“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

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“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

Every now and then, Hollywood would release a movie with a story based upon a particular event or individual from Los Angeles’ history. Movies such as “CHINATOWN”“L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, and “CHANGELING” are examples. Recently, Hollywood released a new movie about a moment in Los Angeles’ history called “GANGSTER SQUAD”.

I must admit that I found myself surprised that the origin of the plot for “GANGSTER SQUAD” came from L.A. history. According to the book, “Tales from the Gangster Squad” by Paul Lieberman, Chief William Parker and the Los Angeles Police Department formed a group of officers and detective called the “Gangster Squad unit” in an effort to keep Los Angeles safe from gangster Mickey Cohen and his gang in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Screenwriter Will Beall took elements of Lieberman’s book and wrote a movie about the L.A.P.D.’s efforts to fight organized crime in the Southland. The movie starts in 1949 Los Angeles, where Cohen has become the most powerful figure in the California criminal underworld. Cohen has plans to expand his enterprises across the Western United States via the gambling rackets. Because the gangster has eliminated witnesses and bribed both the courts and the police, Chief Parker and the L.A.P.D. have not been able to stop Cohen’s rise. In a desperate move, Parker recruits the incorruptible and ruthless Sergeant John O’Mara to form a unit to wage guerilla warfare on Cohen’s operations and drive the gangster out of Southern California.

O’Hara, with the help of his very pregnant wife Connie, recruit the following men for his new unit:

*Coleman Harris, a tough beat cop from the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood

*Conway Keeler, a brainy wire-tapper

*Max Kennard, a legendary veteran gangster killer and sharp-shooter

Kennard’s young partner, Navidad Ramirez tracks down the squad and O’Hara reluctantly allows him to join. The sergeant tries to recruit his close friend, Sergeant Jerry Wooters, but the latter declines his offer out of disillusionment with the recent war and the police force. But when Cohen’s attempted hit on rival gang leader Jack Dragna results in the death of a young shoeshine boy, Wooters decides to accept O’Hara’s offer to join the squad. Also, Wooters has become romantically involved with Cohen’s etiquette coach and girlfriend, Grace Faraday. The squad’s campaign of terror against Cohen encounter a good deal of road blocks, including an unsuccessful raid against Cohen’s Burbank casino, the gangster’s penchant for paranoia, Wooters’ secret romance with Grace, Connie O’Hara’s desire for her husband to leave the police force and a deadly trap set up by Cohen in Chinatown. Despite the setbacks, violence and death, the squad eventually persevere over Cohen.

When I first saw the trailer for “GANGSTER SQUAD”, I immediately viewed it as one of those splashy, yet cheesy crime dramas trying to cash in on the success of movies like “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” and “THE UNTOUCHABLES” by setting it before the present time. After seeing the movie, I suspect that my assumption was correct. There were elements in the movie’s story that I found unoriginal. Honestly. One could easily imagine “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a post-World War II Los Angeles version of the 1987 movie, “THE UNTOUCHABLES”. Well . . . almost. And there were moments when I found “GANGSTER SQUAD” rather cheesy. This was obvious in some of the dialogue that came out of the mouth of actor Sean Penn, who portrayed Mickey Cohen; and in the movie’s narration spoken by Josh Brolin, who portrayed John O’Hara. And I might as well be honest. Penn’s dialogue was not helped by the occasional hammy acting that also marred his performance. For a movie that is supposed to be based on a historical book, I could not regard it as historically correct . . . especially in regard to the fates of both Cohen and rival Jack Dragna. I am a fan of Nick Nolte’s work, but I believe that he was a least two to three decades too old to be portraying Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, who would have been in his mid-40s in 1949. Also, Parker did not become the city’s police chief until 1950.

“GANGSTER SQUAD” was not a perfect film, but I liked it very much. I enjoyed it. I found it very entertaining. And I found it gorgeous and colorful to look at. Thanks to production designer Maher Ahmad’s work, the film beautifully re-created post-World War II Los Angeles at the end of the 1940s. I was especially impressed by Ahmad’s elegant, yet colorful designs for the Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub, Cohen’s Spanish Colonial house and the Chinatown sequence. Ahmad’s work was enhanced by Gene Serdena’s set decorations, the movie’s art direction team and especially Dion Beebe’s photography. And Mary Zophres’ costume designs were absolutely gorgeous. Just to give you a hint, take a look at one of her designs for actress Emma Stone:

Gangster Squad grace faraday gown

Even though “GANGSTER SQUAD” seemed to be marred by cheesy dialogue, lack of originality and historical accuracy, I cannot deny that Will Beall wrote a very entertaining and exciting crime story. He did a pretty solid job of setting up the main narrative with Sergeant O’Hara’s disruption of one of Mickey Cohen’s illegitimate businesses – a whorehouse staffed by naive girls fresh off the bus or train and eager to make it big in the movies. This disruption catches Police Chief Bill Parker’s attention, prompting him to recruit O’Hara to organize and lead the “Gangster Squad” unit against Cohen’s operations. Beall also filled the story with exciting action sequences that included a nail-biting shootout in Chinatown, a forbidden romance between Jerry Wooters and Cohen’s girlfriend Grace Faraday, strong characterizations and more importantly, a good solid narrative. Rueben Fleischer did a first-rate job in transferring Beall’s script to the movie screen. And Fleischer did this with a great deal of flair and strong pacing.

The cast for “GANGSTER SQUAD” proved to be first-rate. Josh Brolin led the cast as the strong-willed, yet emotional police detective Sergeant John O’Hara. Utilizing his talent for projecting a no-nonsense demeanor with flashes of humor, Brolin was very effective as leader of “Gangster Squad” unit. Brolin also managed to generate on-screen chemistry with other members of the cast – including Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and especially actress Mireille Enos, who beautifully portrayed O’Hara’s equally strong-willed wife Connie. “GANGSTER SQUAD” marked the second time Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone worked together since they were co-stars in the 2011 comedy “CRAZY STUPID LOVE”. And once again, they proved to be quite the effective screen team, as they burned up the screen as the cynical lovers Sergeant Jerry Wooster and mob moll Grace Faraday. I also enjoyed Anthony Mackie’s colorful portrayal of tough beat cop Coleman Harris, who developed an aversion to Burbank, following the squad’s unpleasant encounter with that city’s law enforcement. Giovanni Ribisi gave a poignant performance as the squad’s brainy wiretapper, Conwell Keeler. Both Robert Patrick and Michael Peña created a solid screen team as police sharpshooter Max Kennard and his clever protégé Navidad Ramirez. Although I found him slightly too old for the role, I must admit that I found Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Police Chief William Parker rather entertaining in a garroulous way. And despite some of the cheesy dialogue he was forced to spew, I must say that Sean Penn struck me as an effective villain in his performance as the violent Mickey Cohen. Especially when the cheese and ham were missing from his lines.

If you expect “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a crime drama masterpiece, you will be disappointed. It is no masterpiece, I assure you. But . . . I thought it proved to be an entertaining, yet splashy crime thriller that recaptured the era of post-World War II Los Angeles. I guess one could thank Will Beall for his solid script, colorful direction by Rueben Fleischer, and an entertaining cast led by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn.

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“PUBLIC ENEMIES” (2009) Review

Below is my review of “PUBLIC ENEMIES”, a recent movie on the last year of Dillinger’s life: 

”PUBLIC ENEMIES” (2009) Review

I must admit that when I first heard about Michael Mann’s plans to film a movie about Depression-era bank robber, John Dillinger, I became excited. It was not the subject that roused my interest. But I found the idea of Mann shooting a movie set during the height of the Great Depression – 1933 to 1934 – rather interesting. It has become a period in U.S. history that has caught my interest in the past five years. And the fact that Johnny Depp and Christian Bale had been cast in the leads as Dillinger and his nemesis, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, merely increased my interest.

At first, I had assumed that I would love ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”. I assumed that Mann could do no wrong. Then to my surprise, I discovered that the film had received mixed reviews from film critics. From that moment on, I began to harbor doubts about the film’s quality. I never learn. Never. I had forgotten my most important rule about approaching a movie – the only opinion that should count for me is my own. And when I finally saw ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I realized that I had to learn that particular lesson all over again.

I want to point out that ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” is not perfect. This does not bother me one bit. Perfect movies are extremely rare. And I suspect . . . not know, but suspect I may have seen one or two in my lifetime. However, ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”is not one of those rare examples of cinematic perfection. First of all, the movie – especially its first hour – seemed to be marred by an uncomfortable number of close-ups by cinematographer Dante Spinotti. This discomfort was especially apparent in action scenes like the prison escape from the Indiana State Prison featured in the film’s opening scene , “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s death at the hands of FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, and John Dillinger’s first bank robbery featured in the film. These close-ups brought back memories of the ones featured in Disney’s ”PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”.

But at the least the close-ups in the 2003 film were not further marred by quick editing done by Paul Rubell and Jeffrey Ford for this film. Watching their zip fast editing reminded me of those featured in movies like the last two ”BOURNE”films, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, both ”TRANSFORMERS” movies, ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” and ”STAR TREK”. I suspect that this new editing style is fast becoming the new thing in the film industry. Personally, I hate it. I find it cheap and confusing.

I have one last complaint about the film and it has to do with David Wenham’s appearance in the film. The Australian actor portrayed Harry Pierpont, one of Dillinger’s closest friends and a mentor. Yet, he barely spoke a few words in the movie. In fact, he seemed more like a background character than a supporting one. Giovanni Ribisi had more lines in the film and his character, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, had no real close ties with Dillinger. Why did Mann and the two other screenwriters, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, bothered to include the Pierpont character in the first place? Instead of at least a minor exploration of the Dillinger-Pierpont relationship, the screenwriters reduced Pierpont – Dillinger’s mentor – to a minor character with a few lines.

Now that I have put all of that negativity behind me, it is time to discuss why I had enjoyed ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” so much. Perhaps I am being a bit too subtle. I did not merely enjoy ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I loved it. It has easily become my favorite movie this summer. So far. Fast editing and close-ups aside, I must admit that I admire how director Michael Mann handled the movie’s pacing. I was surprised to learn about the criticisms leveled at the movie’s running time (two hours and nineteen minutes) and especially its alleged running time. Personally, I was impressed by Mann’s steady pace. Expecting the movie to be over two hours long, I was surprised to discover that amount of time had passed when the end credits finally began to roll. Perhaps I had been so caught up in the story that I failed to notice the time. Which is a compliment to Mann’s direction . . . at least from me.

Many scenes directed by Man left me spellbound. They include Baby Face Nelson’s murder of a FBI Agent at a hotel ambush set up by Purvis; Dillinger’s press conference inside the warden’s office at the Crown Point Prison in Indiana; his escape from said prison; the FBI ‘s capture of Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frichette; Frichette’s interrogation and beating at the hands of a FBI agent; and Purvis’ conversation with prostitute and brothel madam, Anna Sage.

But there were four scenes . . . actually, two scenes and two sequences that truly impressed me. The first one featured Purvis’ telephone conversation with his boss, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In it, Purvis tries to convince the irate Hoover that many of their agents are not experienced enough to hunt down the likes of Dillinger and Nelson and that they need to recruit more experienced men . . . like Texas Rangers. Despite the fact that the two actors portraying Purvis and Hoover do not share the screen, the emotion between their characters crackled like flames, thanks to their performances and Mann’s direction. The other scene featured Dillinger’s arrival in Indiana by plane, after being arrested by Federal agents in Tucson, Arizona. Although brief, it struck a surreal note within me, thanks to Spinott’s photography. The cinematographer shot the entire scene with colors that projected a soft iron, mingled with a reddish-orange tint from the sun. Very beautiful.

Although I found the scenes mentioned above very memorable, I was rendered speechless by the following sequences. The first centered around the violent shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin in April 1934. I am certain that many critics and moviegoers had ended up comparing this sequence with the famous Downtown Los Angeles shootout in Mann’s 1995 movie, ”HEAT”. Granted, the latter turned out longer and was filmed in the daytime, but this Little Bohemia shootout turned out to be just as effective and exciting, despite being filmed at night. But if there is one sequence that filled me with great satisfaction, it was the one that featured the last night of Dillinger’s life. Mann, along with Spinotti, production designer Nathan Crowley, Rosemary Brandenburg’s set designs, Patrick Lumb, William Ladd Skinner’s art direction, the screenwriters and the cast did a superb job in conveying the director’s own detailed account of that hot, July night in 1934. I, for one, was glad that Mann took his time in leading to that moment when Texas Ranger Charles Winstead shot Dillinger dead. The director gave movie audiences a glimpse of street life in Depression-era Chicago during the summertime. He also allowed the audience to experience Dillinger’s pleasure in viewing Clark Gable’s spunk and Myrna Loy’s beauty in the 1934 MGM movie, ”MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. With the camera, the audience waited nervously along with Purvis, Winstead and the other lawmen who waited outside the Biograph Theater for Dillinger. This is one of the most detailed and marvelously shot sequences I have ever seen on film in the past decade or two.

Another aspect of ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” that struck me as unique was its style. Past movies about Depression-era criminals from the Midwest and the South like (1967) “BONNIE AND CLYDE”(1974) “MELVIN PURVIS, G-MAN”, and (1975) “THE KANSAS CITY MASSACRE” tend to have this rural or “good ‘ole boy” style, similar to movies and television shows like (1977) “SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT” and (1979-85) “THE DUKES OF HAZZARD”. These films were usually filled with a great deal of wild car chases, over-the-top acting and a Country-Western tune emphasizing the action. ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” seemed to go against this rural style. Instead, most of Mann’s Midwestern criminals are not some wild, country boys that went on a crime spree as some reaction against the Depression’s economic woes. His criminals – especially Dillinger – are professional criminals, whose experiences go back long before the first impact of the Depression. Nor is Mann’s Melvin Purvis is some long experienced “good ‘ole boy” lawman with a Mississippi Valley or Southwestern accent like Ben Johnson in (1973) “DILLINGER” or Dale Robertson in his two TV movies about the FBI agent. His Purvis is a lot closer to the real one, a South Carolinian gentleman in his early thirties, who happened to be a trained lawyer and an excellent shot. Both Dillinger and Purvis come off as more sophisticated than their portrayals featured in earlier movies. And the characters’ sophistication certainly reflected the movie’s more serious tone. Something I certainly had no problems with.

John Dillinger may turn out to be one of my favorite characters portrayed by Johnny Depp. Much has been made of Dillinger’s charm and joie de vivre . . . and Depp certainly did not hesitate to replicate it in front of the camera. One prime example of this charm was featured in Dillinger’s press conference inside the warden’s office at the Crown Point Prison in Indiana. I have seen the original 1934 newsreel featuring the famous press conference and I must say that Depp did a beautiful job of recapturing Dillinger’s actions – from the bank robber’s attitude, right down to his body language.

But there were other aspects of Dillinger’s personality that Depp did not hesitate to portray – his romantic charm that won Billie Frichette’s heart and cynical sense of humor. Most importantly, Depp’s performance reminded the audience that Dillinger had been capable of being a cold-blooded criminal. After all, he had drifted into crime long before the economic upheaval of the Depression. And Depp’s performance made that clear, whether his Dillinger was expressing fury at one colleague, whose beating of a prison guard led to the death of an old friend in the film’s opening prison break; his lack of remorse toward his many crimes, his connection to the Chicago mob; and his willingness to murder anyone who got in his way. Depp not only perfectly portrayed Dillinger as a charming and extroverted rogue, but also as a tender lover, a hardened criminal unwilling to give up his profession and if need be, a killer.

I have noticed that in the past two or three years, Christian Bale has found himself in the thankless task of portraying characters less flamboyant than his co-stars. This certainly seemed to be the case in the 2006 Victorian melodrama ”THE PRESTIGE” with the more outgoing Hugh Jackman; in the 2008 Batman sequel, ”THE DARK KNIGHT”, in which his performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman contrasted sharply with Heath Ledger’s wildly chaotic Joker; and in the recent”TERMINATOR SALVATION”, in which he seemed to be overshadowed in the eyes of many by the more overtly masculine Sam Worthington. Mind you, Bale gave superb performances in all of these films. Yet, his co-stars seemed to be grabbing most of the glory. This also seemed to be the case in ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, in which he portrays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent assigned to capture Dillinger, one way or the other. Whereas Depp’s Dillinger is all charm and flash, Bale’s Purvis is a resolute and educated South Carolina gentleman, who also happened to be a somewhat competent lawman determined to hunt down the bank robber by any means possible. And that included following Director Hoover’s insistence on ”taking the white gloves off” or insisting that the FBI recruit experienced Texas Rangers for the manhunt. Bale not only did an excellent job in conveying Purvis’ quiet determination in hunting down Dillinger, but the agent’s anxious fear that he may never capture the bank robber on a permanent basis. Bale also effectively portrayed Purvis’ ruthlessness in dealing with those who stood between him and Dillinger. Melvin Purvis is not a splashy role for Bale, but the latter certainly did an excellent job of portraying the lawman’s many personality facets.

Before I saw ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, I had feared that the addition of Billie Frichette (Dillinger’s girlfriend) into the story would make her presence irrelevant and threaten to drag the film. Fortunately, Mann and the other two screenwriters – Bennett and Biderman – along with Oscar winner Marion Cotillard did justice to the Frichette character. Cotillard gave an excellent performance as a hatcheck woman who captured Dillinger’s heart. She portrayed Frichette as a slightly melancholy woman who not only resented society’s bigotry against her ancestry (her mother was half French, half –Menominee), but also feared that her relationship with Dillinger may not last very long. One of Cotillard’s best moments featured the hatcheck woman being interrogated and beaten by one of Purvis’ agents, who is determined to learn Dillinger’s whereabouts. And despite being French-born and raised, Cotillard proved that she could use a Midwestern accent circa 1933, just as well as an American actress.

”PUBLIC ENEMIES” seemed to be filled with some memorable supporting roles. And a handful of performances stood out for me. I enjoyed Jason Clarke’s quiet and subtle performance as Dillinger’s close friend and colleague, the dependable John “Red” Hamilton, who seemed convinced that he and the bank robber were doomed to live short lives. Clarke especially shone in an emotional scene in which a badly wounded Hamilton tried to convince Dillinger to stop clinging fervently to all people and things that mattered too much to him. And there was Billy Crudup (a face I have been seeing with great frequency over the past few years), who gave an entertaining and sharp performance as FBI Director and publicity hound, J. Edgar Hoover. Crudup managed to capture a great deal of the legendary director’s personality as much as possible – especially Hoover’s staccato-style speech pattern. And his scenes with Bale brimmed with a layer of emotion that made their on-screen relationship one of the more interesting ones in the movie.

Another performance that caught my attention belonged to Stephen Graham as the trigger-happy Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis. I have to give Graham kudos for effectively projecting a certain facet of Nelson’s persona from both Dillinger and Purvis’ points-of-view. In Dillinger’s eyes, Graham portrayed Nelson as a trigger happy clown and bad Cagney impersonator, whose criminal skills seemed to belong to an amateur. In his major scene with Purvis, Graham portrayed Nelson as a dangerous criminal, quite capable of efficiently killing Federal agents in cold blood. And it was a pleasant surprise to see the always competent Stephen Lang as Charles Winstead, one of the Texas Rangers recruited by Purvis to assist in the FBI manhunt for Dillinger. Lang first worked for Mann in 1986’s ”MANHUNTER” and the television series, ”CRIME STORY”. Since then, he has portrayed a vast array of memorable characters over the years. In”PUBLIC ENEMIES”, he gave another excellent performance as the stoic and intimidating Winstead, whose vast experience with criminal manhunts allowed him to act as a de facto mentor for the less experienced Purvis. One last performance that caught my attention belonged to Branka Katić’s portrayal of Anna Sage, the so-called ”Woman in Red”who had betrayed Dillinger to the FBI in Chicago. Actually, Sage never wore red on the night she led the FBI to the Biograph Theater and Dillinger. But that is beside the point. Katić gave an intelligent performance as the world-weary, Romanian-born madam that found herself forced to help the FBI ambush the bank robber.

Every now and then, I eventually come across some comparisons between ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” and ”HEAT” in some of the articles I have read about the former. And the comparison usually ends in the 1995 movie’s favor. Do I agree with this assessment? Honestly, I have no answer. Both movies are superb crime dramas with a few flaws. Whereas ”HEAT”managed to capture the miasma of late 20th century Los Angeles, ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” reeked with the slightly gray aura of the Depression-era Midwest . . . especially Chicago. And whereas the pacing for ”HEAT” threatened to drag in its last hour, the quick editing and constant close-ups nearly marred the first hour of ”PUBLIC ENEMIES”. But you know what? I love both movies. And ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” proved to be another example of why Michael Mann continues to be one of my favorite movie directors.

A Few Problems Regarding “AVATAR” (2009)

A Few Problems Regarding “AVATAR” (2009)

I am going to put my cards on the table. I have a problem with James Cameron’s new movie, ”AVATAR”. In fact, I have several problems with it. I was willing to remain silent about these problems, but after the movie’s recent big win at the Golden Globe Awards, I realized that I could not keep silent about them.

One would think I was just another fan expressing her dislike of ”AVATAR”. On the contrary, I happened to like ”AVATAR” very much. I saw the movie three times. And it became one of my top ten favorite movies of 2009. So, why post a rant against the movie? Because I fear that the movie has become a front runner for the Best Picture Academy Awards. And as much as I had enjoyed ”AVATAR”, I do not believe that it will not deserve all of its accolades. Even worse, I have a bone to pick about the movie’s distribution.

Award Season

Two nights ago, ”AVATAR” scored big at the Golden Globes Award show. It managed to collect at least two major awards – Best Director for James Cameron and Best Picture. In a documentary about 20th Century Fox called ”20TH CENTURY FOX: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS” (1997), a former executive had pointed out that legendary producer and studio boss Darryl Zanuck believed that the backbone of any good movie was the story. Not the special effects, the casting or even the score; but the story.

Now, I am not claiming that ”AVATAR” has a weak story. Actually, I believe that it has a solid, good story with a relevant theme. However, many critics and moviegoers – including myself – believe that the story has mediocre dialogue. Even worse, it also seems very unoriginal. In fact, I would go as far to say that it is close to being a blatant rip-off of the 1990 Academy Award winner, ”DANCES WITH WOLVES”. Frankly, I cannot see how a movie that is unoriginal to the point that it seems to blatantly plagiarize another film deserves to win a Golden Globe Best Drama Picture award, let alone the Academy Award for Best Picture. I simply cannot.

3-D Special Effects and Movie Tickets

What has really ticked me off about ”AVATAR” is the fact that director James Cameron had decided to film the damn thing in 3-D. Well, he also provided regular prints of the movie. And the movie theaters have allowed filmgoers the choice to view the 3-D showings or regular showings. Unfortunately, all of the movie theaters that I usually attend, offer more showings of the film in 3-D. Worse, not only are the regular viewings scheduled late at night, filmgoers have to pay higher ticket prices for the 3-D showings. This really pisses me off. I find the 3-D glasses very uncomfortable. And the special effects struck me as being less impressive than those featured in the Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time show at Universal Studios Hollywood. The higher ticket prices for the 3-D effects are simply not worth the effort. At least not to me. And I feel that Cameron, 20th Century Fox and the movie theaters are ripping off moviegoers in the process.

Will ”AVATAR” win the Best Picture Oscar? I suspect that it will. And frankly, I consider this a travesty. I am not saying that the movie is terrible. It is not. But Cameron has already managed to win a slew of Oscars for a movie with impressive visual effects and a mediocre script that turned out to be a blatant rip-off of 1937’s ”MAYTIME”. I am talking about 1997’s ”TITANIC”. And I fear that history will repeat itself when he wins a slew of awards for ”AVATAR” – a movie with the same virtues and flaws.

“AVATAR” (2009) Review

Here is my review of “AVATAR”, James Cameron’s long awaited new film: 

”AVATAR” (2009) Review

Has it really been twelve (12) years since director/producer James Cameron had released his last movie? Twelve years? And yet, it is true. Twelve years have passed since the releases of the Academy Award winning movie, ”TITANIC” and Cameron’s latest epic, ”AVATAR”. And I must say that it was worth the wait.

Set in the year 2154, ”AVATAR” told the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former U.S. Marine, who arrived on the planet of Pandora to replace his murdered twin brother in a program that have created human-Na’vi hybrids called avatars, which are controlled by genetically matched human operators, due to humans’ inability to breathe the moon’s atmosphere. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the head of the Avatar Program, considered him an inadequate replacement for his brother, relegating him to a bodyguard role. Pandora, a lush, Earth-like moon of the planet Polyphemus, in the Alpha Centauri system, has been targeted by an Earth corporation administered by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) called RDA. It wants to mine Pandora for a valuable mineral called unobtanium. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a former Marine and leader of the Humans’ security forces, promised Jake his “real legs” back in exchange for intelligence about the natives and what it will take to make them abandon Hometree, which rests above a large deposit of unobtanium.

When Jake escorted Augustine and biologist Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) on an exploratory mission in their avatar forms, the group is attacked by a large predator, and Jake became separated and lost. Attempting to survive the night in Pandora’s dangerous jungles, he is rescued by Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), a female Na’vi. Neytiri brings Jake back to Hometree, which is inhabited by Neytiri’s clan, the Omaticaya. Mo’at, (C. C. H. Pounder), the Na’vi shaman and Neytiri’s mother, instructed her to teach him their ways. Within three months or so, Jake fell in love with Neytiri. Unfortunately, he found himself conflicted between his feelings for the female Na’vi and her clan, and his deal with Colonel Quaritch.

Judging by the reactions of many critics and filmgoers, James Cameron seemed to have created a very unique film. I would certainly agree with this opinion – especially in regard to the physical and visual world of Pandora. Quite frankly, I found it lush and strangely beautiful. I also have to commend Cameron for not only creating Pandora’s strange world, but also for guiding crew members like production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; the art direction team led by Todd Cherniawsky, Kevin Ishioka, and Kim Sinclair; cinematographer Mauro Fiore; the special effects team led by Dave Booth; and the visual effects team. Cameron took his work even further by hiring Dr. Paul Frommer of USC to create a Na’vi language and culture. Actors like Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña and C.C.H. Pounder had to learn the new language.

I did not have any real problems with the movie’s plot. Cameron did a solid job in writing a story that dealt with environmental issues, along with imperialism and biodiversity by consolidating them into a conflict between the nature-based (or primitive in certain circles) Na’vi and the Humans’ military-industrial complex represented by the RDA Corporation and its military force. Sounds familiar? It should. Cameron claimed that he was inspired from such movies as ”AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD” and ”THE EMERALD FOREST”, which feature clashes between cultures and civilizations. He also acknowledged his film’s connection to the 1990 Academy Award winning film, ”DANCES WITH WOLVES” in the storyline featuring Jake’s connection to the Na’vi. Personally, I found myself wondering if ”AVATAR” was simply ”DANCES WITH WOLVES” on another planet. Honestly. The two movies struck me as being that similar.

Some fans might accuse me of hinting that Cameron’s story lacked any originality. Well, they would be right. I am hinting exactly that. After all, this would not be the first time for the Canadian-born director. At least three of his most famous films, ”AVATAR” included, bore strong similarities to other fictional works. In an ARTICLE I had posted on my blog, I had pointed out the strong similarities between ”TITANIC” to the 1937 Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy film, ”MAYTIME”. And after his 1984 film, ”THE TERMINATOR” hit the theaters, a well-known science-fiction writer named Harlan Ellison pointed out that the movie bore a strong resemblance to two television episodes he had written. The writer ended up receiving ”acknowledgement to the works of” credit on video and cable releases of the movie, as well as a cash settlement of an undisclosed amount. And if the love story between Jake and Neytiri bore a strong resemblance with the one featured in the 1990 film (in that story, the female lead was a white woman raised by the Lakota), the movie’s score written by James Horner seemed to seal the deal for me. It bore a very strong resemblance to Native American music.

Another aspect of Cameron’s script that struck a similar note with me was its dialogue. Let me be frank. I found it just as cheesy and unoriginal as the dialogue found in ”TITANIC”. A good example could be found in Colonel Quaritch’s speech to the human newcomers to Pandora. When he uttered the phrase, ”You’re not in Kansas anymore”, I practically winced. The Wachowski Brothers used that phrase with a more memorable and original twist in their 1999 movie, ”THE MATRIX”. However, I must admit that ”AVATAR” did have one quote that I found particularly memorable. During one of his narratives about the Na’vi, Jake Scully said the following:

” Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.”

Okay, it does not really seem like much in written form. But Sam Worthington’s interpretation of the line made it memorable for me.

One complaint lobbied against the movie was that it pandered to the cliché of the ”white man savior of the noble savage”. Frankly, I believe that the only grounds for this accusation centered around Jake rallying the Na’vi to fight against the Human assault against the Hometree. I figured that since he was responsible for giving Quaritch the means to launch the assault, I could let the scene slide. However, I failed to spot any further evidence to support this argument. After all, it was Neytiri’s father Eytucan, who allowed Jake to remain with the Na’vi. Neytiri’s mother Mo’at ordered Neytiri to introduce him to Na’vi culture. Mo’at was also responsible for giving Jake a chance to redeem himself for his earlier betrayal. Another female – namely Trudy – was responsible for rescuing Jake, Grace and Norm from the RDA cell. And it certainly was NOT Jake who defeated the movie’s main villain, Colonel Quaritch, in the end. No one could ever mistake this film for the 1953 movie, ”HIS MAJESTY’S O’KEEFE”.

Speaking of Sam Worthington, he led the cast as the a paraplegic former U.S. Marine Jake Scully, who found himself drawn to Pandora and the Na’vi culture. Although I would not consider Jake to be one of his more complicated or complex characters, I thought that Worthington did an excellent job in conveying Jake’s conflict between the Humans’ agenda and his love for Neytiri and the Na’vi. He also managed to effectively project Jake’s array of emotions following the character’s arrival on Pandora, whether in Human form or connected to his Na’vi-Human form. And he also did a top-notch job as the film’s narrator. Believe or not, not every actor or actress has a talent for verbal narration.

Zoë Saldaña was cast as Neytiri, the Na’vi huntress with whom Jake fell in love. Saldaña did not simply provide Neytiri’s voice. She also provided the character’s body language and facial expression via a process called motion/performance capture. This process has already been used in movies such as two of the latest ”STAR WARS” movies, the ”MUMMY” films, ”KING KONG” and the last two ”LORD OF THE RINGS” movies. I must admit that Saldaña did an excellent job in guiding Neytiri’s character from being slightly resentful and contemptuous toward Jake, to being a female in love and finally to the fierce and determined Na’vi warrior determined to protect her home. Frankly, she was my favorite character in the movie.

Sigourney Weaver found herself being directed by Cameron for the second time as Dr. Grace Augustine, a scientist and creator of the Avatar Program. Her Grace is a no-nonsense woman with a dislike toward Selfridge, Quaritch and the RDA Corporation. Her bluntness was tempered by a genuine desire to study the Na’vi and Pandora. Weaver did a solid job in portraying these aspects of Grace’s character. Stephen Lang could have easily portray Colonel Quaritch as a one-dimensional villain. In fact, he nearly drifted into such a portrayal on one or two occasions. But in the end, Lang managed to control himself and give a first-rate performance. He even infused a touch of homme fatale into his performance in scenes that featured Colonel Quaritch’s attempts to “seduce” Jake into providing information about the Na’vi and their Hometree. I found that aspect an interesting twist.

Many critics have dismissed Michelle Rodriguez’s performance as Marine pilot Trudy Chacon as another one of her many tough chick roles. From a superficial viewpoint, they might be right. But if I must be honest, I found that Neytiri seemed to fit that role a lot better than Trudy. There was something about Rodriguez’s role that struck me as different from her previous ones. Her Trudy seemed like a laid back type with a warm and cheeky sense of humor – completely different from the roles that the actress had portrayed on ”LOST” and ”THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS”. I consider this a good thing, for it told me that Rodriguez was quite capable of portraying more than one type of role. If I must be frank, I would not consider Parker Selfridge to be one of Giovanni Ribisi’s best roles. Mind you, the actor managed to keep himself from drifting into a purely hammy performance. But I found his portrayal of the RDA Corporation’s administrator as a walking cliché of corporate greed and rather unoriginal. The only other movies I have ever seen Laz Alonso in were ”JARHEAD” and last year’s ”THE MIRACLE OF ST. ANNA”. I found his role as Neyriti’s fiancé, Tsu’Tey, to be a different kettle of fish. His Tsu’Tey was an aggressive and slightly arrogant warrior with a deep distrust of Jake and the other Humans. Like Lang, Alonso could have easily allowed his character to drift into a one-dimensional performance. I have to give kudos to the actor for making Tsu’Tey somewhat sympathetic in the end. I suspect that deep down, the character truly loved and respected Neytiri, despite the political and cultural nature of their betrothal. I also enjoyed the way Alonso used the motion capture suit and body language to convey his character’s aggressive nature.

I have already commented upon the special and visual effects in ”AVATAR” that managed to blow everyone’s minds, including mine. However, I could have done without viewing the movie with 3-D glasses. I simply did not see how filming the movie with a 3-D camera was worth the effort. I found the 3-D effects found in the TERMINATOR 2: 3-D show at Universal Studios Hollywood more impressive. And since I already wear glasses, wearing an extra pair of 3-D glasses proved to be very annoying for me. And while we are on the subject of quibbles, I found Horner’s score and the theme song performed by Leona Lewis called ”I See You” not that impressive, either. In fact, I am surprised that the song managed to earn a Golden Globe Award nomination.

After reading most of this article, one might end up with the belief that I have mixed feelings about ”AVATAR”. Let me assure you that my views are not mixed. Yes, I have some quibbles with the story’s lack of originality and sometimes pedestrian dialogue. And I found the 3-D photography not worth the effort. But I still enjoyed the movie’s plot very much. It was a solid tale that centered on a theme I wholeheartedly support. The cast, led by Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldaña did an excellent job. As Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet did twelve years ago, Worthington and Saldaña managed to create a great screen team that proved to be the heart and soul of the film through their performances. And from a visual point-of-view, Cameron outdid himself in his creation of the world of Pandora.