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.

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