Friday, December 18, 2009

Let's go to the movies

There is an abundance of great films playing in your local theater. Disney's hand-drawn "The Princess and the Frog" is a bright, warm and funny return to form. Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" works as a history lesson and as a truly inspiring sports movie. Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" lives up to its name, and its director's body of work. Roland Emmerich's "2012" is self-aware, expertly made cheese. And of course there is the usual parade of Oscar hopefuls, led by "Precious."

But everyone who loves movies needs to see "Avatar" and "Up in the Air."

They're an unlikely pair, but these two films taken together gave me everything I go to the movies for. One is as beautiful and shocking a spectacle as we've ever seen, the other is a perfectly drawn, insightful character study. They are two of the best movies of the year.

I'll spare you the back story on "Avatar" because A) you've heard it a million times already and B) you can read it a million times more in every other article about it. So I'll cut right to it: He did it. That magnificent bastard did it.

James Cameron spent all that money and took all those years to make this movie, and the effort is all up there on the screen. Other filmmakers have created dense, detailed alien worlds with new creatures and fantastic vistas and so on, but none of them feel real. Pandora does, not just because Cameron's legion of animators have seamlessly blended their work with live-action footage -- at least, I think there's live-action footage in there. But I can't tell, which means they did their job -- but also because Cameron actually understands how 3D should be used.

Even now, most films use 3D just to goose the audience by making them think something is flying at them. Oooh! Ahhh! But Cameron uses 3D to completely immerse the audience in his world, and there were moments where I just plain forgot I was watching a movie and felt like I was there, and that there were too many things to take in all at once.

Now, these kinds of hyperbolic statements have been made by many, many, many people about many, many, many movies, but they are actually true about this one. I have to believe this immersive effect was Cameron's main objective and motivation for making "Avatar," and he has succeeded. For the first time, a commercially released 3D film is as dazzling as the kind of 3D or 4D attractions you see at Disneyland or Universal Studios -- and it is sustained for 160 minutes.

There are long stretches of "Avatar" where every shot is straight-up unbelievable, whether it's the Na'vi natives flying amongst their planet's floating mountains atop irridescent dragons, or the literally jaw-dropping final battle sequence.

As you've probably guessed, the story and the characters can't live up to the world that Cameron has created. As he proved with "Titanic," you don't reinvent the narrative wheel when you're making the most expensive movie ever made -- "Avatar" is every bit as reminiscent of "Dances With Wolves" as you've guessed, and the dialogue is mostly pedestrian. (Sadly, James Horner's score is also pretty bland.) The only character that really leaves an impression is the Na'vi huntress Neytiri.

But what an impression. Actress Zoe Saldana and Cameron's techies turn a 10-foot-tall blue cat into a living, breathing and, yes, sexy woman. The facial animation is shocking, particularly the mouth, the teeth and, most importantly, the eyes. Eyes are the hardest things for animators to bring to life, as proven by "The Polar Express" and "Final Fantasy." In "Avatar," the actors don't get lost under the technology (especially Sigourney Weaver, whose blue avatar is unmistakably hers), and Saldana can probably call herself the queen of motion-capture acting alongside king Andy Serkis, who played both Gollum and Kong for Peter Jackson.

But the star of the film is James Cameron. If you hate going to see movies just for the spectacle, this is the movie you make the exception for, because there's no way this experience will ever be replicated at home. (I know, I know, 3D TVs are coming. But those TVs aren't 30 feet tall, are they?) You may have to pay $14 to see "Avatar" in 3D, depending on where you go; it will be worth every penny. (Just don't sit too close to the screen, because you might get some double vision from the 3D glasses. Sit about halfway up the stadium seats, or halfway back in the auditorium.)

"Up in the Air isn't much of a spectacle; there are some shots from high above America's big cities that are pretty spectacular, but we've all seen those from the window of an airplane. But "Up in the Air" does have something "Avatar" does not: A terrific screenplay.

Jason Reitman's third film is about a "termination facilitator," a lifelong business traveler who basically lives in Hilton hotels and American Airlines jets. Those two corporations' logos are all over this movie, and it would be easy to accuse it of blatant product placement, but their ubiquity is part of the film's effectiveness: everything about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is corporate, even his de facto home.

"Up in the Air" is a perfect film to come along at the end of this decade. Any film about air travel will undoubtedly conjure up memories of 9/11, and the film hits us right away with Bingham's security-line routine. Many of us have either been fired or know someone who has been fired in recent years, so we can identify with both sides of one of Bingham's terminations. How can you tell someone that their lives are about to be upended? And how can you be expected to accept such news?

The film ultimately becomes the story of how the perpetually disconnected Bingham gradually tries to reconnect, whether it's with the young grad who wants to make his firings more impersonal with a Web chat system, the ridiculously gorgeous kindred spirit who falls into his bed when their paths cross, or the family back in Wisconsin who barely know who he is anymore. Bingham's ultimate destination may seem obvious, but this film does not fall into obvious Hollywood conventions.

Sean Tuohey said he couldn't sleep because he was thinking about it all night. I think it will have that effect on a lot of people who see more of themselves in Ryan Bingham than they'd like to admit. It's not that Bingham is a bad person, it's that he doesn't live the life he wants, or that everyone else thinks he should want. And just when he thinks he's got it all figured out, the game changes.

He's a complicated, human character, the kind that classic movies are built around -- and "Up in the Air," with its thoughtful observances on modern America, is going to be a classic movie, make no mistake. Of all the great films I've seen this year, this seems like the one that will be sticking with us, the one we'll keep coming back to.

Reitman has to be considered one of the great directors now, making films that defy categorization and convention. He already has a reliable stable of collaborators -- Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons and Sam Elliott all make return appearances here -- and clearly gets the best out of all his actors. Clooney is guaranteed an Oscar nomination, and co-stars Anna Kendrick (the young grad) and Vera Farmiga (the gorgeous kindred spirit) probably have them coming, too.

"Up in the Air" should be depressing, but the more I think about it the more I find it reassuring: Yes, we all feel this lonely. Yes, we all make mistakes. And yes, there is reason to keep going.

Try a double feature this weekend. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

10 Years, 10 Performances

In October, I attempted to rank my 100 favorite movies of the last 10 years, and now I'll attempt to single out the ten performances that impressed me the most from those ten years. Ten are much, much easier to come up with 100; on my films list, I completely forgot about one of the most underrated, underseen films in recent memory ("Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"), and omitted a movie that would almost certainly be in the top 10 or 15 had I seen it before this past Saturday ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

I know I'm prone to lists, but hey, who doesn't like reading a list? So here they are, in alphabetical order. (Some of them are pretty obvious, I realize ...)

• • •

Amy Adams as Princess Giselle, "Enchanted"

How did Adams go from obscurity to ubiquity? By completely throwing herself into the role of a Disney cartoon princess brought to life by an evil stepmother's spell. She has a joy of performance in "Enchanted" that elevates what could have been a very slight, very forgettable film; her performance is anything but. (Of course, the combination of Disney and comedy killed her chances at Oscar time.)

• • •

Bjork as Selma Jezkova, "Dancer in the Dark"

SPOILER WARNING: This is the final scene of the film

A performance so devastating that Bjork vowed never to act again, thanks in large part to director Lars Von Trier's demanding methods. Aside from the musical sequences, the film is shot cinema verite style with handheld cameras, and Bjork appropriately never seems to be acting. It supports my belief that Bjork is one of those genius artists who would excel in any medium she worked in.

• • •

Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius, "Gladiator"

Best quality I could find, I'm afraid...

The epitome of a star-making performance, and Crowe even won the Oscar for it. He had the bulk and the menace to sell the action scenes, but he also brought gravitas to the gladiator's tragic personal story. His scenes with Richard Harris are particularly touching, as is the finale in which his wife beckons him to the afterlife.

• • •

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, "There Will Be Blood"

Well, duh.

• • •

Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"

Perhaps the most iconic character of the last ten years, Capt. Jack made a pop classic out of a movie that seemed ludicrous in concept. Separated from the hype, none of the three films holds up -- they're all too long, too complicated, and just too much -- but Depp's work will be remembered by generations of kids (from 8 to 80).

• • •

Dakota Fanning as Pita Ramos and Denzel Washington as John Creasy, "Man on Fire"

OK, I'm cheating a little bit by counting these two performance as one, but this really is the most unexpectedly wonderful on-screen pairing. Amid Tony Scott's frantic, exploitive film, these two actors quickly form a relationship so real that it truly hurts when Pita is kidnapped about 40 minutes into the film. The final scene on the bridge is heartbreaking, between Fanning's all-or-nothing performance and Washington's quiet resignation as she runs toward him.

• • •

Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, "Cast Away"

Tom Hanks' co-star in this movie is a volleyball. And the movie is tremendous. Enough said.

• • •

Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"

For me, the success of the entire "LOTR" trilogy hinges on this one performance. Gandalf is as much our guide and father figure as he is Frodo's, and we can think of no better reason to make the journey than to make him proud.

• • •

Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo, "Kill Bill Vol. 2"

I believe this is what you call a "tour de force." Uma does it all in the second part of Tarantino's martial arts opus: she's a lover, a fighter, a mother, a student and, of course, a rampaging fireball of revenge.

• • •

Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, "Inglourious Basterds"

Maybe Tarantino's greatest contribution to American cinema was bringing this German actor to our attention. Waltz dominates the screen in a film populated by bigger-than-life actors and ideas. His Col. Landa is creepy, yes, but also strangely endearing -- a particularly bitter pill for the audience to swallow, seeing as he's a Nazi. The film toys with our notions of good and evil and with WWII history, and Waltz's sick grin might as well be pointed at us.