January 11, 2010

Movie Reviews: Up and Avatar

Grandpa Carl's flying (in the sky) house

A bit before the new year, R. and I went to see the latest Pixar movie, カールじいさんの空飛ぶ家. Simply "Up" in America, and "Grandpa Carl's flying house" in Japanese. I've noticed this trend before in Japanese movie titles, where the title is more expositive than the American title. Like, for example, 2012 might be "The day the world ends: 2012" or something like that. It is a little strange, but certainly makes the general idea of the movie a bit easier to grasp.

I don't see many movies in Japan: it is expensive here. There also just isn't the same culture we have in the US of heading out to the movie theater and showing up ten or fifiteen minutes before the movie starts. Every movie I've seen we have either bought our tickets online, or shown up one to three hours early to get the tickets. It is also expensive. R. and I have been seeing a few more movies recently because with her job at Tokyo Disneyland she gets an employee discount at the Disney-owned Ikspiari themed shopping mall that brings the ticket prices down to about $12 each. So we probably will be seeing more movies there.

I'll try to write a little bit about them here. If you want to keep reading, be aware that there are probably spoilers for Up and Avatar. Click the read more link to keep reading.

So what did I think about Up? I really enjoyed it. I think Pixar does an amazing job at telling stories. They don't just fall into cliches and re-telling old stories. I was surprised at how Up started: pretty quickly with the death of Carl's wife. It was very sad. I wasn't sure how they were going to pull the audience back in after opening with such a sad first act. They pulled us back in though, and eventually got things moving into a funny and heartwarming story.

Just how many balloons would it take to float a house? I heard an interview with Peter Doctor on Wait, Wait… don't tell me! where he admitted that it would take more than they modeled in the movie. That didn't really bother me too much. I was a bit put-off by the characterization of the main villain (Charles Muntz, like I said, spoilers) in the movie. I thought that he was too cartoonish and one-dimensional. Then I remembered that I was watching a cartoon, and I shouldn't really be too worried about that.

What did get me though is that in the end Carl and Russel just steal Charles Muntz's airship. I mean, I guess you can say that they were only defending themselves, so maybe they shouldn't be prosecuted for manslaughter, but are you really just allowed to steal massive airships from people that try to kill you? I would think that they would need to square some of that away with the authorities at some point. R. got mad at me when I started to talk about the legality and moral issues that might crop up in such a situation, but as she ever to gently explained it, Charles Muntz was a bad man, and that makes it ok. Oh yeah. Cartoon world. That's right. I forgot.

It was a very nice movie, continuing the Pixar tradition. I came away from the movie overall with a kind of sad impression, because thinking about it you really have to reflect on happiness and life goals after seeing the movie. Unless you are a kid, and then hey, talking dogs!! So, something for everyone.


Yesterday R. and I went to see Avatar. The first movie of the new year! I hope that I see a few more movies this year than I did last year (about 4 last year? I used to see closer to 30 a year back when I was living in New York under the influence of Carl Sable.)

So, the technical issues: we saw the movie in 3D with Japanese subtitles. I have never been a fan of 3D. It is probably because I have poor eyesight, and ever since I was a kid my left eye has been weaker than my right eye. I can see just fine (with glasses - even figuring out I needed those took a few years) but I never really got the whole 3D thing. When I was younger and tried to see 3D movies, usually I just saw out of my dominant eye, and the movies were either all red-tinted, or blue-tinted depending on which color the right eye was supposed to see. So I was a bit leery of seeing this movie in 3D. In fact, even in the real world I don't really get 3D. I am horrible at judging distances, but I can tell when things are far away (often though due to atmospheric dispersion, I am not sure how much triangulation comes into play) and when I play basketball I often rely on knowing where I am on the court and how small the square on the backboard looks to determine how far away I am. I've never been in a situation where an arrow comes fling at me and it looks like the arrow is coming straight at me. I just try to avoid getting shot at by arrows. When I drive a car too, I am not super great at telling how far away from the curb I am: I rely on knowing generally how big cars are and where curbs are at. This was one of the hardest things for me to learn when I first started driving.

Also, when I watch TV, it is more or less like looking at the real world in a little rectangle. Well, things don't react correctly when I move my viewing position (parallax and all that) but otherwise it looks real to me. So I am not sure if I don't understand 3D, or if other people are just a lot more impressed with things that I just don't notice.

But we saw this movie in 3D with the polarized lenses. It actually did work for me, in that some things seems to have a bit more depth to them. But generally things were just more blurry. I would have much preferred the movie not in 3D, but I am glad I watched it in 3D at least once. It did somehow feel different, but I am not sure how 3D it was. About 2 hours into the 3 hour movie (wait. 3 hour movie!? Are you serious!? It didn't feel that long though.) my eyes started to get tired. By the end of the movie I had a headache, and it got worse by the time I went home. So I probably won't watch the movie in 3D again if I can avoid it, but I would like to see the movie again. I don't know if our movie was an IMAX theater or not. It was a theater. A big one. But I don't know about IMAX. I'm guessing it wasn't IMAX since everyone always raves on and on about how big IMAX theaters are, and this didn't seem all that big, but see the large previous caveat of "I don't know if I understand what 3D is or not". So maybe it was IMAX.

As far as the movie itself, I thought the CGI was amazing. I was just amazed at the human character models. They were great. It really seems like they are actors and not digital creations (although I heard that the actors faces were captured and then that was used to inform the rendering.) Pretty amazing. Pandora was pretty amazing too, but I don't know if the world itself is believable. I really enjoyed watching the movie at least, so there is that.

One thing bothered me about the pandora ecosystem: what is the biological benefit of the brain interface hair cord things? I guess there is more of a back story to it, and the whole planet as Gaea living organism thing probably comes into it a bit, but I'm not really seeing much of a benefit to the animals that were semi-domesticated through the brain interface. Probably the same can be said of the animals that we have domesticated without a brain interface though; they get regular food and protection from a stronger (as an organization) species. So maybe that does work out. Seems kind of like an inconvenience though if you are some big bad massive predator, but if some dude comes up an hops on your back you can basically be subjugated.

The other major thing that bothered me was the floating mountains. I don't like bad science in movies, and this one seemed to get so many things right that it really bothered me. I know that the implication is that the mountains are made of Unobtanium, but it isn't explained well in the movie. Even if it was explained well, then I have a big issue with the target of mining the stuff: it looks like they are strip mining, and at least have the intention of digging (under Hometree at least) the stuff up. If you have large mountains of it floating in a semi-known location, wouldn't it be a lot easier to pull those mountains somewhere (out of the flux zone which is what causes them to float) where they can crash to the ground, and then mine it there? The mountains are ostensibly full of the stuff, and having them above ground should make extraction a lot easier than if the ore is underground.

Anyway, I basically looked past those two points, and instead focused on the story. Which annoyed me also. This blog entry over on io9 discusses the cliched theme very well so I won't try to go into in more detail. It just bothers me that for the sake of storytelling we keep ending up with stories about outsiders doing things that in history usually come from the oppressed or disadvantaged group itself. And if you know about how stories and plot structure work, things were very predictable, like Sully capturing the large dragon. You knew that had to happen because of Chekhov's Gun. I am seriously sick of that gun. Sometimes I want to see a gun on the wall, and just have it be a gun on a wall. Or at least have a few guns on the wall, and then pick up the axe under the table. Also, for the same reason I expected the other inhabitants of the planet to join in on the final fight much earlier than they did. I actually expected the Na'vi to use their clearly superior intelligence to round up a herd of those brontosaurus like creatures and create a stampede. Why didn't they do that? Why didn't Sully tell them that really guns are pretty mean things, you want to avoid them, but hey, I know there are these big nasty armored creatures that I bet we could use to our advantage. Didn't he think of that? I mean, we saw his gun was basically useless earlier on against some of those creatures, and sure it was only an hour or two for us and a few months for him, but I bet he would remember his first encounter with crazy Pandora creatures.

Ah well. Hey, I really like the portrayal of the lead scientist (she was even labeled PI in video logs!) That all rang pretty true.

I really did enjoy the movie though. I think it would have been a better movie had it followed the Project 880 script a bit more closely (those all sound like good changes) but it does sound like others also thought some of the science was good also. I think it is very forward-thinking of the publicity company to think of having an official movie flickr account with pictures that people can use for reviews and blog posts. Thanks guys! Also, the Avatar Wiki seems pretty comprehensive and should help explain away some of the things that bugged me while I watched the movie.

Anyway, my review: go see it! You might get a headache, but try it in 3D at least once. Now I'm waiting for the blu-ray release to watch it in glorious old-skool 2D at home.


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