Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2009 Capsule Reviews, Part 1: Avatar, Invictus, The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom, and Moon

So many movies from this year to get to (and I'm still catching up), so I'm going to do what I did last year when I was watching multiple movies a day: capsule reviews. It's just a lot easier on me that way. I'll elaborate more on the really good movies in my year-end wrap-up. Movie reviews are after the jump…


James Cameron's highly inventive film begins to wear on the senses after two hours, but what an amazing two hours those are. The action stuff at the end of the film is a bit tedious as it was quite easy to guess all of the beats of the story in the film's final 40 minuets. And that's a shame for a film that had so much going for it in regards to originality. But that's what we get with James Cameron: banal, cliché-ridden scripts that usually seem inconsequential when slapped up against his innovative aesthetic.

I enjoyed the world of Pandora and the care Cameron put into this world – completely from scratch – not to mention the pride Cameron has as he offers us a tour of his creation. This isn't so much a science fiction/military movie as it is something along the lines of Baraka with a pulp narrative. Much like he did with his billion dollar phenomenon Titanic, Cameron loves to show us every square inch of this world while giving us a very basic love story to follow. The funny thing is these motion captured actors are a lot more effective than Leo and Kate were. Sam Worthington is especially noteworthy here as Jake Sully, the grunt who learns there's more to this world than caring about one's self.

What's interesting about the narrative is that like The Abyss, Cameron is interested in the battle between military and science, essentially between those who think only in black/white and those who think in shades of gray. His creation, the 12 foot tall smurf colored Na'vi, is fascinating to look at. The "will Jake" or "won't Jake" aspect of the storyline in regards to his understanding of these foreign people is one of the least interesting parts of the story, mostly because we know where it's going. But what I liked about that aspect of the story, even though Cameron lays it on a little thick, is the oneness the Na'vi has with the Natural world. The political and ecological messages and metaphors throughout the film are about as subtle as the colors that pop from the screen, but I kind of liked what Cameron was doing here in making a Star Wars type of mythology for modern times. I also liked how Cameron had his characters say "I see you" instead of "I love you", focusing on site, not the heart or feeling (emotion), as the most important sense. The film is very transcendentalist in that sense: it's all about the characters seeing the world they are a part of, and learning to live harmoniously with it.

Still this is a movie to see because of the spectacle. The 3-D was a lot more nuanced than I was anticipating (read: there's nothing superfluous getting thrown at you to remind you that you're watching a 3-D film), and I especially liked it when the characters were walking through the forest or things were floating around them or falling from the sky…to me this was the best use of the 3-D. However, where the experience became tiresome is exactly the point where the film became a very ordinary war movie. The final 40 minutes or so was just kind of ho-hum and nothing really to write home about. That being said: Cameron knows how to film an action scene, and he does so with gusto here, I just think he could have been a little less in love with himself and trimmed down that final act. Quibbles aside, this is a visceral and exhilarating film experience made to be seen in theater with its impressive 3-D effects. I don't think it's quite as good Watchmen, a film released earlier this year that also popped with impressive colors, art direction, and action excess; however, unlike Zach Snyder's movie Cameron's needs to be seen on the big screen to truly be appreciated. 


Clint Eastwood sneaks in another film at the end of the year, this time with lesser results than his previous attempts to do so (Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino). The film about Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman in a great performance, the saving grace of the film) being released from prison, taking over the presidency of post-Apartheid South Africa, and then using the national Rugby team (captained by Matt Damon, another reason to see this movie) to unite the separated nation is frustrating because it could have been one of the best films of the year; however, I just didn't care enough about the Rugby aspect to really fall for those final 30 minutes. As a political film I found it pretty fascinating, especially the stuff between Freeman and Damon and how they both have to handle their "teams". But as a sports movie it all just felt a little stale for me. Eastwood relies on some odd choices for music (I'm not talking about his wonderfully bare-bones musical score, either, which I love, I'm talking about songs that have lyrics in them like "we are color blind"…sheesh) and his overuse of slow motion in the final rugby match feels off. Still, as far as sports movies go it's pretty decent. Like my qualms with the end of Avatar, Eastwood's film spends too much time on familiar territory. I don't want to watch a 30 minute rendition of a cliché. Even though his crowd shots at the final match are impressive, and there is a moment when Damon gathers his team and reminds them that the fans, their nation who is singing their new anthem, is behind them; but sadly those moments weren't enough to not remind me that I was essentially watching Hoosiers on the rugby field. I wasn't a fan of Eastwood's Gran Torino and I think here again people are overrating his work a little bit, but I still find everything he's churning out to be at least watchable, and it's fascinating to me that the man just keeps working…making quality American films, stripped to their essentials, and it doesn't seem like he plans on stopping anytime soon. Invictus is worth seeing for the performances and the fascinating first half of the movie.

The Hangover

What many considered the best comedy of the year (sorry I'm not buying it…for that honor check out the very funny, very British In the Loop or the very hilarious, very American I Love You, Man) Todd Philips' film was no doubt one of the biggest surprises of the year making well over 200 million dollars at the box office. I don't really see what everyone else saw. The film has its moments, most involving the always hilarious Ed Helms, but after awhile the zaniness mixed the pervasive vulgarity just kind of wore on me. Where I can normally handle the vulgarity of a film like this, I tend to tire easily of Philips' sophomoric approach to comedy (for a perfect example of this see Old School). Mike Tyson, male frontal nudity, and adding a baby to these wacky situations does not equate to comedy. I think I'm the wrong demographic for this movie as I don't think Vegas jokes are funny, nor do I think that this kind of douche-baggery, "Entourage" type humor plays particularly well for more than a half-hour. The film began to grate on my nerves by the end, and after that I all I learned was what a valuable asset Helms is to anything he's a part of. This is exactly the type of movie that makes me go, "meh".

The Brothers Bloom

This must be what a live action episode of "The Simpson's" would be like. Rian Johnson's sophomore effort is so madcap and zany – full of flashbacks and flash-forward's as the punch lines to jokes – and cartoonish that I couldn't tell what I was supposed to think about this movie. Here's a film that has an array of moods and it's unsure of all of them. Part kooky Wes Anderson film, part David Mamet con film, and almost all homage to European film The Brothers Bloom didn't engage me on any level. The film looks great, that's for certain, but this isn't even a style over substance issue, it's a "what the hell is your movie about" issue. Wasted are three great actors, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo (who is given nothing to do here), and the always beautiful Rachel Weisz. The film is a con upon a con upon a con until it goes back on itself and reveals that it wasn't a con, but then it is, but then there's supposed to be real emotion at the end even though everything before that very real moment was fallacy. Argh. It's a frustrating film because I really loved Johnson's innovative debut Brick, and to me it's obvious who's to blame here…Wes Anderson. Much like all of the Tarantino copycats in the mid 90's with bad riffs and homage's like Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead and 2 Days in the Valley, Anderson has created his own modern indie brand of apers, and Johnson's film – though I'm sure his heart and allusions are sincere enough – just don't quite elevate the material above anything more than a bad attempt at making a Wes Anderson movie. The characters wear funny hats and look through spy glasses and wear goggles and blow things up and carry around parasols…I could go on. Just because something looks cool and hip doesn't make it interesting. This was one of the most disappointing film experiences of 2009.


Duncan Jones' (son of pop icon David Bowie) impressive debut Moon owes almost all of its success to Sam Rockwell. This is his film and the only reason you should see this rather slow-moving science fiction tale. Rockwell spends all of the film by himself, sometimes even talking to himself as a clone version comes aboard his ship one day, and from there it's a Solaris type dilemma as we're not quite sure if what we're seeing is real or not. Our confusion is right at home because the main protagonist is just as frustrated and confused. We're never quite sure when this film takes place, and Jones is always keeping us at arms length in regards to time and just how long Rockwell's astronaut is on the moon. Regardless of these intangible and elusive qualities of the film there are some real palpable and powerful moments. For example when Rockwell learns of a tragic occurrence in his family, and whether or not he was or wasn't there for it when it happened. Sound weird? Well it is, but that shouldn't deter you from seeing one of the best performances of the year. The film is an obvious homage to Kubrick's 2001 (there's even a monotone on-board computer called Gerty voiced by Kevin Spacey), and the look of the film is not to be outdone by Rockwell's superb performance. See this movie even If you're not a Sci-Fi fan, his performance is that impressive.

Next I'll take a look at In the Loop, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Extract, Where the Wild Things Are, The Girlfriend Experience, and Julia. I still have a ton of movies I want to see so hopefully I'll still be able to catch Lorna's Silence, Broken Embraces, and A Serious Man among others.


  1. Strong capsules, Kevin.

    I particularly responded to these two passages from your piece on Avatar:

    "This isn't so much a science fiction/military movie as it is something along the lines of Baraka with a pulp narrative."

    "The 3-D was a lot more nuanced than I was anticipating (read: there's nothing superfluous getting thrown at you to remind you that you're watching a 3-D film), and I especially liked it when the characters were walking through the forest or things were floating around them or falling from the sky…to me this was the best use of the 3-D."

    I couldn't agree with you more on both of these points. The only problem is I couldn't articulate either as well as you do :)

    Great work!

  2. Well I'm going to have to disagree with you on Brothers Bloom. Possibly with a lead pipe. lol.

    In all seriousness though I do somewhat understand the troubles some have had with my favorite movie of the year. It's very binary I haven't heard any mixed reactions to it. You either tap into its wavelength... or you don't.

  3. Jeffrey:

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I'm glad we're in agreement on Avatar. It truly is a spectacle that I think everyone should see; however, I think what will hurt its overall place in the pantheon of spectacle films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is that, because of the care that was put into the 3-D, it is a film that absolutely must be seen in the theater. I wonder if that will hurt its DVD sales at all?

    Thanks again for stopping by, and thanks for the kind words!

  4. EDJ:

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you did too because I remember reading your piece on Johnson's film. In fact that was one of the reasons I made it such a priority to see. You're right about the film being "binary"...there is no fence-sitting with this film, and I think even though I was able to appreciate the whimsical aesthetic, I just couldn't get invested in the story...and by the point I had lost all interest in the film's elan.

    Thanks for the comment, though. Please...put down the pipe, hehe.

  5. I couldn't agree with you more. If AVATAR isn't an argument for people to still see certain movies in the theater, I'm not sure what is. And I'm convinced the experience I had watching it can in no way be replicated by a home theater, no matter how hi-tech it might be.

    That said, they've put so much money into marketing the thing already, I can only imagine that they will put an unprecedented amount of money into marketing the DVD when they release it. This strategy has paid off up to this point, and so I'm confident that DVD sales will be equally strong, in spite of the experience lost by watching the film at home.

  6. Just to show there's no hard feelings please accept my fruity little award.


  7. Excellent capsule work here Kevin, and this is definitely the way to go as you cram in the year-end releases.

    As you probably know I am a HUGE fan of AVATAR, so for me it never wore thin. It's less a film than an "experience," and I actually saw it first in 2D, and only on a repeat viewing did I don the glasses. The first viewing was still as good as the embellishment. It's an emotionally overwhelming film that raises the bar, and achieves a kind of spirituality.
    I never watched BROTHERS BLOOM, but that's what I was thinking, and THE HANGOVER grated on my nerves way before it grated on yours! LOL. Some mild amusements enroute.
    I did not like MOON, I found it static and stereotypical but Rockwell and Clint Mansell's score worked. I know I'm in the minority.

    Under the gun, Mr. Olson delivers again!!!

  8. Jeffrey:

    I think you and Sam are speaking about the same thing here, and I happen to agree with you both...even if I think the film loses a lot of its momentum in the final act. The film is a spectacle, and it needs to be seen on the big screen.

  9. Sam:

    Thanks for your kind words and the comment. It's always a joy to have your enthusiasm over here. I know I haven't commented on your site in a while, but I trust that you know I'm over there reading the fine material you're churning out (especially your stellar "best of" list). Sadly, I don't always have the time to comment on what I would like to, and when I do I often forget to go back and comment on something. Anyway...rest assured that I've been at Wonder's in the Dark every night reading the fine Silent's countdown and your own thoughts on the year in film. See ya around, Sam.

  10. Kevin, you don't need to apologize at all. You simply CAN'T comment on everything, and frankly the last thing any of us want to do is burn out. You have a life to lead, as I do, and as far as I'm concerned you've been there way more than you rightfully should. And I know you are always reading the stuff too. And then there is your brother Troy, who is....well....let's just say he is one class act, as you are.

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