we can only offer our perspective of the truth.

There is no Law of Art, so who can judge?  There are no definitive evaluations, just fleeting sensations of beauty and meaning: a momentary glimpse of truth provided by a lie, the product of imagination.

This blog will contain the best efforts of objectivity, but will eventually suffer from my own preferences.  Like the work of art itself, perhaps some eternal verity will manifest through my personal musings.

Every film, album, or show is a combination of different ingredients, which blend to offer a unique flavor.  The Sauce is my analogy.  Here you will find the most awesome Sauce I have ever tasted.  I hope you enjoy it!


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