James Cameron Struts His Stuff in “Avatar”

Movie Title: Avatar (2009)
Spoilers: No

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In Avatar, James Cameron has shown that his directorial brilliance is still where it used to be. There is gold to be had in the seemingly empty mines of science fiction. Cameron creates not only a story that will stay true to your heart, but also an entire alien ecosystem that will stay in your mind. With almost the care of an entire team of scientists, Cameron constructs for us an alternate world with new types of aesthetically pleasing life.

In the future, mankind is exploring new worlds. It takes years to reach Earth’s newest planetary find, the planet Pandora. The crew is kept in a cryogenic state until they arrive. Pandora is home to the Na’vi, a tribal race of giant, blue humanoids who become known for their use of a deadly neurotoxin on the tips of their arrows.

With their own language and culture, the Na’vi are intelligent and spiritual, very connected with their planet. And it is their planet that has something that the humans want, a precious mineral found under the ground. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is the one in charge of heading up the operation. The funding for the Pandora mission must be obtained from the riches found under the planet.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is the paraplegic war vet and brother of a deceased researcher. In place of his brother, he is selected to go to Pandora. His mission: to take on his brother’s genetically pre-matched Na'vi body and learn the Na’vi’s ways to persuade them to relocate so that the humans can get what they came for without a fight. The scientific findings of the mission are under the direction of an always attitude-y Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).

Avatar is a beautiful blend of heavy, novelistic science fiction, with enough visually stunning details to satisfy the geekiest. Here lies a cheese-less sci-fi story that makes sense and is appealing in doing so (and better yet for some, leads to serious action!) You get more than enough of what you need if you watch to view another world and other types of life that operate not unlike we would expect them to. It’s nearly too much, but it’s also a lot of everything else that most of us want in a movie. Pandora is beautiful, much more beautiful than any planet would be. That is what you expect when a human mind artistically creates their own world—it is always much more gorgeous than one nature can provide.

There are so many spiritual connections, allusions to Native American animism and mysticism. Except for the younger viewers, it’s hard to miss this eco-spiritualism when the Na’vi speak of “a network of energy that runs through all living things. All energy is borrowed, and one day, you have to give it back.” That’s not new talk. It’s New Age talk, and regardless of how you regard New Age philosophy, it’s a better religious philosophy than the more traditional ones our world is bombarded with that spread hate propaganda and fuel the flames of war.

That brings us to the inherent intellectual superiority of the film. I was at first confused why, when Jake became known to the Na’vi, that he was referred to as one of the “sky people.” The Na’vi had been in contact with humans before, but why not call them gods, “sky gods”? I didn’t pick up on it at first, but then found out why.

As it comes to be known, “A’wa” is “Mother Nature.” The Na’vi saw all of their planet (and presumably the universe) as one unit of God. There were sacred places to pray and “holy” things to do, but the role of “The Great Mother” was to preserve balance and interact with everything. As far as we know, there was no waiting for a heaven or dreading a hell, just a giving and a taking of energy. That is a very Native American idea. And of course, the Na’vi unabashedly represent the Native Americans, those who need nothing but to be close to and love their planet.

The humans, in contrast, are the traditional “blue-eyed devils,” all of them white and all of them with the attitudes of redneck space pirates who shoot first and ask questions later. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is a no-nonsense military overachiever who just can’t wait to pull that trigger. He takes loss personally. He calls the cavalry out and back. He’s one of the cooler villains since Inglorious Basterds’ “Colonel Hans Landa.”

From the start, it isn’t hard to predict where things are headed. You would think an advanced earth culture would go the way we are going now, with great concern for all forms of life—much more when we are speaking of alien life and ecosystems that can tell us so much about ourselves. But we get none of that. There is apparently no Star Trek-like “Prime Directive” in dealing with aliens. These humans don’t care about the beings or the environment, and certainly not the trees, as they spend the entire movie literally trying to destroy them to get to their loot.

These trees are more complex than our brain’s neural pathways, and a bunch of bucktoothed, knot-kneed hicks are trying to destroy them. If only the Na’vi knew about the old earth and about the legends of man doing the same thing to his fellow man and home planet for ages. They do find out, and the film wastes no time telling us how the humans “have destroyed their world.” Now, man’s greed in search of a new type of gold has him traveling the galaxy doing the same. No, the message isn’t flattering. As in District 9, we are the bad guys, and I believe if we did come across an alien race, we’d help ourselves to anything they had that we wanted. I’d like to disagree, but I can’t.

Nevertheless, it’s your job to decide when it’s time for a movie to shut the fuck up with its moralistically preachy and jackhammer-driven messages of “Save the planet!”, and it’s my job to determine whether or not such a movie can still be called worthy.

Avatar is a little too long and a lot too militant in it’s “down your throat” environmentalist message. Some of the characters are over-the-top, but do hit their marks. Avatar is nonetheless immensely rich - visually, artistically, and emotionally - making it a fair cap-off of a hit in a year with mostly mediocre movies.

(JH)

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Grade: A- (4 Stars) Recommended!
Rating: PG-13
Director: James Cameron
Summary: A paraplegic marine dispatched to the planet Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.
Starring: Sam Worthington “Jake Sully,” Zoe Saldana “Neytiri,” Sigourney Weaver “Dr. Grace Augustine,” Stephen Lang “Colonel Miles Quaritch,” Michelle Rodriguez “Trudy Chacon,” Giovanni Ribisi “Parker Selfridge”
Genre: Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi / Thriller
Trailer

A Little Too Wholesome

Movie Title: The Blindside (2009)
Spoilers: No

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I feel stupid stating that America (and not just America) has come a long way in race relations. The majority has gone from unleashing packs of dogs and turning fire hoses on African-Americans to welcoming “them” in “our” schools and homes. And if The Blindside is to be imitated, non-blacks should have a production made of this progress.

The Blindside is the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless, African-American boy adopted by a well-off, white family who goes on to become a college football star, and from there, a pro NFL player. The film is based on the 2006 book by Michael Lewis titled: The Blindside: Evolution of a Game.

Once adopted, Oher (Quinton Aaron), whose mother was a drug addict and whose father was a victim of murder, has a whole new set of challenges in his new home. Among them is getting his grades up so that he can play college football. But he has the help of a loving, conservative Christian family at his side.

Moving and heartwarming, The Blindside is magnetically appealing at every point. You pay full attention because such innocent compassion is so seldom found on the big screen. The film can brag about its fine writing. It was the employment of white guilt that didn’t sit well with some.

There is such a thing as white guilt. It comes out in conversations when there is an argument about race. You might recognize it in the things people say like, “I’m not racist. I have [insert ethnicity: black] friends.” It has become a culturally ingrained reaction for great numbers of white families, in an almost paranoid attempt at getting across to the world: “I may be white, but I’m not racist. Look, I’ll prove it...”

The Blindside is a well-acted and wonderful family film, with wonderful characters that are tantalizingly likable. Bullock has finally stepped up to her potential and has dropped the quirky bimbo roles for something better. She plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, Oher’s always-resolute, adoptive, firecracker of a mother. And though it wasn’t the intent, she looks hotter than ever, in a sophisticated and successful “southern bell” way.

Kathy Bates is “Miss Sue,” Michael’s tutor and a professing democrat (the Touhys seem to have been just tolerant enough to be willing to hire her in spite of that latter fact).

In made-for-TV-movie fashion, The Blindside is appropriate viewing for the whole family. Its message is as wholesome as a student bringing an apple for a teacher. In fact, it’s a bit too wholesome, which is one of several small but back-setting flaws.

Nearly everyone in The Blindside is portrayed as a single-dimensional set-up of a stereotypical character type. The Christians are staunch, white, church-going republicans who boast about being card-carrying NRA members and “packing” accordingly. Even the teachers are cookie cutter country bumpkins. The blacks are down-on-their-luck apartment-dwellers facing eviction, if not gang members or street thugs. The film would have been even better had the stereotypes been downplayed or else eliminated. But it's not like there's banjo music playing in the background or anything.

You are supposed to like them, everyone. You are obligated to like them. In fact, it’s hard not to like them. They are as undeviating and as direct as you would expect from a creation aimed at pleasing the most conservative of Bible-believing families or mainstream viewers.

My only other gripe with this excellent and lovably entertaining film: It’s an inadvertent step backwards for race relations, as though to say: “We’re southern and we’re Christian, and that means we help unprivileged blacks.” Why the need to broadcast the innate sense of charity that all rationally healthy and benevolent humans are capable of exhibiting?

(JH)

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Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) Recommended!
Rated: PG
Director: John Lee Hancock
Summary: The story of Michael Oher, an homeless and traumatized boy who became an All American football player and first round NFL draft pick with the help of a caring woman and her family.
Starring: Sandra Bullock “Leigh Anne Tuohy,” Tim McGraw “Sean Tuohy,” Quinton Aaron “Michael Oher,” Jae Head “S.J. Tuohy,” Lily Collins “Collins Tuohy,” Ray McKinnon “Coach Cotton,” Kim Dickens “Mrs. Boswell,” Adriane Lenox “Denise Oher,” Kathy Bates “Miss Sue”
Genre: Drama / Sports
Trailer

Funny Name, Serious Atheism


Salvatore Pertutti is the creator of this video and Atheists-in-Action.com (click here for the English version of the site.) The Frenchman's talents include attacking religion by humor and satire (check out his YouTube profile page.) See if you can appreciate his uniquely militant atheistic stabs at religion.

(JH)

The Little Ninja's Room

Movie Title: Ninja Assassin (2009)
Spoilers: No

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James McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin, featuring Rain as Raizo and Naomi Harris as Mika, is a 2009 film about…get ready for this…ninjas. If you went ahead and took a wild guess that these ninjas kill people, you’d be right. Have a cookie. But don’t assume Ninja Assassin is a remake of those 80s ninja flicks. It isn’t.

It isn’t any better, either. The plot is more substantive than the action. Instead of having ninjas in attention-getting suits moving around in broad daylight as done in the infamously cheesy-but-still-cool-for-its-time American Ninja series, the story is accurate in identifying what ninjas were—they existed in history as elite assassins that lived in isolated clans. They were infiltrators, fighters who worked under cover of darkness.

In the film, the work of nine ninja clans is uncovered by investigator Mika Coretti (Naomi Harris), an international Europol agent. This secretive society of assassins does not take kindly to snooping around. Mika’s snooping leads her to cross paths with the wife of a KGB official who was a victim of these cloaked killers, and it won’t be long before Mika will be the target herself. The situation connects her with Raizo (Rain), a young and formerly devoted ninja-in-training, who has forsaken his former clan, the Ozunu clan.

Ninja Assassin is less likable than Chuck Norris’ The Octagon (1980) or David Carradine’s Kung Fu series (1972-1975), but it gives us almost what those did, including noodles eaten with chopsticks and young warriors trained where bamboo and wooden huts are in the background. You see fight maneuvers and dance-like martial arts sequences that bring grace and seriousness to the cheap, 80s-tattered cliché of what the ninja icon has become. There were so many ninja flicks and shows in the 1980s that the video games made in their image were an improvement (think of Lee Van Cleef’s The Master (1984) and compare it to Bad Street Brawler and then tell me I’m wrong).

The paranoids shouldn’t see this, or they’ll think what the creator of the film wanted them to think—that ninjas are hiding behind everything, waiting to attack. The mark of someone hiding from ninjas is that they start being deathly afraid of shadows. They try to get rid of the shadows, but that’s a silly thing to do because ninjas are practically their own shadows.

These ninja clans have an almost demonic ability to kill, as well as to recover after fights. For the vast assortment of Saw-style, severing weapons used, if the ninja victim doesn’t die, they recover very quickly from deep lacerations and are ready to fight again with just a few hours rest. It’s like getting to the next level in Double Dragon; you enter a cave and when you come out the other side, your bars of energy are refueled and you’re as good as new.

Eerie music is used to successfully build suspense. The story consists of many Kung Fu-style reflections back to Laizo’s days of training and fighting off opponents, sometimes blindfolded, to give us the feeling of coolness that we haven’t had since the ninja movies of that great decade before the last. TV back then depended on our seeing those cool ninjas (if sprinkled with gross historical inaccuracies).

You see flashbacks to beds of rigorously disciplined boys sleeping next to each other on uncomfortably small cots with little space between them. Awake and asleep, you see them getting older. Watching that, my mind runs to what every sensibly honest middle-ager’s mind runs to: How the frick do these guys ever get the chance to nail the Chun-Li-looking Asian babes across the way, or else whip their skippys thinking about them without having some privacy???

Back to the cool ninja stuff…

It’s hard to explain why any secret societies, like these clans of ninjas, are not adapting to use more effective (and discreet) modern weaponry. They used the best weaponry from their own time a thousand years prior. Why not now? But I suppose a little use of the imagination to help things along isn’t a crime.

And it remains to be understood why roomfuls of task force soldiers armed to the teeth can’t bunker down in their own base to fight off a group of Asians in pajamas with thousand-year-old weapons. Entire standoffs happen with opposing factions keeping each other at bay by pinning their opponents down with gunfire, but these international task force soldiers can’t do it with the advantage of having gun-less opponents. They can’t even duck down behind shit to save their own lives! Hmm.

Not a one of the characters ever stands out because none are given distinction with the exceptions of the head ninja villain Ozunu (Shô Kosugi) and one young girl, Kiriko (Kylie Goldstein), Raizo’s would-be love, who found it in her heart to leave the clan. The rest you care nothing for. Rain has not even the emoting screen presence of a good background prop.

The battle scenes are bloody and swiftly constructed, but the flighty camerawork is such that it isn’t always easy to appreciate. There was very little hand-to-hand combat or showing-off of acrobatic skill, but there was the up-to-now-unknown ninja ability to run across rooms as a human blur so that you can dodge or hide or rush someone when they are in the same room as you. That skill comes in handy. It is also hokey as hell to watch.

The ninjas hunt partly by scent and can experience thoughts and glimpses from others. Sounds pretty cool, but it doesn’t equal an entertaining movie. The fighting is too specialized to have any comparable value to what audiences expected to see more of (like ordinary, Seagal-style ass-kicking). This is in exclusion of one very bloody bathroom brawl between Takeshi (Rick Yune), Raizo’s dead-even competition, and Kingpin (Stephen Marcus).

The plot tries to be touching with its subplot of the sanctity of the listened-to heart. Despite the attempt, you watch while being totally disconnected from it. Sadly, the nice choreography and seriousness with which it sets out to entertain is a near-total loss. It could be classed as a step behind some of the 80s ninja flicks of years past. Some of them did what they were set out to do. It doesn’t look like that be said of this one.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: R
Director: James McTeigue
Summary: A young ninja turns his back on the orphanage that raised him, leading to a confrontation with a fellow ninja from the clan.
Starring: Ben Miles “Maslow,” Naomie Harris “Mika,” Rain “Raizo,” Stephen Marcus “Kingpin,” Linh Dan Pham “Pretty Ninja,” Shô Kosugi “Ozunu,” Kylie Goldstein “Young Kiriko,” Rick Yune “Takeshi”
Genre: Action / Crime / Drama / Thriller
Trailer

Look Out for Dad! Look Out for Mom!

Movie Title: Precious: Based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire (2009)
Spoilers: No

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Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is one hell of a movie as it is a title. It's as rich and as meaningful as this fancifully essay-ish title makes it sound. Masterfully directed by Lee Daniels, with Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry as executive producers, the film is served up like the finest of gourmet feasts—now if only you have a taste for what’s on the menu.

Originally, it was to be called “Push,” but since the title was taken by another in-production 2009 film, “Precious” was the close-second choice. As it turned out, that title was also taken, which is why the subtitle was added for clarification. Sapphire, the writer of the novel that the movie is based on, tells a confounding story of pain in the life of a sixteen-year-old girl from a poverty-stricken and irreparably broken home.

The story of Clarice “Precious” Jones (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) is as moving as it is painful each and every step of the way. Young Precious hates her life. She wishes she was dead most of the time, and you can’t blame her for that. She doesn’t give up, even with so much riding against her; she is poor, black, obese, illiterate, ready to steal to have a better quality of life, and a victim of physical and sexual (not to mention, verbal) abuse.

Her two kids (Mongo and Abdul) are from rape by her father, and the home life provided by her mother (Mo‘Nique) is nearly as criminal as dad’s animalistic tendencies. Pregnant and kicked out of school, Precious pursues a new path by enrolling in an alternative school. There, “Ms. Rain” (Paula Patton), an inspiringly patient teacher, and “Mrs. Weiss” (Mariah Carey), a thoughtfully caring social worker, sees potential in her to go with the pain.

Underneath its straightforward-sounding plot, Precious the film is as multilayered as Precious the girl. Daniels uses a heavily artsy style with Precious’ oft-made mental retreats anytime tragedy strikes. She retreats into a happier world where she is a star. Sometimes she’s a diva, sometimes a white girl who has things better.

Daniels’ artsy style doesn’t take long to get used to. Only during the first half of the film are there scenes that come close to being robbed of their intended emotional impact by this stylistic touch. It remains true that the material of the story is never handled with anything less than the utmost care, taking into account the seriousness of the subject matter.

With a movie of this theme, it is not difficult to see why it will make a number of viewers angry. Every black stereotype is tossed and rubbed in like lotion, ensuring that you hate whom you’re supposed to hate. Find the played-upon racial stereotypes offensive if you want, but remember that stereotypes exist for a reason—they identify those on the fringes of an in-group or out-group. Just because we love to hate them doesn’t take from the fact that they exist.

Precious’ world is a real world, one that many of us will only have this mind-blowing movie as a glimpse into. It’s real, though some of us would rather not know about it...or just not watch movies about it. Precious will make you think about it more than you want to, and some would say, more than you should.

If that’s how you feel, don’t watch. There is plenty of profanity, family violence, including brief rape scenes, and graphic sexual abuse that is described in such detail that the hostile critic might call it emotionally exploitative.

Is it right for writers to go digging for gold in the dank mines of abuse and bad homes for the sake of producing an emotionally charged film? Only you can decide. Partly, it might depend on your background. Some would contend that this raises awareness, others that this is a side of humanity that no one needs to see. But what do you do when you awake each day to a life that comes close to the one Precious lives? Shouldn’t her pain be expressed? If many of us woke up in her shoes, we’d take a header off a building before dinnertime.

Most beautifully, the film never caters to expected cliché. Precious is not some untapped black prodigy found on the streets who is given a chance by some benevolent, white Obama supporter who feels compelled to help out of the guilt of his prosperity. The film is not bent on paying its dues with the usual load of philanthropically poisoning liberal politics that are accompanied by that always-recognizable stench of white guilt.

The story of Precious is not about getting past racial barriers or promoting diversity, but about moving past the pain, about bettering one’s self, about choosing a new path. You cry as you sit in awe with the unfortunate chapters of a girl’s life unfolding before you. I had to recover after seeing it once, and then I went back and saw it again!

Mo‘Nique and Sidibe give Oscar-worthy performances. Carey’s “Mrs. Weiss” is unforgettable. The three make the characters their own in a way that outshines so many other attempts in film. Precious is, hands down, one of the best movies of the year.

(JH)

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Grade: A+ (4 stars) Recommended!
Rated: R
Director: Lee Daniels
Summary: An illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.
Starring: Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe “Precious,” Mo'Nique “Mary,” Paula Patton “Ms. Rain,” Mariah Carey “Mrs. Weiss,” Sherri Shepherd “Cornrows,” Lenny Kravitz “Nurse John,” Stephanie Andujar “Rita,” Chyna Layne “Rhonda,” Amina Robinson “Jermaine”
Genre: Drama
Trailer

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