Friday, December 30, 2022

Avatar 2: The Way of Cameron

Congratulate me! I have survived a trip to Pandora, and am only slightly water-logged. Yes, I just sat through all three hours and twelve minutes of Avatar: The Way of Water, staying awake most of that time. Never have I ever seen a movie that is both so beautiful and so unrelentingly convoluted. I noticed five people (including director James Cameron) listed in the opening credits as authors of the film’s story. This means five people helped sort out the plotline of this Avatar sequel before three of them went on to collaborate on the actual screenplay. Maybe this authorship-via-committee approach is why we’ve got a “something for everyone” storyline, crammed full of heroics, mysticism, family feelings, outside threats (from, of course, evil earthlings), and covert  ecological messages about saving our home planet.

 I’ve a hunch the writers fully expected us to re-watch the original Avatar the night before viewing this sequel. Avatar was first released, to thunderous acclaim, in 2009, and 13 years later most of us are a bit hazy about the circumstances on Pandora, aside from the fact that Jake Sully, an American military guy who’s among those invading the pristine little planet, eventually goes native. In the followup,.I was totally baffled by what Sigourney Weaver was doing on camera in that one scene, and couldn’t fathom her apparently maternal connection with one of Sully’s Na’vi children. And why does the sequel’s #1 human antagonist, the thoroughly nasty Colonel Miles Quaritch, look big and blue (like the Na’vi) throughout the action? Wikipedia explains it this way: Quaritch is “a human who led the paramilitary division of the RDA in their conflict with the Na'vi. After being killed by Neytiri in the first film, he is one of several RDA soldiers resurrected as recombinants, described as ‘avatars embedded with the memories of human[s].’”To which I can only say, “Huh?”

 But let’s focus on the film’s strengths. The Na’vi, as we discovered in the first Avatar, are fabulous beings. They’re tall, sleek, and noble. Though their anger can be fierce, they’re hardly Blue Meanies. If left to their own devices, they are peace-loving, devoted to the natural world and to one another. And they look absolutely regal (as well as rather sexy) in pretty much no clothing at all. They’re a triumph of Cameron’s use of motion capture to transform human actors into otherworldly beings.  By using the latest in technology, he can have his characters effortlessly do fabulous stunt work, while also interacting with unearthly sea creatures that boggle the viewer’s mind.

 In its undersea sections this Avatar is at its best. Cameron, it seems, is passionate about the ocean. He’s used it as backdrop for movies like The Abyss and (of course) Titanic, not to mention several documentaries.  And he’s had his personal ocean adventures, becoming in 2012 the first person ever to do a solo descent of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the earth’s waters. While making Avatar: The Way of Water, he required most cast members to become adept at free diving, so that his cameras could capture their movement in the briny deep as well as on land.

 James Cameron got his start in moviemaking as a very novice art director on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars. The goal at Corman’s New World Pictures was to make films fast and cheap, using tricks like spray-painting McDonald’s hamburger boxes silver and tacking them up to line a spaceship’s walls. Corman films are also notably short. Cameron learned a lot from Roger, but then obviously went his own way.




Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Peeling Back a Glass Onion

I was excited when the new Knives Out film was announced. It played briefly in cinemas around Thanksgiving, creating a box-office flurry. So eager, apparently, was the public to watch the further adventures of  super-sleuth Benoit Blanc that it was said producers had missed a lucrative bet by withdrawing the film from theatres so as to release it on Netflix starting December 23.

 I personally waited until December 25 to screen it in my living room, as a reward for surviving a large family party. Of course I was waiting for something with the wit of the original. Aside from Daniel Craig’s droll portrayal of a rather effete N’Orleans private eye, Knives Out had a twisty plot, featuring a group of greedy relatives all perched like vultures over the corpse of their very wealthy and very dead uncle. With the cast filled out by such skilled players as Christopher Plummer (as the dead man), Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and a hilariously bitchy Jamie Lee Curtis, it was clear from the start that the audience was in good hands. There was also a new screen discovery,  Cuban-born Ana de Armas, as a sympathetic counter-balance to all the venality around her. Playing Plummer’s conscientious nurse, she is someone we can root for, even when it begins to seem that his passing is a result of her carelessness. Amid all the film’s crass characters, I liked the fact that our center of gravity was a young working-class woman with both a conscience and a mother whose undocumented status made her vulnerable to outside pressures.

 Writer/director Rian Johnson also showed off in Knives Out his fondness for tricks and word games, one of which tickled me belatedly. There’s a throwaway driving scene in which Blanc starts crooning a lyric from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies: “The sun comes up/ I think about you/ the coffee cup/ I think about you.” It was only later that I realized this snatch of song wittily points to the film’s ending, and a very distinctive coffee cup. Aha!

 So what about Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery? It too is full of jokes and pop culture references. Some world-famous paintings play an ironic role in the story, and some movieland royals (most notably Hugh Grant) show up in small roles. Much has been made of the fact that both the late Stephen Sondheim and the late Angela Lansbury briefly play themselves on a Zoom conference call with Blanc. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is there too, and Serena Williams pops up for several amusing seconds.

 All of this is fun, and of course there’s a mystery to be solved by the ever-perceptive Blanc.  Here’s the problem: though there are gags and twists aplenty, the Glass Onion story lacks any semblance of heart. Yes, we can enjoy the fabulous Greek island sets, and of course the cast is once again star-studded, featuring Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr., Kathryn Hahn, and particularly Edward Norton as a billionaire tech bro who owns these palatial surroundings. They’re supposedly old friends with complicated ties to one another, but as a group they’re not nearly as interesting (or as well-explored) as the feuding family circle in Knives Out. Janelle Monáe, in a more challenging role, fulfills the Ana de Armas function by being someone with whom we can sympathize, but her plight—cleverly introduced by Johnson—lacks the urgency we felt in the previous movie.

 As for Benoit Blanc himself, we know from the start that he’s the world’s most famous detective. So this time we don’t have the fun of discovering just what he’s capable of.


Friday, December 23, 2022

Getting into the Holiday Spirit with “Elf”

A recent airline trip gave me the opportunity to catch up with Elf, the 2003 comedy that is widely viewed as a holiday classic. I’ve heard the gripe that in all of his films Will Ferrell plays the  exact same role. Whether he’s portraying an anchorman, a NASCAR driver (in Talladega Nights) or an Olympic figure skater (in Blades of Glory), he’s always the same lovable doofus,  That being said, the role of an oversized elf, sent forth from Santa’s workshop to find his real father among the office towers of New York City, fits him as snugly as a pair of yellow tights. I give Ferrell full credit: he’s convincingly naïve, convincingly so much in love with the Christmas spirit that he’s about to burst.

 The truth,, of course, is that Ferrell’s Buddy is not a genuine elf. He came to the North Pole as a human baby, much in need of family, who somehow crawled into Santa’s sack on Christmas Eve, and was lovingly raised by Papa Elf.. Papa Elf, who supplies the film’s droll narration, is played by Bob Newhart with deadpan wit, and the other casting choices are equally inspired. The gruff but lovable Santa is Edward Asner. The grinch of the piece, Buddy’s real (though unsuspecting) human dad, is played by James Caan. Amusingly, he’s a publisher of children’s books, though one who seems to have little affection for either books or children. (Buddy, of course, will eventually straighten him out, helping him advance his career while also encouraging him to appreciate his family.) As always, Mary Steenburgen is a warm presence, here playing Caan’s wife. In a remarkable example of holiday cheer, she welcomes Buddy into her home, never stooping to interrogate her husband about having fathered a child with a previous love. As Buddy’s eventual romantic interest, Zooey Deschanel is as adorable as ever, though turning her into a blonde doesn’t make for more fun. The film also shows off Deschanel’s strong singing voice, both in a delicately handled shower scene (don’t ask!) and over the end credits, where she shares a jazzy version of  “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Leon Redbone.

 Because Elf is a wee bit naughty as well as nice, there’s some amiable satire of Christmas, American-style. The department store where Deschanel’s character toils and Buddy is mistaken for part of the Christmas décor is of course a ripe target. Buddy provokes mayhem when he loudly accuses the store’s Santa of not being the real deal and pulls off his fake beard, with unfortunate results. But the funniest single gag in the film involves a crisis moment in which Caan’s publisher-character tries to hire a bestselling children’s book author to write a potential best-seller. On the phone, this famous author sounds adult, imperious, and impressive. So as not to spoil the surprise of who was cast in this cameo role, let me just say that his presence elicits from Buddy (at the office visiting Dad) exactly the wrong reaction. The scene is genuinely hilarious

 Personally, I am mostly allergic to Christmas movies that promise miracles of comfort and joy based on vague and sentimental religious belief. Elf works for me partly because it merrily sidesteps anything to do with Jesus in the manger. It’s amusing (and perhaps apt) that so many people involved in the making of Elf are Jewish, including its initial screenwriter (David Berenbaum) and director (Jon Favreau). And the notion of Ed Asner as Santa is a hoot. One set even includes a menorah, a nice ecumenical touch at “the most wonderful time of the year.”