Day: July 3, 2010

Visceral Thrill: Review for “Avatar”

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I avoided for seeing Avatar in theaters for as long as possible.  James Cameron’s epic story about the planet of Pandora had been gaining more and more buzz, and then it became the highest grossing film of all time and the first film in history to pass the $2 billion mark. People lauded the film on its technical advances and, foolishly, on its storyline. But mostly it was the effects that dazzled everyone, as the toy 3D was used to give depth and realism to characters and environments. That created a new interested in 3D and a surge of films being released, much like the trend in the early 1980s with horror movies and in the 1950s with adventure films. Yet, I continued to avoid the film, and when people asked me why I hadn’t seen it yet, I said dryly, “I don’t think I could fit in the theater with Cameron’s ego.” The remark was made after having watched about four or five interviews with the director on the film.

When the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray, I continued to avoid it. When my mother offered to buy it for me after having recently purchased our brand new HD TV and Blu-ray player, I declined, staying true to my silly belief that the film was lousy. I had rooted against it when it was up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And then, my friend Ian lent it to me. Oh, boy, was I in for a surprise.

Most of you reading this article have already probably seen the film, so I’ll skip the plot details and jump to the chase. First, the bad news: the storyline was extremely lousy. Its ecological terror story was stolen from Pocahontas and Fern Gully; its love story from Star Wars and again Pocahontas, and it “borrowed” story elements from countless other films and stories. It was completely unoriginal. Although, my mother often says, “There is no longer anything that is original under the sun.” But did anyone who saw this film really care about the storyline?

Jake (Sam Worthington) is such an unlikable character. He thinks like an army man and then feels put upon when they don’t want him there. While I admit that Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Augustine was being a bitch to him, I don’t blame her. He was unqualified and did not deserve to be there and yet he felt bad when he decided to take the job and get a little crap from the people who had worked hard to get there. Sort of like how my friends feel about Communism: you work hard and the guy who does nothing slides by (so they say). He is so unlikable, that by the time we want to root for him, or should be, we don’t really want to, and if we do, it’s a bit half hearted. He is, to use the Na’avi term, a complete skxawng.

But, here comes the good news: the visuals MAKE the film. It is one of the most visually dazzling and fantastical films ever made. Perhaps one of the best aspects of the digital peoples is the ability to make their eyes dilate. That’s the hardest thing to do in animation, which is why animators seldom ever want to do human characters: to bring them to life their eyes have to dilate. Robert Zemeckis had been trying to do that for years, first with the dead eyed Polar Express and then the slightly, if slightly, more advanced Beowulf. The Na’avi peoples’ eyes grow wide with fear, shrink with contempt, and glow in every shot. Really, one of the toughest things to do, and I commend Cameron for accomplishing it.

The technology is really astounding, as he makes every fold of skin crease when it needs to. All those fifteen years of development was put to good use, as some of the most majestic environments and species were created. The flora is pure eye candy. The aviation scenes are intense and adrenaline packed, where the viewer is no doubt sitting at the end of their seat. The sound is terrific and blows you away. It’s all spectacular.

Though, perhaps one of the best parts is the cinematography. Pretty images are nice, but pretty images paired with flowing camera movement is even better. It’s so realistic and so moving; the entire thing envelops you in the Pandora world. One scene is particularly fantastic in its viewing: When Jake first enters his Avatar, he runs through the soil. As he stops, the camera slows the speed and you see the dirt flying in the air and each little grain between his avatar’s toes. The scene not only made me feel like the soil was beneath my own feet, but the as he was running and as he stopped, the pure ecstasy from watching it sent shivers down my spine. A true accomplishment in film making. Also, congratulations to cinematographer Maura Fiore for both his fantastic cinematic direction and his Oscar win.

And, I don’t think that this film would have been able to be as totally spectacular as it was without James Horner’s amazing score. He created a very true and realistic sound to the Na’avi, a sound that seems very connected with the Na’avi deity Eywa. But, he created a resounding score that encompasses the emotion in each scene and makes it extremely resonant with the viewer. Honestly, the score coupled with the visuals made me well up in one scene (the scene where the tree is being shot down). While I’m happy that Michael Giachinno’s perky and adventurous score for Up won the Academy Award, I think Horner’s should have taken it (and that Giachinno should have won for Ratatouille).

The film got me thinking: What is a film supposed to do? Is it supposed to just tell a story? Is it supposed to provide and escape and enrapture the viewer? Is it supposed to both, or just one? Well, for the former question, it’s lousy. But, if you’re talking the second, then it provides an exciting, fantastic, amazing visceral thrill unlike any other film in recent memory. It doesn’t matter if you’re seeing it at home or if you saw it in a huge theater; the final result is absolutely astounding. I would actually, (*gasp*) put it in my favorite films list. And to the third question: there is no right answer. It can do one, or the other, or both, or neither, but as long as it means something to both its creator and its audience, it’s a film.

Story: C

Production: A+++

Overall: A

All You Need Is “Love”: Review for The Beatles Love Album

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It certainly isn’t everyday that you encounter a band like the Beatles. They were game changers like almost no one in the history of music, with the exception of the inventors of the individual instruments and of the phonograph. The Beatles, compiled from a foursome of Liverpool lads who wore leather and played in clubs, accomplished so much in their 7 years recording career, with 13 studio albums under their belt and countless number one singles. They wrote some of the most memorable music ever to hit the radio waves. In 2006, the Canadian circus extravaganza Cirque du Soleil decided to create a Beatles-themed show, the story revolving around the Beatles and incorporating a Beatles-only score. George Martin, the original band’s record producer, and his on Giles Martin took the original Beatles tapes and, OH NO! mashed the tracks up and remixed them! The final product: amazing. And could we really have expected less from the two them?

            Because George Martin was there for the original sessions and because his son would be using newer technology to create the album, it was a great pairing. But what they did was not some contemporary mash up or remix, using gratuitous synthesizers or sounds; the duo mixed in different elements of the original songs to create a most pleasant sound. For example: The piano riff from “Hey Bulldog” is layered on top of the Eric Clapton guitar solo in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and that is mixed into the song “Lady Madonna”. It sounds perfect. All three elements sound completely in synch. It would only be those two who would think that those track sections would go so great together.

            The album starts off very serenely, with the vocal track from “Because” and the bird and nature sounds from the single release of “Across the Universe”. This sets the mood that the Beatles are here and it’s “because” we love them so much. It transitions to “Get Back” and then to “Glass Onion”, incorporating elements from “Hello Goodbye” and “I Am the Walrus”. Some of the most moving moments on the album are the subtle things, such as the string climax from “A Day in the Life” (which is used throughout the album). It continues on a journey, as vast as the stage at the Mirage in Las Vegas and as fun as witnessing the Beatles perform live.

Some really great finds are on the album. A heartbreaking rendition for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is on the album, an original acoustic demo that George Harrison recorded that never ended up on The White Album. (It can be found on the Anthology.) The strains are so heartfelt and so emotional, it creates an entirely new feeling for the song. A brand new string back track was composed by Martin and placed in the background, again adding an element of both sadness and true emotion that seems to have been vacant from the released track. It has become one of my favorite songs by the Beatles, and even without Clapton to give the awesome solo; it reaches a new height of emotional resonance.

There’s a great remix of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as well. If it didn’t sound psychedelic enough, then have a listen. It doesn’t sound too different, but what’s different about it is that it sounds, if anything, a little spookier. At the end of the big climax of the song, it bursts, bangs, explodes into the long, moving, and awesome chords of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy”. It’s a full bodied move from psychedelic to amazing and larger than life.

The most fun part of the album for die-hard Beatlemaniacs is trying to spot and name all the elements in the songs, even the smallest measures or only a couple words from a song. Picture you and your friend listening as “Get Back” plays and you suddenly realize something and you smile, probably sit up, and say excitedly, “Oh, that’s the intro to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’!” It’s so much fun for the ones who have been in love with the music and know it by heart; the ones who used to have the original LPs and the posters on their walls; the fans who watched them at Shea Stadium and on the Ed Sullivan Show. Not a travesty, buy any means, this preserves the original intent of the music and keeps it fresh, making it sound new and exciting.

It also provides the younger generation, probably just getting exposed to the music their parents and possibly grandparents listened to, an excellent introduction to the Beatles. Love by no means changes the music or makes it any more different than the original songs; it just adds a fresh element. It gives an introduction to one of the greatest bands in history, which will lead them to discover the original albums and go back to the great Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. The Beatles sound new, not to say that they’ve ever sounded old, but—(says in old timer voice) kids these days…they don’t know what real music is.

If you didn’t know about this album before but you were indeed a Fab Four fan, you probably nearly had a stroke when I said remix and mash up. But, have no fear, the album is much more. Both fun for the old fans and a wonderful way to introduce the music to a new generation, Love provides a totally amazing experience for the ears. Sounding fresher and newer than they have in years, the Martins did a tremendous job. Each chord resounds more clearly; each piano note sounds more emotional, and each song sounds more fantastical. But, then again, what more can we expect? This is the Beatles.

 Grade: A

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” Acoustic Love version: