New Years Edition
 New Years 2010 Edition
AVATAR and DISTRICT 9 Reviewed
Plus: 500 DAYS OF SUMMER on Blu-Ray
Years in the making at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, James Cameron’s AVATAR (**½, 162 mins., PG-13) finally arrives in theaters as a disappointingly simplistic comic book fantasy that, in addition to presenting a beautifully articulated world of “Pandora,” recalls dozens of other movies Cameron liberally “borrows” from throughout this lengthy, yet narratively undernourished, sci-fi adventure.

The writer-director’s long-awaited follow-up to “Titanic” is easily (not counting “Piranha II: The Spawning”) his weakest film, following a paralyzed marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in the future who joins an expedition to a gorgeous green planet named Pandora, one backed by an evil corporation (sound familiar?) using the military as its pawns (no, Bill Paxton isn’t around to shout “Game Over, Man!”). With the help of scientist Sigourney Weaver, Jake bonds with the genetically engineered body of one of Pandora’s indigenous people, the Na’vi, and is able to transplant his mind into the towering blue form of his Na’vi alter-ego. At first, Jake infiltrates the Na’vi with the goal of understanding their ways and culture, and falls in the process for one of their female warriors (“performed” by Zoe Saldana). After being  indoctrinated into the clan, Jake is brought back into his former human world where an evil military colonel (Stephen Lang) and his corporate counterpart (Giovanni Ribisi, trying to mimic Paul Reiser from “Aliens”) inform him that since the Na’vi are sitting on a gold mine of a substance that the company needs, Jake had better get the Na’vi to relocate or else suffer a “shock and awe” display of military prowess. If you’ve seen “A Man Called Horse” or “Dances With Wolves” there’s no reason for me to tell you where it goes from here...

“Avatar” is breathtakingly designed with gorgeously textured and rendered backdrops that make Pandora truly come to life; this is a world populated with interesting creatures and plant life, so detailed that one can easily see where Cameron spent his money.

It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that he didn’t expend as much effort on his screenplay, seeing as the dialogue and story of “Avatar” are both leaden and utterly predictable. Believe it or not, Jake loves his Na’vi body and comes to understand the native people more than his own. Amazingly, he earns the trust of his fellow Na’vi warriors, even the ones who ridicule him upon their initial meeting, and develops a romance with one of “the locals.” This central storyline is right out of “A Man Called Horse” and “Dances With Wolves,” while Jake’s impassioned plea to the Na’vi to take up arms against their more technologically advanced, yet naive, human foes has a definite “Braveheart” flavor to it. There’s even a “Tree of Life,” while the Na’vi’s musical prayers to their deity actually made me recall another native tribe proclaiming the glory of Mothra decades ago! Looking for a “Conan” homage? How about Jake praying to the Na’vi “god” before the big battle. Difficult sacrifices? Rest assured that some Na’vi family members (and animals) don’t make it out of Cameron’s climax alive. And a female vocalist wailing on the soundtrack while the Na’vi take stock of their plight in slow-motion? “Avatar” has all that -- and more!

None of these “influences” would be that significant if the film weren’t so pretentious, or if it had established characters and situations you care about, and it’s here where Cameron’s picture fails most significantly. Particularly considering the film’s duration, it’s shocking how threadbare the character development is -- for example, all we really know about Jake is that his brother was involved with the Avatar project (a plot element that has no payoff at all) -- while there are precious few scenes where characters stop and reflect about what’s going on. Most of the movie’s first half is a succession of montages showing Jake bonding with the Na’vi, while a slew of subplots curiously go undeveloped (such as Weaver’s prior meetings with the Na’vi, a fellow Avatar “user” played by Joel Moore who looks at Jake as a rival, and basic guidelines for Jake’s how he’s able so easily to go back to his human body without the Na’vi ever noticing until a dramatic turning point in the script!). After the halfway point (and a particularly humorous love scene), the film quickly turns into a loud assault on the senses with endless action scenes finding the “bad guys” (Lang’s colonel and squadrons of soldiers) beating up on “the good guys” (the Na’vi)...but there’s no emotion behind it because the film hasn’t developed its characters to any substantive degree.

It should also be noted that the film’s ecological and political messages are heavy-handed to an extreme. In addition to sermonizing about trees, leaves and high-flying animals (with dialogue so leaden it makes Disney’s “Pocahontas” seem like a work of art by comparison), Cameron goes to great lengths here to establish that white American males are the galaxy's greatest problem. In one unintentionally funny sequence, Jake informs us that the Na’vi wouldn’t want to learn anything from “us” – after all, humans are all about “lite beer and blue jeans.” Careful there, Jim -- those people you seem to hold a disdain for are also the ones bankrolling your home, your mantle of Oscars and everything else.

Another major disappointment is James Horner’s score. After having praised many of Horner’s works, especially of late, I was dismayed to hear Horner fall back on his old “bag of tricks” here with the return of vintage “Aliens” string stabs, the “Khan” horn motif, completely tired “ethnic” vocalizations and a main theme that resembles “Glory” with a note changed. Granted, the film does not offer Horner the opportunity to get inside the characters (it’s just not that kind of movie), but I suppose it’s appropriate a film this cliched ended up with one of Horner’s most uninspired, unsatisfying efforts in a long while.

Ultimately, “Avatar” is technically proficient and well-crafted enough to sustain a viewing (though I found the 3-D experience, at least during my viewing, to be underwhelming; outside of some objects often sitting in the foreground a lot of the movie appeared “flat”). Yet it’s also a movie that fails to generate the emotion and excitement so many of Cameron’s previous films have. “Avatar” may set a modern day benchmark in terms of technology and special effects but its story is decidedly antiquated in every facet, making it a movie of the moment as opposed to a picture that’s likely to hold up as the years pass.

The hollowness of Cameron’s work is accentuated particularly when you look at Neill Blomkamp’s impressive DISTRICT 9 (***½, 112 mins., 2009, R; Sony), a film produced on a fraction of the budget of “Avatar” but is far more satisfying in terms of story, character, and overall entertainment.

The picture, written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, also offers a story of a human (Sharlto Copley) who becomes wrapped up in an extraterrestrial culture -- but that of a group of insect-like “prawns” who accidentally end up marooned in a very real-looking South Africa, where they’re segregated in shanty towns to live a dismal existence for decades to come. Copley starts off as a clog for another large corporation assigned to move the prawns out of their slum and into internment camps; after dousing himself with a liquid that begins to transform him into one of them, his previous prejudice for the aliens gradually shifts to an understanding of their plight, particularly one prawn with a young son who finds a possible way to reactivate their long-dormant ship which still hovers over the skies of Johannesburg.

Told mostly in an effective, pseudo-documentary style, “District 9" is, like “Avatar,” a film assembled out of other movies to some degree as well: there’s a dash of “Alien Nation,” “The Fly” and several other sci-fi movies here, but the difference is that Blomkamp takes the time to develop its characters and makes its aliens ultimately sympathetic, though at first blush these creatures are more repellant than other-worldly. In fact, it’s the very nature of the drama shifting gears and existing in shades of grey -- not just in a cookie-cutter, black-and-white world like “Avatar” -- that makes “District 9" all the more compelling as opposed to Cameron’s film. This is a constantly exciting, occasionally violent but nevertheless enthralling science-fiction film that, years from now, will likely be looked back upon as one of the era’s most satisfying, and durable, genre films.

Sony has brought “District 9" to Blu-Ray this week in a tremendous package. The AVC-encoded 1080p (1.85) transfer is top-notch, which rollicking DTS Master Audio sound is potent and also houses a fine score by Clinton Shorter. Extra features include deleted scenes, Blomkamp’s commentary, a three-part documentary, visual effects featurettes, plus a digital copy of the movie and a demo for the forthcoming PS3 game “God of War 3.”

Also New on Blu-Ray

500 DAYS OF SUMMER Blu-Ray (***½, 95 mins., 2009, PG-13; Fox). WHAT IT IS: One of the year’s best films, director Marc Webb’s winning chronicle of the romance that blooms -- and then fades -- between young couple Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel manages to be funny, poignant, emotional and yet never saccharine and melodramatic. Gordon-Levitt is especially good here as a frustrated greeting card copywriter who finds what he thinks is a kindred spirit in office temp Deschanel; he believes in the prospects of true love, she doesn’t. Their differences are reconciled initially by their mutual attraction for one another, but as time progresses his needs and desires are clearly different than hers. What separates “500 Days of Summer” from other films on this similar narrative line is how the picture is told – writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber jump around playfully in the film’s time frame, contrasting sequences of the couple’s early time together with how it all ends. It makes for an interesting dynamic that also prevents the film’s second half from becoming overly depressing, with director Webb spicing up the drama with musical numbers, humor and insight, as well as a vastly appealing widescreen visual pallet. TECH SPECS: Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is a delight, offering a highly satisfying AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio sound. Supplements include commentary from Webb and Gordon-Levitt, deleted/extended scenes, a Making Of featurette, audition tapes, storyboards, a music video, and a digital copy for portable media players. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: In a year filled to the brim with brainless spectacles like “Transformers 2,” a movie like “500 Days of Summer” feels like a refreshing tonic in a sea of cinematic mediocrity. You’ve heard that before, undoubtedly, but this is an honest, highly entertaining and well-performed romantic comedy-drama that’s engaging and appealing throughout. Highly recommended!

FAMILY GUY PRESENTS “SOMETHING, SOMETHING, SOMETHING DARK SIDE” Blu-Ray (59 mins., 2009; Fox): Family Guy’s spoof of “The Empire Strikes Back” debuts exclusively on video, offering much like its “Blue Harvest” predecessor an amusing, if not highly affectionate, ribbing of the second “Star Wars” film. As with “Blue Harvest” some of the gags score more than others (one memorable bit involves Leonard Nimoy’s mailbox), and “Family Guy” fans will be most satisfied with the comedy on-hand -- though it does tend to drag on a bit. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc includes commentary from creator Seth MacFarlane and several of his staff members, a “sneak peek” redthrough of the next Family Guy Star Wars spoof, and a digital copy for portable media players. The BD transfer is presented in its original 1.33 full-screen ratio with DTS Master Audio, which boasts a few four-letter words, and also comes with a digital copy.

ALL ABOUT STEVE Blu-Ray (*, 99 mins., 2009, PG-13; Fox):
Sandra Bullock has had a career year thanks to the phenomenal box-office performance of “The Proposal” and “The Blind Side,” the latter picture likely going to be the first film to generate her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as well. The success of those two films is contrasted by the long-shelved “All About Steve,” an awful "comedy" Bullock also produced with the actress starring as a cooky woman who goes on a blind date with a TV cameraman (Bradley Cooper) and proceeds to follow him on a cross-country trek. Even the appearance of co-stars Thomas Haden Church and Ken Jeong can’t overcome this painful, "what were they thinking?" effort, which Fox has brought to Blu-Ray in a typically strong presentation for the studio. In addition to a colorful AVC encoded 1080p (1.85) transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack, extras include commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, a gag reel, numerous featurettes and a digital copy for media players.

NEXT TIME: CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS and more! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers and Happy New Year to one and all!

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