Sunday, January 3, 2010

AVATAR and SHERLOCK HOLMES: TM goes mainstream, forks over actual cash!

After viewing, over the past year or two, almost every new film in a screening room or on DVD, for free, it's a weird sensation to plunk down $9 (for a senior ticket) two days in a row, in or-
der to attend new films with friends whom I don't get to see all that often. The effect is salutary, how
-ever, because it puts one in touch with how fortunate he is to be able to see so many new films at absolute-
ly no charge.
One of my colleagues in the online-critic trade tells me that she always considers first in her recommendation whether or not the film in question is worth $12 of her reader's hard-
earned cash. Using this criterion, she mentioned a film such as G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra as being more worthy of recommendation that a small foreign film like Karin Albou's The Wedding Song -- which we both happened to see at the same screening -- or Sally Potter's Rage, where we met over an upcoming interview with the director. While this may indicate a vast difference between the audiences that she and I are serving, her idea about the necessity of parting with $12 is worth considering. (I actually found G.I. Joe bearable -- barely -- and certainly better than the latest Transformers drivel.)

While I realize that the budget for AVATAR, the new film from James Cameron (shown two photos above) is more enormous than literally any film that has come before, and though, once its hype machine had started rolling, I read almost nothing further about the movie, still, as I sat through a little more than the first hour of the film, I could barely believe the stupidity on display: A lead character (played by Sam Worthington, above) so dumb that he does wrong nearly everything possible as the experiment begins, and once he gets to the land of the Pandorans, he continues screwing up until nearly getting himself killed. Couldn't Cameron the writer come up with a better way to get this guy "lost"? And what about those piles of "expository dialog," much of which is going on between characters who would already know the very stuff they're ex-
plaining to each other? This is such basic screenwriting (even some first-time scribes tend to understand the principle) that it surprises me Mr. Cameron does not.

As for the much vaunted special effects (above and below): to my eyes, they look like high-toned animation, for Christ sake. Half the time, none of the effects appear in the least "real," so that suspension of disbelief must be ramped up big-time. Sure, Cameron has created an alternate world and then immersed us in it, but don't most sci-fi films do the same? Sometimes they even manage this with stories that don't borrow themes and ideas quite so flagrantly from so many other films: environmental despoiling, colonization of the native populace, capitalism run amuck, etc. Even the dumbest among us will be able to understand this film. I've certainly seen worse during the past year, but -- other than Inglourious Bastrerds -- nothing more disappointing.

Perhaps it was the area of the IMAX theater where I sat (the extreme side, so that I could have an aisle seat from which to stretch my oversize frame), but the 3-D image was darker than it should have been and the effects seemed, well, not so special. As I say, I watched only a little more than an hour of the film before retreating down the street to the gallery aside the Walter Reade Theater to have a cup of tea. But that 65 minutes of viewing was long enough to know that I'd been taken for yet another ride. What about most of the rest of our critical establishment? Yes, of course, the most expensive film of all time must not be allowed to lose mon-
ey. But really: how dumb and/or avaricious have we all become?

The day prior to viewing Avatar, we'd trekked off through the snow to see SHERLOCK HOLMES, another not-inexpensive piece of mainstream, holiday entertain-
ment. And while I can make no claim for anything other than having had a fairly good time (the movie gets a little slow/been-there-
done-that midway along), I at least stayed through the end credits and can declare myself not ripped off too badly.
As opposed to Avatar, that features good actors -- Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Lang -- doing obvious shtick, Sherlock offers Robert Downey Jr. (below, right), Jude Law (below left), Mark Strong, Rachel McAdams (shown further below, right) and Kelly Reilly (shown further below, left), all appearing to enjoy each other's company and bouncing off the silly story with talent and glee. The plot is serviceable and weird enough to merit attention, and the special effects are often quite special. There's no 3-D, but none is needed.

Director Guy Ritchie (the small image, two photos up at right), clearly doing work for hire, has still managed to imbue the film with enough sense of fun and adventure to bring it home. Not to mention all the unusual "physicality" that Ritchie and his flock of screenwriters bring to this "new" Holmes: Not only is the guy an intellect, he can fight! Oddly enough, this works rather well, especially since, for all the vaunted intelligence supposedly on display, we're still talking American mainstream intellect here.

After his interesting use of gay content in RocknRolla, here -- helming a movie for the masses -- the director must content himself with having the Holmes/Watson (Downey/Law) relationship stay just-this-side-of-safe, as their women look on with amused acceptance. Otherwise, Ritchie has done a nice job with this dark fluff, and so have his art and production designers, as well as the usual CGI crowd (the fine cinematography's by Philippe Rousselot).

OK: Having done my mainstream duty, I can now get back to independent, foreign fare and documentaries -- and wait for the rest of the holiday mash-up to arrive over the next few months on DVD, which will cost but a-buck-fifty per film (from Netflix) or $3.75 from my local Jackson Heights Flagship store.

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