Monday, January 04, 2010

Flying Through Visions Digital and Real

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Once again, I have a backlog of films I've seen in theaters but haven't written about here on this blog. Let me see if I can knock off a few in one fell swoop. Here goes...

Avatar (2009; Dir.: James Cameron)
A Christmas Carol (2009; Dir.: Robert Zemeckis)

After all the hype has subsided about Avatar changing the way we look at movies, I'm finding that I can't really muster up much of interest to say about the movie. It is what it is—a bloated and self-important but undeniably amazing technical achievement—and you either accept the whole package, warts and all, or dismiss it all as so much expensive self-indulgence. I was able to accept the whole package, at least for about two hours, before Cameron, guns blazing and bombastic speeches soaring, started to bore me in its lengthy and noisy climactic battle sequence, bringing back bad memories of the soulless wall-to-wall action spectacle that sunk The Matrix Revolutions—part of another bloated, self-important and technically amazing pop epic about imaginary worlds clashing with reality—years ago.

But boy, is the visual spectacle dazzling in its early stretches! Cameron really has thoroughly imagined an impressive new world here, with images that rank among some of the most awe-inspiring in recent cinema—stuff you just can't see anywhere else. And while this alternate universe is wondrously imaginative in and of itself, what makes Avatar emotionally involving as well as visually entrancing in its early stretches is the fact that its wheelchair-bound main character, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is getting his first glimpses of Pandora along with the rest of us. Sully, then, functions as a kind of surrogate for the audience. It's a canny move on Cameron's part, but it works because for about half its 162-minute running time, the visuals fully live up to Sully's innocent awe. (Not even George Lucas was that canny about inspiring wonder in his Star Wars films. While Lucas's fancy creatures and landscapes peppered the wide screen, his characters seemed to take no notice, the assumption being that these figments of his imagination were merely a part of the characters' everyday lives.)

Even Cameron's most stupefying flights of fancy, however, get crushed under the baggage of its paper-thin characters, clumsy storytelling and ham-fisted attempts at topical relevance. Avatar's third act eventually becomes the kind of video-game spectacle that leaves me me more in a state of numb detachment than exhilaration. (To be fair, the climax of Aliens (1986) already felt like a first-person-shooter video game, but the emotional stakes felt higher there than here; Ripley was fighting for her and Newt's life in a real environment, for one thing.) In other words, the wonder gradually wears off, though not to a fatal degree; in hindsight, I can find myself separating the problematic literal elements from the purely visual aspects of the experience.

So sure, I wouldn't mind sitting through Avatar again, especially in IMAX. (I saw it in regular-sized 3-D, by the way. For me, it's either true-blue IMAX or no IMAX at all; none of AMC Loews' IMAX-lite shite!) If anything, though, Henry Selick's Coraline, released much earlier in 2009, featured more impressive 3-D special effects, if only because those effects were situated in a context that didn't forget to back up its eye-popping imagery with an intriguing story and flesh-and-blood human beings. Avatar, a grand—and contradictory, considering the technology involved—myth of returning to the earth and a utopian plea for understanding unfamiliar cultures, more or less embodies the same "rock-'em, sock-'em" mindset that characterized the primitive 3-D features of yore; it may not be throwing things at you from the screen, but the emphasis on spectacle above all else is similar. It's more a refinement of the various digital filmmaking techniques available to Cameron than an advance; in the end, though, technology is still pretty much all you're left with.

Technology is also the only thing Robert Zemeckis's most recent performance-capture animated projects, The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007), leave you with—at least, that's what many of his harshest critics have said about them. I still haven't seen Beowulf, but I was admittedly a skeptic of the technique after The Polar Express—not so much because of motion capture's lack of visual warmth (or what some might call the "dead-eyes" problem) as with the technology being totally in sync with a distinct chilliness at the heart of Zemeckis's conception (Santa Claus elevated to the level of religious myth, with odd echoes of Riefenstahl to some of the imagery). I can't say that I experienced a road-to-Damascus moment with his latest, A Christmas Carol; nevertheless, after finally seeing it in 3-D a few days before Christmas, I finally grasp what Zemeckis sees in performance capture.

There's a visual freedom about this one that is at times exhilarating, most notably its interpretation of the Ghost of Christmas Past episode: years of Scrooge's memories compressed into one dense 12-minute long take. Could that kind of complicated camera move have been accomplished nearly so easily with live action? I doubt it, and according to Zemeckis himself in this New York Times interview, that's the kind of freedom he finds appealing about digital performance capture. But what's welcome with Zemeckis's Carol compared to The Polar Express is that the technology is, much of the time, placed in service of putting across a fresh and astonishingly faithful interpretation of Dickens's traditional holiday chestnut; despite a few regrettable episodes which, like much of the first half of The Polar Express, feel more like a theme-park ride than a movie, human warmth isn't totally sacrificed. Unlike Avatar, technology serves the story, and not vice versa.

Up in the Air (2009; Dir.: Jason Reitman)

This is far from the X-ray of current-recession-era America that some of its champions claim it to be—but, taken as a romantic comedy-drama with never-fully-realized aspirations to topical relevance, it has its undeniable pleasures. George Clooney, as a frequent flyer whose profession is basically firing people, once again turns on the charisma (perhaps to the detriment of exploring the darker sides of his character). And Vera Farmiga, as his love interest, has never been more foxy onscreen—mostly because her previous directors (Martin Scorsese among them) have used her more for her ability to project desperation than Barbara Stanwyck-like sensuality. Folks, she had me melting in my seat!

Rarely does it cut particularly deep; even more than with Aaron Eckhart's cigarette lobbyist in his debut feature Thank You for Smoking (2005), director/co-writer Jason Reitman treats his amoral main character with kid gloves, backing away from devastating inquiry in favor of a rather inappropriate smoothness. Still, I come here not to bury Reitman; he's far from the "hope for the cinema" that Roger Ebert proclaimed him as earlier this year, but he's a sincere middlebrow artisan, and his failures of nerve seem borne out of deeply felt emotional generosity than calculation. He managed to locate the heart beating underneath Diablo Cody's self-consciously quirky dialogue in Juno (2007); and in Up in the Air, he brings a refreshing affection for characters like Anna Kendrick's hard young entrepreneur and Danny McBride's not-overly-bright brother-in-law—characters that might have been played for caricature and easy laughs in less sensitive hands.

Thanks to Reitman's snappy way with fresh dialogue, a few entertaining visual coups (including a wonderfully edited montage of Ryan Bingham's packing routine early on in the film), and a boatload of sincerity, Up in the Air works best as a wonderful light romantic comedy that once in a while delivers moments of real emotional gravity. I enjoyed the movie a lot...but let's not inflate this breezy Hollywood entertainment into the realm of "film of our time." Despite its lip service to the wounds suffered by laid-off workers across the country, Up in the Air mostly feels removed from anything resembling working-class experience. The film's conception focuses less on the people laid off than the ones laying them off; no amount of featured real-life working-class talking heads mixed in with the movie-star wattage can quite overcome that inherent flaw.


Life Coach Traci said...

Great reviews. I agree with everything you had to say about Avatar. I've been saying the same things, just not as eloquently! I also really liked how you reviewed Up In the Air. I just saw it the other night and couldn't quite put my finger on why I wasn't overly satisfied with it, and I think you really helped me put it in perspective. Thanks!!!!

Kenji Fujishima said...

You're welcome, Traci! With comments like that, I know I'm doing my job :-).