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Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland – IMAX 3D

March 5, 2010 Comments off

For future reviews of this and other movies, visit us here at http://www.carolinalifestyles.com/

There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter.

So would subjecting yourself to a second viewing of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Even a first for that matter. I’m not quite sure where to begin with everything that went wrong here.

You know the story, no sense in completely rehashing it other than to say the basic premise is here. Girl falls down rabbit hole, finds another world completely separate from reality. The mouse, the white rabbit, the Cheshire cat (with snazzy cheshire grin), are all here as well. That’s where the similarities mostly end as well. In Tim Burton’s mess, Alice in Wonderland is turned into a teen coming of age movie, and a terrible one at that. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is being forced into accepting a marriage proposal with upper crust, elitist snob Lord Hamish (Leo Bill) in front of the rest of <ahem> society. Alice is told what to think and what do do, not exactly her own gal at that stage in her life. Just as she’s set to give her “yes” or “no” answer, Alice spots the rabbit checking his watch, chases him, and follows him down the infamous rabbit hole. The “eat me” cake and “drink me” potion are there, and eventually Alice steps into Wonderland. Actually “Underland” as it’s known here, where she meets the rest of this alternate reality’s inhabitants such as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the March Hare, and a hookah smoking blue caterpillar. There’s a Knave (Crispin Glover), a Jabberwocky, and the poster boy for this disaster, The Mad Hatter. It’s as she makes her Dorothy-like entrance into Underland where the movie really begins.

It’s also where the rest of the movie completely falls to pieces, and it doesn’t take long to realize that Alice in Wonderland is about to become a monumental waste of your movie going dollars, as well as the hour and forty nine minutes that you’ll never get back.

What should have been the most thrilling part of the movie, the second act, was as mind numbingly dull as the beginning. We’re never given a reason to care for any of these characters, with the possible exception of the Mad Hatter. The stretches of boring last for such lengths of time, you don’t even care when something remotely interesting happens. You’re pissed that your sense of boredom was interrupted at all. My sense of “dull” was more thrilling than this movie. The third act, a three way duel sequence between Alice in Armor against a Jabberwocky, the Mad Hatter against the Knave of Hearts, and the Red Queen vs. the White Queen, threw this train wreck right off the rails. Like the rest of the movie, I just have to ask, “What was the point to all of that?” I have no problem with re-imagining a classic. If you want to take something like Alice in Wonderland and make it your own, great! At least do something with it other than creating a movie where the closing credits becomes my favorite part.

If the Academy had an award for Flattest Performance, Mia Wasikowska would win hands down this year, next, and probably last year for good measure. If she had played the role badly, at least it would’ve been interesting. No such luck. Alice has no spirit, no soul, nothing for us to care about, zero emotion, off with HER head for that matter. A cardboard cutout would’ve done the same job (maybe better) and cost Walt Disney less. Helena Bonham Carter played a great over-the-top Red Queen, but Anne Hathaway’s Wicked Witch of the North portrayal of the White Queen was just plain annoying. Crispin Glover as the Knave of Hearts was the second most interesting performance next to Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, a role suited for his brand of maniacal delivery. But even Depp’s inspired lunacy couldn’t save any of the scenes he was in.

Alice in Wonderland’s “Underland” world looks good. It has that much going for it. But the backdrop reality looked entirely disjointed from each performer, giving a distractingly fake appearance. There was little cohesiveness between actor and the world around them. Even when it looked good, it actually didn’t. That has to be an achievement. It looks more like an acid tragedy than an acid trip.  And the 3D? Don’t bother. Not that I was spoiled by the 3D in Avatar, the 3D in this movie is a mostly unnoticeable afterthought, almost as if it was put there as an addition to a marketing campaign. There’s nothing immersive, nothing that shoots through the screen. The 2D showing would be just fine for this.

Alice in Wonderland is the definition of missed opportunity. What could have been wonderful fantasy on a grand, epic scale turned into woeful fantasy on a grand, epic fail. I can only imagine the moods of theater owners who had to give up Avatar on their IMAX screens to make room for this. I want my money back. Off with your….whatever…

One out of five stars

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Movie Review: The Road

February 21, 2010 Comments off

For this and future movie reviews, visit us at our new home! http://www.carolinalifestyles.com/

“How would you know thatthat you were the last man alive?”

It’s a theme that’s been explored over the past few years, with Francis Lawrence’s “I Am Legend” and Roland Emmerich’s “2012.” The former relied more on the science fiction aspect, the latter being a fun, yet cartoony look at the end of the world. You can go back even further to Mel Gibson’s “The Road Warrior,” a cult favorite. John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” provides the best speculative fiction on the subject: what would happen to those few who survived the end of the world?

The landscape in “The Road” is nothing but a vast wasteland. Buildings are deteriorating or have crumbled. A gray sky blocks any hint of sunlight. Trees fall and fires erupt without warning. Even though we’re given hints in the form of earthquakes, we’re never really told what caused the global catastrophe. It doesn’t matter. The world as we knew it is gone, leaving stragglers left not to live, but merely survive by any means necessary. Whether by theft or cannibalism, the entire point of one’s existence in this movie is to simply make it to tomorrow. The planet finally became the hand basket everyone said we were all riding in.

We see the two main characters post apocalypse. A father and his five or six year old son, whose names we’re never told, are seen lugging a shopping cart with everything they own. The only hope they have is to make it to the coast, where the father believes they can survive. Regardless of any worldly possessions, the son is the only thing the father truly values, and will do whatever he needs to in order to protect him. Moreso, the father is intent on making sure that his son can continue beyond his death, carrying a sense of morality and the ideal that they are, in fact, “the good guys who carry the fire.”

The two meet people along their journey, essentially the last ones standing.  There are very few, the most profound being an older man named Eli (Robert Duvall).  When asked if he ever wished he would die, Eli’s response summed it up, “No, it’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.”

Make no mistake; this movie is as bleak as it gets. Hope is nearly non-existent in just about every frame, unless that hope comes in the form of a quick and painless death. In one of the movie’s more disturbing scenes (one of many), the father and son find themselves in a house where the basement is inhabited by cannibals. Spotting others on their way back, the two run to the second floor, hiding next to a sink filled with blood. The only good the father believes he can provide his son is a quick and dignified death, as opposed to being killed and eaten. The scenario of dying with some form of dignity plays out more than once, each time you’re left wondering if it’s the better way out. It’s Darwinism with a whole heap of despair.

No, this will not win any “Feel Good Movie of the Year” awards, nor is it your a-typical date movie. It’s a road trip movie of the most depressing and devastating kind. Even so, “The Road” is enough to make one contemplate your own existence, what you would do being among the last left alive, and how you would manage to keep your own morality while everything else around you has died. It’s not the least bit entertaining, probably the best compliment I could pay.

Four out of five stars

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HBO Premiere at Hendrick Motorsports – 24/7 Jimmie Johnson: Race to Daytona

January 27, 2010 Comments off

For this and other NASCAR articles, visit us at our new home! http://www.carolinalifestyles.com/

Rick Hendrick knows how to throw one hell of a party.

About 200 media and guests gathered at Hendrick Motorsports facility Tuesday evening for the premiere of HBO’s new reality documentary, 24/7 Jimmie Johnson: Race to Daytona. HBO Sports president Ross Greenberg, along with Johnson, pit crew chief Chad Knaus, as well as the entire #48 crew, were also on hand.

Those of us fortunate enough to attend never had to take our wallets out. Wine, beer, popcorn, candy, along with a poster, cap, and a goodie filled duffel bag were free for the taking. Directly in back of the seating area was the #48 Lowes/Kobalt Chevrolet Impala SS itself, presumably ready to challenge for . . . gasp. . . a fifth Sprint Cup championship.

During the Q&A, it was Johnson who admitted to wanting to do the 24/7 series after watching HBO’s Hard Knocks (which follows football teams around during preseason). If Johnson had the “hey, what a great idea”  aura, it was Chad Knaus who sported the “what did you get me into” look. At times looking a bit exasperated, Knaus has the unenviable job of figuring out what HBO can’t show on a program that seeks to show everything, as well as managing the #48. You can imagine every other race team will closely watch this series for the slightest misstep. Neither men knew what they would do when asked what they would be doing had it not been for racing.

Read more…

Michael Jackson: This Is It (DVD Review)

January 13, 2010 Comments off

Life is hard, right? And I’ve been kinda searching for something to shake me up a little bit and give me a kind of a meaning to believe in something . . . and this is it.

When Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, he took a great deal of 80s and 90s pop culture with him. One of the  defining, if not galvanizing, entertainers of our time, Jackson’s appeal crossed racial and geographical boundaries. This Is It, a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation for Jackson’s London comeback, was filmed for archival purposes. Under film producer/dance choreographer Kenny Ortega, the glimpse we’re given is of what was supposed to be: fifty carefully choreographed, sell-out shows spanning Jackson’s career, while marking his return to the stage.

These were to be wildly elaborate concerts, sparing no expense regardless of the notion that these shows were to help pare down his own debt. Racing fire, explosions, an oversized animatronic spider, apparitions flying over the crowd, a bull dozer, various short films, dancers shooting up from beneath the floor to the “light man” that Jackson was to emerge from.  This was to be a sensory assault that Pink Floyd would have been proud of. We’re given a look into the creation of a few of the movies that were to be projected. Again, money seemed to be no object with Jackson green-screened into an old gangster movie for “Smooth Criminal.” The short for “Earth Song” was of a garden paradise about to be torn down–his ecological message. “Thriller” was set to break the boundary between performer and audience; the film shot in 3D (glasses were to be given out) with spirits flying overhead.

The dance moves shine, if not a bit slowed down due to age or saving his own energy. We’re taken into the dancer selection process, albeit a brief look, spending only a couple of minutes as to how these dancers got their jobs. During the actual rehearsals, Jackson never stopped moving. And even though his infamous Moonwalk was nowhere to be found, his moves were still glass smooth, his rhythm, impeccable. While his appearance was almost unrecognizable from the Michael Jackson of the 80’s, his voice never changed. It struck me during “Human Nature” that there was absolutely no discernible difference between the person who sang it twenty six years ago and the man singing it on stage. He never sounded young or old; he sounded like Michael Jackson.

With any documentary of this kind, if it intends to be real, you’re going to get a look into moments of conflict, where the subjects forget there’s a camera around. Nothing ever really blows up here (or at least approaches George Harrison’s “I won’t play anything at all if it pleases you” rant to Paul McCartney in “Let It Be”), but two or three times we do get to see tempers at least starting to flare. Through it all, Jackson would remain almost ethereal, constantly insisting “love” with a “God bless you” shooter for good measure. If anything got worse, only Kenny Ortega and those who were a part of those rehearsals would know.

And while I’ll never lay claim to being a fan of Jackson’s music, what’s shown here is done well. “The Way You Make Me Feel” was to be reworked, half of the song performed with a smoky jazz room sound, the other half sounding like the version that became a hit. “Beat It” was worked to extend the solo that Eddie Van Halen had laid down. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” with that “mama se mama sa mama coo sa” chant that Manu Dibango first recorded back in 1973, was to be one of the numerous show stoppers. The entire production was designed to be one huge show stopper, and it would have been, if only . . .

Kenny Ortega took on a huge task of showcasing Michael Jackson without the weight of scandal or controversy. Michael Jackson, the Paparazzi Magnet, wasn’t shown here.  What is shown was a perfectionist with a deep love of his craft, the people around him, and the fans who had paid to see him. By lifting the tabloid veil, Ortega took the focus off of a flawed human being and put it squarely back on the entertainer many grew up with. For an hour and forty minutes, I can live with that.

Four out of five stars.

This Is It will hit DVD and Blu Ray on January 26.

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

January 1, 2010 Comments off

It’s one of the better trends in Hollywood lately– the re-imagining of famous characters, movies or TV shows. The Batman and Star Trek series are shining examples of how it’s been mostly done right. Even the most recent Friday the 13th franchise reboot was done well, bringing the Jason character back to his more sinister roots as opposed to the cartoon character he was turning into (ala Freddy Kreuger). Sherlock Holmes is sort of the odd man out, a movie that gets more wrong than it does right, even though what’s right here is done well.

What went wrong? Unfortunately, it’s a story with a script that winds up being too clever for its own good. When the movie starts, ultra-heightened-senses-super-sleuth Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has already solved the case of occultist Lord Blackwood, the trial resulting in his conviction and execution by hanging. With Dr. Watson (Jude Law) pronouncing him dead, Blackwood is buried, only to rise from the grave later with a sinister plan: a killing spree that would ultimately see the deaths of Parliament members and, eventually, a take-over of the world (yes, another take over the world mastermind).  The realization that Blackwood has seemingly risen from the dead has London in a panic, bringing out a second nemesis who wants Blackwood dead for his own reasons. The concept that looks so good on paper becomes bogged down, crushed by the movie’s own length and the desire to be too intelligent. The movie revels in the big reveals: how Sherlock Holmes came to his conclusions. Unfortunately, it spends too much time in “wait for it” mode, meandering and mostly going nowhere. When Holmes reveals how he came to his conclusions, it becomes more of an exercise in “are you kidding me” and “oh, come on.” Imagine MacGuyver-ing your clues in order to solve your mystery. His deductive skills went far beyond Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, stretching way past the threshold of remote believability. The movie almost needs to take us for fools in asking us to believe that’s how he came to his conclusions. When it keeps happening, you just sit back and watch, not even bothering to attempt in trying to figure anything out first.

What went right? While Jude Law’s portrayal of Dr. Watson was spot on, it was Downey’s complete overhaul of the Sherlock Holmes character that makes this one of the few reasons to watch. This isn’t your great grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes. This Sherlock Holmes is a reclusive, bad hygene besot eccentric with groom-to-be Dr. Watson as his only friend. If it weren’t for his own intelligence, Holmes would be more likely to accidentally kill himself.  He’s also skilled in the martial arts. Not only will he karate chop you into submission, he’ll know in advance precisely what each shot is capable of doing, and what the combined effect will be. Given Holmes’ wit and eccentricities, Downey’s version bears more of a resemblance to his portrayal of Tony Stark in Iron Man than that of a super sleuth.

If you went in expecting a traditional telling of a Sherlock Holmes story, you were probably more likely to be disappointed. At the same time, if you went in looking for a highly entertaining, hipper version of Sherlock Holmes, you were probably equally likely to be disappointed as well. Cut twenty or so minutes, even with the wild stretches, and you might have something. As it stands, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, particularly the chemistry between the two, is the movie’s only saving grace. Let’s hope the script for the impending sequel winds up being much better than this one.

Two out of five stars

Brian’s Decade in Review: Top Ten Movies of the 2000s

December 31, 2009 Comments off

The 2000s were an amazing decade for movies. We saw actors making incredible comebacks. We saw some of the more controversial movies being released. We saw superhero movies taken to new heights and we saw films that could be considered game changers in the industry. The criteria here was simple: it didn’t have to contain a deep message, it didn’t have to be an artistic endeavor. All it had to do was entertain me, make me want to go back into the theater or put the disc back on. Compiling this list was not easy. I could have easily loaded half of the list with Pixar movies (believe me, the temptation was there to do so). As of this writing there’s temptation to take one or two off and replace them with others. I toyed with the idea of creating an “honorable mention” list just to make myself feel better. However, what you see is what I’m going with. Feel free to agree, to disagree (I’m sure there will be one or two that you will challenge), feel free to add your own. In no particular order, my list of the top ten movies of the decade.

The Dark Knight: The movie that transcended your average, comic book super-hero fare, The Dark Knight proved your crime fighter could wear his cape on his back while wearing his flaws on his sleeve. What was already a great movie was thrown over the top by Heath Ledger’s performance-for-the ages portrayal of The Joker. He took Batman’s arch enemy to an entirely new level, portraying the most terrifying kind of villain: one with no clear motive other than bringing out the worst in humanity while simultanesouly watching us burn. Ledger reportedly allowed the grease paint on his face to fade, representing the decay of society, creating a frightening portrait of who we have the ability to become. This was the one movie I’ll pick as the best of the decade.

Brokeback Mountain: I didn’t expect to even like this movie. The story of two cowboys finding romance on a mountain isn’t exactly something I can relate to. The joke wound up being on me after I saw it. It could have easily been about a black man and a white woman, a Catholic woman and a Jewish man, or any relationship deemed taboo by society. In that context, the movie worked beyond what I expected. The performances were outstanding, the cinematography was breathtaking, and the inevitable conclusion could break your heart, regardless of your orientation. Ang Lee didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here, but he still managed to tell an emotional story. To any who missed this by choice due to it’s subject matter, you’ve truly missed out.

The Incredibles: Pixar has created some of my all time favorite movies. The studio can seemingly do no wrong, telling human stories while keeping human characters to a minimum. Whether it’s an alien attempting his first abduction or something as simple as a reading lamp, Pixar has always managed to pull at a heart string. Starting with Monsters Inc in 2001, they’ve managed to release a movie nearly every year. Cars, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, were all phenomenal. The Incredibles, a story about a family of superheroes, forced into retirement by the government, barely edges the rest. Each family member has a unique set of superhuman abilities: Bob Parr has superhuman strength with a high pain tolerance. Helen Parr has the gift of elasticity. VIolet Parr can create force fields, Dash Parr can run on water. Best of all was Jack-Jack the shape shifter. As with all Pixar movies, there’s always a life lesson to be learned. The Incredibles urged us all to use and expand the special talents that we’ve been given. Every movie Pixar released was gold. The Incredibles was gold with a star attached.

United 93: The word was that the airline cockpit originally built to film United 93 in was an inch or two off scale from the real one. When word got to director Paul Greengrass, he ordered it torn apart and rebuilt precisely to scale. This was the level of accuracy and realism that he shot for with “United 93,” the story of the plane that was brought down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania during the 9/11 attacks. Bringing the realism factor up were numerous folks portraying their actual roles from that day, most notably Ben Sliney, the FAA National Operations Manager who ordered the grounding of every plane across the country. It was the most nerve wracking, gut wrenching, stunning piece of filmmaking (calling it a movie does it a disservice). The ultimate compliments were paid by some of the victims’ family members. When a few used lines such as, “seeing my brother up on the screen,” the how much of it was conjecture aspect melted away. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

Almost Famous: Let’s get this out of the way: this is the perfect rock and roll movie. Perfect acting, a wonderful story, most importantly the perfect soundtrack. Almost Famous was Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical telling of a teenage writer for Rolling Stone magazine, on assignment to cover Stillwater’s Almost Famous ’73 tour. What could have been a simple rock and roll coming of age movie turned into a work of art. Rock songs from the era were not only perfectly chosen, but perfectly placed to amazing effect (the tour bus/Tiny Dancer scene has forever altered how I listen to that song…I’ll always see the girl in the green, floral shirt blowing a kiss as the bus pulls away). Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing rock critic Lester Bangs, managed to steal every scene he was in. It was also one of the handful of movies where the DVD directors cut bettered the original. Almost Famous was not only one of the best of the decade, but one of the best movies I’ve seen.

Lord of the Rings trilogy: There’s no way to pick one movie. While each movies stands on its own, as a whole it becomes something far greater. This trilogy has become so epic, something so grand in scale, that it’s not a stretch to consider it the modern Star Wars. I’d have a hard time picking which trilogy was better. On the right day I may even pick this one. All three movies were filmed simultaneously, costing a total of $285 million. For Lord of the Rings fans, they were dreams come true. Jackson stayed mostly true to JRR Tolkein’s books, yet allowed himself to set different courses when he saw necessary. The theatrical releases were incredible, the extended cuts released on DVD were even better, adding about an hour of material to each film. In most cases having that much would detract from a movie, in the case of the Lord of the Rings it took a great movie to even greater heights (The Return of the King featured multiple climaxes). An hour extra was more than okay. I could follow Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the One Ring all day.

The Wrestler: Not since Tom Hanks has one actor completely dominated a movie. Hanks acted alone in more than half of Castaway, yet managed to keep our attention. Mickey Rourke, playing former wrestling superstar Randy “The Ram” Robinson, was out of frame for a minute or two total, yet held total command of the screen. Through his performance we felt every ache and pain, both physically and emotionally, from an aging wrestler well past his prime, yet unable to let go. The subtleties were everywhere. The scars on Robinson’s body could easily be the visual reminders of his emotional ones. The scene involving an autograph session was particularly heartbreaking, with wrestlers not only selling old VHS tapes of their former matches, but having their pictures taken with instamatic cameras. His video game system of choice was the earliest incarnation of the home Nintendo system. All reminders of a man unable to live in the present, as well as let go of his past. You couldn’t help but feel Robinson’s pain, leading up to an incredibly emotional, up for interpretation ending. I left the theater a bit dazed, yet almost wanting to tear my heart out. It also gave me a new appreciation for the wrestling profession itself. Harsh, brutal, ultimately fleeting.

Avatar: It might make the list regardless of the special effects. The story’s nothing new, an blending of “Dancing With Wolves” mixed with “Ferngully” and a dash of “Aliens.” We’ve seen it before, and it’s certainly done extremely well here. What we haven’t seen before are some of the most eye catching visuals along with the most astonishing 3D ever seen. I didn’t just watch the planet Pandora, I felt immersed in it. The depth of view isn’t measured in feet here, but seemingly in miles. While many other movie effects look cartoonish or gimmicky, here they were completely seamless. The planet felt like one giant, living organism. As a whole, Avatar was probably the biggest leap in filmmaking since the introduction of the “Todd-AO” 70MM format back in the 50’s (Oklahoma! being the first to use it for all you trivia buffs). James Cameron didn’t film a motion picture, rather he created an experience. It’ll be a long time before we see another leap like this again.

Cloverfield: It’s the odd movie out. While I can go for artistic merit on many, I have to look to Cloverfield for what it was: a great time in the theater. Maybe it’s the sucker in me who loves a movie that recreates a voyeuristic experience. Sure, the camera shook pretty badly, enough to induce motion sickness in a lot of movie goers (signs were taped to many theaters warning of the shakey-cam effect) but in that context you’re not exactly trying to hold the thing steady. Maybe I just love doomsday style, huge ugly monster terroizing a major city type of movie. Maybe I just allow myself that one guilty pleasure to creep in with the rest. Cloverfield easily succeeded in what it set out to do, simply be a wildly entertaining monster movie. Destroyed major city? Check. Twenty-something yuppies running in terror? Check. Umpteenth reappearance of the “Slusho!” drink? Check. Like any good movie from this genre, it’s also open to a sequal, at one point JJ Abrams even hinting at one. I guarantee you that Cloverfield won’t wind up on many ten best lists, but it wound up easily on mine.

The Passion of the Christ: I don’t think there’s ever been a more brutal movie, one of lesser plot, yet more powerful than this one. You can call it a violent explotation movie, one long snuff film, or the most religious motion picture ever made. The audience I walked out with seemed dazed, silent, yet almost reverent. Detailing the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life, Mel Gibson created one of the most unnerving pictures in recent memory. Determined to drive home Christ’s sacrifice, the camera never turns away from the torture and brutality. Every piece of torn skin, drop of blood, scar and bruise are in full view. By the time we reach the crucifixion, we’ve been emotionally drained, not wanting to look anymore. In many theaters people had walked out, unable to take the images on screen. Not being the most religious guy, I still found myself incredibly moved. I walked out in the same daze that many others did. If someone went through that for us, as a society, we have a lot of work left to do.

Movie Review: Avatar – IMAX 3D

December 18, 2009 Comments off

For this and other movie reviews, visit us at our new home http://www.carolinalifestyles.com

I see you.

So this is what 12 years in the making and nearly half a billion dollars invested in a movie looks like. I don’t think James Cameron, one of the most notoriously difficult and volatile movie-makers in Hollywood, knows the meaning of the word “budget.” “Terminator 2” ran over budget, “Titanic” ran way over budget, “Avatar’s” cost could take out a small piece of the national deficit. But, does it show on screen in both narrative and visual spectacle?

We’ve heard the superlatives regarding the technical aspects by now. Revolutionary. Immersive. A game changer in film making. Unlike anything that’s ever been seen on screen. It all sounds so familiar to the point of desensitization, as there’s seemingly a finite amount of times you can change the rules of movie making.  With “Avatar,”  I’d love to see one critic or ticket buyer walk out of this movie and tell me exactly what they saw. Because I still can’t quite wrap my head around what I’ve just seen.

Mostly “Dances With Wolves,” part “Braveheart” with slight dashes of  “Aliens,” and yes, “Titanic,”  “Avatar” is a futuristic take on an old fashioned romance. In the year 2154, Earth has been strip mining the jungle planet Pandora, a world rich with the mineral unobtainium. The military led operation has raised the ire of the Na’vi, an indigenous breed of blueish, ten foot tall, cat-like, superhuman species.  In order to gain the trust of the Na’vi, the military has created a series of Avatars. The real human lies sleeping in a tank; the virtual human, looking exactly like the Na’vi, infiltrates the planet. These avatars are to learn the culture and language of the species. Once the trust is gained, the military avatars are to coerce the Na’vi to leave their home and sacred ground within three months.

The other part of the narrative is the movie’s love story, as soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), or his avatar, has fallen in love with one of the Na’vi, causing a conflict between his duties to the military and the woman he loves. Far from a throwaway romance that plagues too many movies, the tension is a way of effectively making betrayal, as well as acceptance, key elements to the film.

Cameron’s movies have always had heart in them. Avatar is no different, and it gives him ample opportunity to display his only weakness. The man cannot write great dialogue to save his life, and it’s the film’s only flaw. Not a major complaint as with the dialogue in “Titanic” (still the only movie I’ve seen more than once that contained the most horrific dialogue imaginable), but just enough for a nit-picker to take notice.

It’s a million dollar story under anyone’s budget, surpassed only by what can be considered a spectacle of the highest order. James Cameron’s newfangled special effects and 3D technology have done something I didn’t think a movie could really do: completely test the limits of a movie goer’s imagination. The lush world of Pandora is alive in ways you’ve never seen before. Shapes, colors, organisms, floating waterfalls, flying jellyfish looking thingies, are made to seem completely real. There is always something moving, and it’s usually nearly impossible to describe. Blues, brighter purples, pinks, and various shades of green, all beautifully vibrant. Without the 3D, it’s still the first movie that flirts with true sensory overload (following the story with these effects is akin to trying to look at the most amazing scenery you’ve ever seen while still keeping your eyes on the road). In 3D, it’s just about over the top, as the cliche “immersive experience” has never been more true. Never used in a gimmicky fashion, this is nothing short of revelatory experience. The depth of view can almost be measured in miles. Overhead views of garden-like skywalks left me weak kneed, at one point saying, “Man, that looks like one hell of a drop.” You’ll find yourself gazing at floating organisms as they gently waft off screen. The audience is involved with Pandora nearly as much as its inhabitants. What the eyes can see and the brain can process has never been pushed farther.

For all of the hype, “Avatar” manages to live up to it. It’s not even close to the paper thin narrative that some have claimed; the story would still hold up well with less special effects. As for its game changing status, you’ll see no argument to the contrary from me. Visually, I’ve yet to see anything close to the scope and execution as in this film. Add the 3D into the mix and Avatar isn’t merely viewed–it’s experienced. I can only hope that James Cameron’s next movie doesn’t take another 12 years to hit the screen. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

And I’m still waiting for someone to accurately tell me what they just witnessed.

Four and a half out of five stars.