MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review Roundup: Avatar, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Lovely Bones and Up in the Air


Avatar, James Cameron’s first film since the record-breaking Titanic way back in 1997, doesn’t quite live up to it’s hype, but it’s nonetheless a solid enough effort bolstered by some stunning visuals that immerse the viewer in the world Cameron has created.

The world in question is a place called Pandora which, as it turns out, is already inhabited by the tribal Na’vi, who happen to like living there. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled soldier, is recruited to complete a project to which his twin brother, who’s been killed, had been assigned: to inhabit an “avatar,” a cloned body made by combining Jake’s brother’s DNA with DNA of the Na’vi. Conveniently for the storyline, since Jake was his brother’s twin, he can finish the job his brother wasn’t able to.

And Jake has motivation to do so: being in the avatar’s body gives Jake the ability to do what his human body can no longer do: move freely, walk, and run again — plus, if he takes the assignment, he’ll earn enough to pay for surgery to repair his broken spine (apparently the military doesn’t take care of its injured own in 2154 without extracting a price).

Beneath Pandora is a rich deposit of a superconducting mineral that’s worth heaps of money, so naturally there are bad humans who want it, and will take it regardless of the cost to the Na’vi. If the Na’vi aren’t willing to “cooperate” — that is to say, move out of our way so we can get what we want — then there are greedy military baddies on-hand who will be happy to relocate the Na’vi. While Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, going from Gorillas in the Mist to Na’vi in the Trees) wants Jake to simply interact with and learn from the Na’vi, our resident military bad guy, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has other ideas about using Jake to get the Na’vi out of his way.
If this all sounds a little like the white man coming to the New World (or any other third world country), well, that’s because it is. Jake, in his avatar body, meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of her tribe’s chief and head spiritual leader; Neytiri wants Jake to go away, her parents assign her to teaching him about their ways.

Will there be romance? Yes, it’s predictable, but Cameron tells his tale well enough, for all that it’s a rather simplistic one: The soldier who’s more brawn than brains falls for the native girl, gains an appreciation of her people’s ways, and ends up fighting on their side of the battle. In the process, he learns important lessons and grows into a better person.It’s a story we’ve seen before, from Dances with Wolves to The New World, although one of the more interesting angles I’ve heard on Avatar comes out of China, where apparently some folks in the government are concerned that the citizenry might take to heart too much Avatar’s message of defending private property against forced relocation, a subject that’s been fueling political fires in that country for some time (see 2007 documentary Up the Yangtze, for example).

Here in the US, we’ve heard more complaints from conservatives who don’t like the portrayal of soldiers as big, bad bullies gleefully bombing the Na’vi’s home tree without concern for the lives of innocents, but, c’mon! Look at our military history, folks. Cameron knows, at least, that there’s truth in stereotypes; I just thought it would have been more interesting for Jake to get involved in the Na’vi’s cause for something other than a romantic reasonAdmittedlly, Avatar is visually stunning, although as hard as Cameron’s pushed the technology, you still feel a comic book shininess to the Pandora scenes that pull you out of the reality of Jake’s “real world.” Pandora is all vibrant blues and greens and feels like a living, breathing thing that the Na’vi are a part of, though, and in the sense of creating a computer generated world that feels as real as technology will allow, Cameron succeeds. I just wish the story that holds up the fancy technology had been a little less predictable, a little less shallow. Then perhaps Avatar would have been more than just pretty visuals with a so-so story, and instead been something really spectacular. Still, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its hype, Avatar is worth seeing and appreciating for what it is.


Fantastic Mr. Fox

Whoever would have suspected that Wes Anderson, director of marvelously dysfunctional-family films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, would marry his peculiar sensibilities to a stop-motion animation film about a fantastic fox with, well, fantastic results? Anderson had a good story to start with, albeit one of the lesser known of Dahl’s works — a crime caper story about Mr. Fox (George Clooney), a fox with a talent for the criminal side of things, who nonetheless promises his pregnant lady-love, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) that he’ll walk the straight-and-narrow after nearly getting the two of them caught.

Years later, Foxy is the proud father of son Ash (Anderson staple Jason Schwartzman),and he’s traded in his criminal behavior for a staid-and-proper newspaper column, but is finding life on the straight-and-narrow to be more than a little lacking in excitement.

The family moves to new digs and takes in a sporty nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), while Mr. Fox proceeds to spice up his life by pilfering from a trio of farmers (Boggis, Bunce and Bean) behind his wife’s back, with the help of oppossum Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky). Anderson takes Mr. Fox’s admission to his wife that he’s “a wild animal at heart” and brings that aspect of his characters to life in subtle ways beyond just Mr. Fox’s tendency toward criminal enterprises — these animals may walk, talk and wear bandit masks like humans, but when they sit down to eat off the fine china, they tear into their meals like the animals they are.

And it’s this pull between the civilized and wild sides of Mr. Fox’s nature that really drives the story; much as Mr. Fox might like to settle down and be the husband his wife wants him to be, he just can’t keep a lid on his nature, which drives him to go after prey (or food) and seek the adrenaline rush of narrow escapes feel contented. And interestingly enough, it’s a storyline that might seem trite and overdone in a film made with human actors, but it works brilliantly here.

In part, this is due to the voice acting by almost everyone involved, but in particular by Clooney and Streep. We may never see George Clooney’s oh-so-handsome mug on-screen in this film, but his pervasive, devil-may-care charm comes across even more than usual for being filtered through an animated fox. I think this is one of Clooney’s sharpest, smartest performances, but he’ll never get the recognition he deserves for the role because of the inherent prejudice against animated films.

The collective performances by all the voice actors works in harmony to bring this pack of wild animals to life as one big, happy, messed up family, and for all that we’re perhaps a few degrees separated by the characters being animated rather than real, it works just as well — perhaps better than — any of the screwed up human families in Anderson’s ouevre.


The Lovely Bones

I was a fan of Alice Sebold’s book The Lovely Bones, but when it was announced that Lord of the Ringsdirector Peter Jackson was filming an adaptation of the book, I was trepidatious. A film about a raped and murdered 14-year-old girl who watches her family mourn her death isn’t exactly your typical light, escapist movie fare.

Thanks largely to a brave, raw performance by Saiorse Ronan, the film version of The Lovely Bones isn’t intolerably hard to watch, and may even end up being a successful sale to same teen market that’s been flocking to darker, moodier fare like the Twilight series.

I’m not really sure who the target market for this film was intended to be to begin with. Oprah’s book club members who read and loved the book? Emo-inclined teenagers interested in it because it’s about the death of a young girl? The book was a bestseller, so presumably someone at the studio felt there was an audience for it, but much as I liked the book myself and initially looked forward to seeing Jackson’s take on it, I found that once I had the screener in hand I was actually reluctant to watch it. It’s one thing to read a story narrated by a young murder victim from beyond the grave, but another to see it on screen, I guess.
Ronan, however, is simply terrific. As serious, cold and calculating as she was in last year’s Atonement, here she is all warmth and wonder and baffled lost innocence. She captures remarkably well what it might feel like to really be a 14-year-old murder victim: the self-recrimation for not recognizing the danger of the situation she got drawn into; the frustration of seeing her murderer walking around freely after her violent death; the deep sorrow her family feels over their loss, and in particular the lack of closure they feel over not having her body to bury; and the fear she feels when her younger sister starts to suspect her murderer and stalk him, putting herself in danger of becoming his next victim.
Stanley Tucci, as Susie’s neighbor and murderer, is almost unrecognizable sans any sort of comedic outlet (which I normally consider one of his strengths); in his blond hairpiece and glasses and, in particular, the nondescript, subtly creepy manner in which he moves around and interacts with others, he epitomizes every parent’s terror of “stranger danger” — the seriously bad guy who looks mostly harmless but gives you the creeps nonetheless. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as Susie’s distraught parents, though, are more adequate than spectacular.
The biggest turn-off for me about the film was Jackson’s vision of Susie’s afterlife, which seemed to cull very heavily from What Dreams May Come with its vivid, saturated colors and slow-mo floating leaves and such surrounding Susie as she stares in wonderment at where she’s ended up. On the one hand, I suppose it’s comforting to think that a murdered teen would end up in a peaceful and beautiful place after the horrific ending to her life; on the other, though, some viewers might feel it rather demeans Susie’s life, and makes light the manner of her death, to focus on the afterlife as such a swell place to be.
I realize the production design team was pulling largely from the book, which very much depicts Susie’s afterlife this way, but … I don’t know, I guess for me it would have played better with the afterlife a lot more muted and dark and sorrowful, at least until Susie reaches a sense of closure around her untimely death. One smart decision Jackson made was to considerably tone down the graphic depiction of her rape and murder as it was written in the book; that should help considerably in any effort to target the film at a younger market.
I did enjoy The Lovely Bones over all, more because of Ronan’s performance than anything else, but I wouldn’t call it the best movie of the year, and it’s not a film I’d watch over and over again. Maybe it’s just the mood I’m in lately, but there’s only so much dark-and-depressing I can handle right now, no matter how pretty and vivid the wrapping it comes in.


Up in the Air

I’m a fan of both of Jason Reitman’s previous feature films, Thank You for Smoking and Juno (and also a big fan of his short film Consent, which I’ve always thought rather brilliant). I think Reitman’s a solid director, having honed his skills on a half-dozen shorts before tackling a feature, and his skill behind the camera grows with each film, which bodes well for what kind of movies he might be making a decade from now.
Up in the Air is as sharply directed as Juno (whatever some folks may think of the Diablo Cody script for that film, there was very little criticism of Reitman’s direction), and as socially and politically relevant as Thank You for Smoking, but I like Up in the Air better than the latter film because it’s also more human, with characters who feel more like real people and less like caricatures.
The casting sure doesn’t hurt. Reitman’s leading man in Up in the Air is George Clooney, who turns in his second stellar perfomance of the year (the other being Mr. Fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox — see above) as Ryan Bingham, a guy who spends some 320 days a year on the road for his job ,which is, interestingly enough, is going to other companies to deliver the unfortunate news of layoffs to employees whose bosses don’t have the balls to fire their own people. Who knew that was a career? It’s certainly not one I’ve ever considered, but what do I know?
Thing is, Ryan doesn’t just tolerate being on the road so much, he’s deliberately chosen as a lifestyle this job that allows him to cruise through life with a minimum of real human interaction. He’s living a first-class lifestyle, racking up those all-important frequent flier miles, while completely isolating himself from the world, including his own sisters. Which isn’t to say he lives a monk-like existance; when the opportunity arises to hook up with equally hooked-on-travel business powerhouse Alex (Vera Farmiga, radiating “sexy femme power” here), Ryan doesn’t hesitate, and before you can say “platinum card” the two are sitting half-dressed across a table from each other coordinating their next tryst around their mutally packed schedules.

Enter fresh-faced newbie Natalie (Anna Kendrick, formally best known for a smallish role in the Twilight films, but quite the revelation here), who comes to Ryan’s boss Craig (Jason Bateman) with a revolutionary idea: instead of spending all this money sending 20 or so guys traveling all around the country to fire folks, why not take advantage of modern technology by having the team handle the firings remotely, via the power of computers?

It’s the kind of idea that sounds really swell to an ambitious recent MBA grad looking to make her mark (and a manager looking to save a buck), but Ryan argues strongly against the idea: what does this young upstart know about what it takes to deliver the rough news to a person that he’s being fired from his job. What does this kid know from compassion? Question is, is Ryan arguing on behalf of the humanity of the people he’s charged with canning, or in favor of keeping himself ensconced the lifestyle to which he’s become so comfortably accustomed?

Craig sends Natalie on the road with Ryan so he can teach her all about the intricacies of laying people off; this lends the film a bit of an old cop-new cop vibe, but Clooney and Kendrick play off each other so well that it doesn’t feel tired. Clooney and Farmiga, for their part, have a sexy chemistry that just works, and they deliver the sharply written dialogue and interact with each other naturally that you forget that you’re watching a big star like Clooney and just give yourself to the story and characters. My one complaint is that Bateman, who was so effective as the reluctant would-be adoptive dad in Juno, is under-used here.

Otherwise, though, Up in the Air has all the goods: a sharp, well-crafted script, a unique story, interesting, fully dimensional characters we can really care about, and enough at stake for all the characters to keep us engaged in what’s happening. I’m really interested in seeing what Kendrick does after this film, though. She establishes herself here firmly as having the talent to be more than second fiddle to the lead as she is in the Twilight films, a genuine young “serious actress,” and hopefully she’ll get some better scripts to choose from now that she’s proved she can more than hold her own against the likes of Clooney and Farmiga.

Reitman’s Oscar dreams for his third effort may still be up in the air, but I think it’s safe to say we’ll be seeing more from both him and Miss Kendrick in the future.

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon