Smurfs: The Lost Village ****

From The Hobbit’s Shire to the Smurfs’ mushroom village, big and small kids love the idea of a place of serenity, harking back to simpler living. Ironically, defending territory from an external ‘terror’ threat by those wanting to change an existence strikes a chord in today’s unsettled world – one way to use Smurfs: The Lost Village to explain world affairs to curious little minds. So, however simple in plot the new Smurfs film first seems, it does combine in one story a positive sense of self-preservation with a healthy dollop of adventure, all for the benefit of kiddies in glorious multicolour with intrepid gnome explorers. It also attempts to shine the spotlight on Smurfette and mould her (pardon the pun) into a lead character in her own right.

Voiced by Demi Lovato, Smurfette is still trying to figure out what her unique skill is, four years on from the second film, and where she fits in in the Smurfs’ world? A chance encounter with a masked stranger in the forbidden forest and a map leads the only girl gnome and her best buddies, Brainy (Danny Pudi voices), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Hefty (Joe Manganiello), on an adventure to find a lost village. However, Smurfette has unwittingly led the Smurfs’ sworn enemy Gargamel (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and his beastly crew to the new location – and an untapped source of ‘blue power’ the sorcerer needs to be invincible. It’s up to Smurfette and co to warn the residents before it’s too late.

This time creator Peyo’s Smurfs are re-immersed in their own animated existence – no real-world shenanigans like in the 2013 film or creepy-looking ‘human-featured Smurfs’. Sadly, this also means no Hank Azaria in panto as Gargamel – nor in voice, though Wilson is just as entertaining. It does mean the filmmakers have full creative licence to explore the Avatar-styled world, equally bathed in blue. This film bounces along with 100 per cent enthusiasm and is very much about the gnome personalities, the introduction of which at the beginning wastes no time in reeling off a list of character traits in fun-filled, erratic fashion that younger viewers delight at. The rest of the frenetic pace follows suit, as expected with present-day kids animation.

As the momentum roller-coasters on – requiring a certain degree of concentration, as not to miss any ‘adult puns’, there is plenty of silliness, honesty, vulnerability, bravery and morals for kids to latch onto, absorb and ultimately cheer on their diminutive heroes. Admittedly, some of the funnier scenarios are touched on in the trailer, but the little personalities more than make up for this. Indeed, curiosity pays off as we’re all rewarded with plenty of ‘girl power’ in the end – hardly surprising given the writers are women and the scope for potential storyline spin-offs (and merchandise) could run on for years to come.

The fact is youngsters delight in the idea of little people saving the day in their narratives. The Lost Village delivers this thrill, with a few hiccups along the way. There’s also a nostalgic animated innocence to the whole affair that helps the Smurf personalities shine through – something the very busy, effects-heavy 2013 film lost. Smurfs: the Lost Village even has scampering dayglow bunnies, ready for Easter family viewing. There’s enough cinematic cuteness for everyone; if the plight of Smurfette doesn’t win you over, the bunnies will, while keeping the youngsters entertained for 90 minutes.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Man Of Steel ****

Prepare for a darker, more brooding Superman film than before, hardly surprising given The Dark Knight Rises creator Christopher Nolan’s hand in this, co-writing with his Batman collaborator David Goyer. If the mood does not absorb you into the trials and tribulations of being a superhuman on Earth, then director Watchmen Zack Snyder’s action-packed scenes will whisk you along in what is more blockbuster epic with obvious tones of Transformers (cinematography by Amir Mokri), Spider-Man (costume design by James Acheson) and even The Matrix and Avatar with the organic nature of a visually stunning Krypton. It’s a mash-up of all recent superhero films, without a shred of deliberate humour to it that Superman films of past had.

The story is a familiar one, with the baby Superman known as Kal-El being propelled into the solar system by his parents, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), on route to Earth, after an environmental catastrophe ruins and condemns Krypton to extinction. With him, Kal-El takes the last DNA of all Kryptonians, against the expressed wishes of General Zod (Michael Shannon) who attempts to stage a military coup to save his planet but is imprisoned with his fellow officers.

Growing up on Earth, Kal-El becomes known as Clark Kent (adult Superman played by Henry Cavill), adopted child of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). Taught to hide his gift by his parents, Clark eventually works a series of jobs before one unintentionally exposes him to Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and sends a call sign to the escaped Zod and his army as to where to find him and the lost DNA. Earth becomes a battleground, fighting for its own survival and that of its species, with the help of Superman.

Although lengthy at 143 minutes, Snyder, Nolan and Goyer’s film does a stunning job of explaining more about the historical and environmental issues that came to send Kal-El to Earth. The organic and kaleidoscopic, if phallic visuals of the beginning part of the film are like a Star Wars/Avatar epic, which go to show the various elements in conflict on the planet. It provides a background like no other Superman film, injecting some originality into the life of DC Comics’ hero’s story.

The rest of the film is pure adrenaline rush: visual effects-heavy, set pieces that are totally reminiscent of the recent Transformers films and even the ‘parasitic’ actions of Zod’s organic ship plundering the Earth’s resources resembling the final scenes of The Avengers. The filmmakers even almost replicate the Thor standoff in a small Kansas town, with Superman against two of Zod’s troops. For some, the crash-zooms and super-whizzy effects may be a little overkill – and some feel overly long, but on the flip side, they do inject a huge surge of power into the notion of Superman and his abilities on Earth with destructive and awesome results.

Snyder’s casting cannot be faulted either. Cavill brings a more serious and sensitive Superman to the big screen, one more determined to unite the two species than ever before, dressed in a costume borrowed from Spider-Man. It’s a far more physically demanding role that merely zooming off into the sky; the controlled strength of the man is what is more on show here. Shannon owns Zod, his contorted facial expressions fit the part of a highly conflicted being. It is also quite intriguing that rather than pure murderous despot, the filmmakers have created a being with morals and a purpose that brings a bout of empathy for his cause, making him not so black in the black-and-white scenario.

Adams keeps Lane grounded and forever spirited in her endeavours, though where the story lacks is the idea of just how Kent and her really fall for one another, given we don’t see Kent join the paper until the end – granted, the physical attraction of Superman is enough alone, and Cavill fills the mesh-like suit to the average jumper exceedingly well, enough to have an army of admirers at his heels.

There are also some nice performances from Costner and Lane, the former is part of a nice subplot into how Kent controls his son’s urges and talent, even when tragedy faces them. Perhaps, Crowe’s appearance as the great Jor-El could be argued to consume more than enough screen time – the filmmakers get there money from his ghostly presence, like some Obi-Wan Kenobi-style character (again, paying homage to Star Wars).

There is probably an unnecessary, almost overindulgent ending between Superman and Zod, purely it seems to show the latter’s true allegiance with humankind – as if we weren’t aware of this already. This climax will divide opinion. Still, with demands from fans for more raw power and action from their superhero, and with a villain in Zod who is more on a par of strength, Snyder and co have gone to create something more relevant and darker (with Nolan’s touch), however much the other iconic elements of previous films (crippling Kryptonite and the dominant ‘S’ symbol) are played down in effect.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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John Carter ***

Writer-director Andrew Stanton tries his hand at live action this time, putting some of his fun Pixar magic from the likes of award-winning Finding Nemo and Wall-E into John Carter, an other-worldly adventure staged on Mars – or Barsoom, as adapted from Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs’s work, A Princess of Mars. Whatever faults this film has, it does something that the dull Cowboys and Aliens from last year tried and failed to do; marry Western and sci-fi genres and the analogies between American civil war history between cowboys and Indians far better, opening up the Barsoom landscape that looks like Arizonan plains to a wider audience.

The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including green-skinned Tharks led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the Heliumians and their science-loving and beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse after a warring faction led by a Zodanga fighter named Sab Than (Dominic West), controlled by immortal, shape-shifting Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), fight with the Heliumians, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.

John Carter, solidly depicted by virtual unknown this side of the Atlantic, Tarzan-looking Friday Night Lights TV star Kitsch, is an all-American anti-hero turned hero that you want to rally behind. The plot of a stubborn, greedy man ‘coming of age and wisdom’ is an all too familiar one that still has mileage here for the non-Burroughs fan, while satisfying our curiosity about Man’s voyage and hopeful life discoveries on another planet in our solar system.

John Carter is also beautifully visual and creative in its scenery enough to capture and distract you from the fairly thin premise and weakly portrayed passions of why the factions are at war. Naturally, the lack of water seems to be the only key issue that both planet and Martian has, and the story leaves the door open for a further solar system exploration into this. But even this major problem isn’t necessarily clear until cone-headed Shang mentions it. And yes, the environmentalists out there will smile at the filmmakers’ sense of purpose at highlighting our own planetary dangers in this respect.

Kitsch and Collins are both Amazonianly striking in this with a playful banter, teasing enough for adults to know the presence of sexual chemistry, and for children to find entertaining. Stanton injects a camp element into the whole affair too, allowing you to forgive its singularly B-movie overtones. However, much this film rips off classic sci-fi elements from Star Wars, Star Trek, Xena: Warrior Princess and the recent Avatar films, with the Tharks long-limbed appearance, there is nothing but fun and fantasy to be hand here in equal 3D measure – but nothing fresh on the Barsoom horizon either. And a medallion discovery that serves as the porthole between worlds is hardly imaginative either, even if we soon delight in drawn-out moments for laughs of watching Carter first leap and bound over the Barsoom terrain, mimicking an Earthling spaceman minus his suit.

John Carter the film has the unenviable task of filling in the back-story of the Barsoom history while keeping a sense of adventure burning in the run-time. What it fails to do with any real substance with the latter it makes up for in the former as you cannot deny wanting to explore more of the new world you are transported in and the origins of its beings. In this sense, Stanton and co have created the structure of another intriguing universe and history, but unlike Cameron’s Pandora, Barsoom has been let down by the filmmakers’ flimsy concepts in this that feel underdeveloped in favour of fleshing out the main players, and there is no real sense of connection between human and alien – like between the Na’vi and Jake Sully – that would have pulled John Carter out of the grandiose B-movie league.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Journey 2: The Mysterious Island ***

Our thirst for family adventure movies is never quenched, and the promise of yet another involving a mystical, far-off land packed with interesting creatures promises big things. Carving a niche in such a market is Canadian filmmaker Brad Peyton, the debut director of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore that got mixed reviews in 2010. Tasked with breathing life back into the Journey to the Center of the Earth franchise from 2008, and with the second film simply shortened to Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Peyton’s shaky foray into family feature filmmaking has been redeemed.

In this adventure, a more mature Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) is back on another quest to find yet another lost relative at the centre of the Earth, his grandfather (played by Michael Caine), after receiving a coded message from him. Reluctantly accepting help from his mum’s enthusiastic new partner, Hank Parsons (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), the pair decodes the message and finds the hidden location of a mystery island through the classics of Jules Verne, Jonathan Swift and Robert Louis Stevenson. But getting to the island will prove tricky and highly dangerous, and the pair enlists the help of pilot Gabato (Luis Guzmán) and his attractive and smart teenage daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens) who get ‘sucked’ into the bizarre rescue.

As such ideas and mythical vistas have been seen and recreated before, Journey 2 is inevitably predictable in a respectful, copycat Jurassic Park/Avatar kind of way – even down to florescent forest toadstools from the latter. However, it bounds along on a flurry of enthusiastic energy and silly but amusing frolics and familiar squabbles between Hank and Anderson Sr, never taking itself too seriously. In turn, it provides ample family fun with good clean jokes that neither bore the adults or sore over the kids’ heads.

It also aims to spark literary inquisitiveness that will have the youngsters checking out all the old adventure classics that its own journey is based on, including the lost City of Atlantis. In addition, and as with any film in this genre, it is peppered with lessons to be learnt and appreciation for your elders – even if Caine as Anderson Sr. is as unreliable as they come, and looks like an aging rocker at the end. It also has its faults when dealing with scaling of its animals in this new world (big animals are small, and vice versa) – just check out Anderson Sr.’s fireflies illuminating his abode that remain normal size.

The casting of beefy Rock – still a man giant from Fast & Furious 5 last year – with a toned Hutcherson acting alongside Hudgens in the tiniest of shorts and vest top and with curls to die for is designed to titillate and provide the glamour among the forest undergrowth. If nothing else, this display of youthful virility will thrust Hutcherson into the hormonal and rather over-crowded teen spotlight currently occupied by the Twilight boys. Boy-next-door Hutcherson has an appealing integrity about him that carries through from the first film, even though he endearingly struggles with teenage angst and bad chat-up lines this time around. Still, he can handle bee flying – another unoriginal nod to another kids’ film classic, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.

As for the 3D, it seems to have been deployed in this film merely to allow The Rock to do his party trick of firing virtual berries in our faces using pecks power alone – and it gets some giggles. Intimidating in size but as soft a playful puppy dog, the only really disconcerting feature of Johnson’s appearance is his oddly placed nipples that provided a fascinating, if horrifying distraction in the drearier moments. Still, the actor’s comic timing laced with sarcasm is in full supply in this, and he produces some comedy moments with Guzmán and Caine as the grown men try to overcome the obstacles standing in the way of making a quick escape. Apart from that, the 3D is just a nice, visually enhancing factor, but hardly earth-shatteringly important to the story context, so you decide whether you wish to spend the extra money when paying for a family cinema outing.

As foreseen as the ending is, it’s the journey taken that is key, in generating the laughs and the life lessons along the way. Journey 2 may not offer any exciting new premise to the genre and is not without its continuity errors, but its appealing cast has a great chemistry and an infectious team spirit that gives you a buzz and entertains you right until the corny and equally predictable finale.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Last Night ***

Temptation is the name of the game of The Jacket writer Massy Tadjedin’s quietly profound directorial debut, Last Night. The temptation of such an intriguingly sexy and good-looking cast of Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes and French actor Guillaume Canet is the film’s obvious draw, and what drives a story full of acute observations and exquisite nuances. But this slow burner, which increases in intensity and passionate purpose, really impacts after viewing, posing the thought-provoking debate of whether long-term adoration is worse than the physical act of a one-night stand?

Professional couple, Joanna (Knightley) and husband Michael Reed (Worthington) have an affluent middle-class existence and apparent marital bliss, when doubt creeps in after Joanna spots her betrothed having an intimate balcony meeting with a very attractive and flirtatious work colleague, Laura (Mendes), at a party. Suspicion fuels a marital quarrel back home, the night before Michael is due to fly out of town with Laura on business. While he is away in LA, Joanna bumps into an old flame – and seemingly the love of her prior life, Frenchman Alex who is visiting New York. Joanna is invited out to dinner with him. What seems innocent enough soon ignites her passion for Alex, and his for her. Meanwhile, with Laura around, Michael has temptation of another kind to deal.

At the start, Tadjedin fittingly captures the damaging goading and ugly atmosphere in a relationship when one partner accuses the other of wandering, and how a seemingly idyllic existence is ever ready to be threatened by outside forces at any given moment. Granted, Laura is a seductive sight, and one any attached woman can rightfully relate to in a social situation, but we never really know what Michael’s previous misdemeanours are – if any – as Tadjedin keeps her cards close to her chest.

The writer/director divides her film into a compelling double dose of intrigue that turns the viewer into a betting animal as to who will stray first, and the cagey characters add to the film’s teasing and infectious mystique. On the downside, certain situations raise blunt questioning from some supporting characters that seem a trifle erroneous at times, as does the often-wordy dialogue of either party, in an attempt to not lose control, when in real-life things would surely be different in the heat of the moment.

Nevertheless, the power of the film is in the prolonging of being proven right, and Knightley’s performance far outshines her ‘husband’ Worthington’s, in one of her finest since Antonement. Annoying ‘cat-that’s-got-the-cream’ girly giggle aside that spoils an accomplished delivery, Knightley simply oozes sexual chemistry with Canet, with Tadjedin resisting pointing out apparent signs of desire, instead keeping a tight framing on her characters, and like cinéma vérité, lets events play out. In fact, all the cast look amazing, as do the sumptuous locations Tadjedin sets each individual dilemma in, adding to the extravagant nature and allure of her first work that’s kind of reminiscent of a Woody Allen piece, but without the somber humour and philosophical nature.

Sadly, the weakest link in this provocative tale is Worthington who never really ignites the screen in quite the same way as Knightley – even opposite sexy Mendes who steals their scenes together and almost makes him appear like an incommunicative oaf, rather than an obvious intellectual equal. This is either deliberate to allow Worthington’s average ‘man-next-door’ appeal to shine through, and paint Michael as victim of female empowerment, or that the actor who excels in ‘robotic’ mode (Avatar, Terminator Salvation) just doesn’t portray enough of a spark or depth for such a part. Looking good is the first step in this film. Projecting inner emotional turmoil is the next and is vital for the two parts of the debate to be fully composed and sustained.

Apart from the tiff at the start, Tadjedin wisely makes sure there is never a dramatic, imploding climax of the relationship, allowing doubt to fester after each infidelity, even up until the very last moment and ‘cut-short’ ending, which is very apt when, again, we are challenged to wonder whether either tormented party tells the other.

Last Night has some inquisitive ingredients to make for a tantalising film. It’s just a shame that the pleasure is lessened by its impact being more unbalanced in favour of the Laura-Alex side of the equation, as one of the players on the other side is not strong enough for us to really care if he does stray or not. In fact, cut the Michael-Laura scenes out of the equation, and Tadjedin would still have a valid exploration of seduction, infidelity and guilt. The film-maker has the beginnings of a gifted directorial career which is as exciting a future prospect as a chance meeting with an old beau any day.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Watch the trailer HERE

Sanctum 3D – 2*

This is one of those films that fill you with great expectations, especially with Avatar’s James Cameron at the producing helm, but leaves you thoroughly underwhelmed afterwards. Exciting visions of a watery ‘other-world’ wonder from Cameron, especially with The Abyss reference (Virgil), turn into a lengthy cave-exploring/father-son-hugging tedium. Still, it is based on a true story, so can’t be that far-fetched.

The characters, a bunch of super-fit thrill-seekers, seem potentially intriguing. Leading the expedition is megalomaniac explorer Frank, played by deadpan and hunky Richard Roxburgh (on poster), who is the no-nonsense father to frustrated and under-appreciated Josh (Rhys Wakefield) who is equally toned and provides the beef for the younger eye. Admittedly, the father-son relationship needs to work for the film to be credible, and it does. But there seems to be too many strops and pent-up hormones at the start for you to really care, or sympathise with Josh at his father’s apparent disregard for life and Frank’s ‘playing God’ with his crew. Schmaltz, bizarre poetry moments, and illuminating tooth aside, our interest does grow as the film proceeds and the group gets into deeper troubled water.

From a female perspective, both female characters are clichéd. Butch Judes’s (Allison Cratchley) lack of sleep and pigheadedness lead to tragic results, whilst Alice Parkinson adds the glam and the brains as Victoria, a scientist who has never dived. Queue underwater disaster. The trouble is, far from adding anything constructive to the group’s dynamic that includes an accent-confused Ioan Gruffudd as her corporate boyfriend, Carl, the latter takes on the token ‘burden female’ in tow, obsessed with her appearance, and made worse by a stiff performance. Only once do we empathise with Victoria, after she struggles to follow the team through a claustrophobic rock tunnel, but once she meets her grizzly demise, it’s a case of ‘good riddance’. Gruffudd provides the only recognisable big-name on the list, and takes on the baddie role quite satisfactorily, if a little under-used. This is probably deliberate by Cameron and director Alister Grierson to prevent distractions from the subterranean world they are trying to make us in awe of, or simply a matter of budget.

Indeed, this seems to be another carrot-led element: the lack of really breathtaking 3D scenery that should trigger the ‘wow’ factor. Although some of the cave scenes look amazing, the 3D doesn’t sit comfortably on the eye at times, especially with darker, gloomier areas, or light shining directly from a character’s helmet torch. Again, for someone who bangs the 3D drum loudly and is experienced in the format, Cameron often doesn’t use the technology to its full potential with the camera framing, resulting in a lot of wide shots, and the film actually not being tailored for a 3D experience at all. With 3D ticket prices costing a pretty penny at the box office, this is a big consideration.

Perhaps this critic has seen too many subterranean horrors and was misguided by Sanctum 3D, if perfectly honest, expecting a repeat of The Abyss’s alien life discoveries in the caves at the core of the earth? But the overall effect, including the 3D, was quite disappointing, considering the film gets off to an epic build-up of enthralling tension at the start as the storm sets in.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Monsters – 4*

For a film with such an emotive title that conjures up all kinds of stereotypical sci-fi imagery of Earth being taken over by extraterrestrial life forms, Monsters by documentary film-maker Gareth Edwards is quite the opposite. It’s actually a surprisingly tender relationship study between two humans that blossoms amongst nature of the Earth and alien kind, here on this fair planet. It also helps that little-known leads Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (All The Boys Love Mandy Lane) are a real-life couple, too, making their union on the screen seem all the more stronger and believable, complete with the inevitable highs and lows.

The sci-fi element that you would come to expect from the film gradually develops into a peripheral factor that intermittently thwarts the couple’s path to true love, like ‘a sci-fi obstacle course’ that strengthens their resolve. But fear not; this is not a ‘rom-com in an alien disguise’ either. It’s just a very personable journey with two intriguing characters that has alien dangers to it, but what the real danger is, is apparent in the end.

Edwards’ style of ad-libbing certainly pays off, and which also highlights his documentary roots. As his first feature film was always going to be a gamble at the box office, it’s interesting to speculate whether the strong relationship factor really was Edwards’ original intention, or whether this film is a taster for an intended saga, with Monsters establishing the characters, and a more revealing sequel about the alien life on Earth to follow? Certainly, those expecting a pitch battle between humans and aliens will be disappointed. The closest our couple get is a Jurassic Park-style encounter with some Triffid/Martian-like creatures that results in man being more brutal than the former.

That’s the beautiful ambiguity of the title: Who are the true Monsters – us or them? There are lots of parallels flagged between ‘aliens’ and US immigration issues on the Mexico/US border – much like the ‘illegal alien invasion’ parallels in District 9. Although this is a well-trodden film topic, Monsters does well not to dwell on the matter because the relationship is key, and how our leads learn to respect and live alongside another race.

The alien segments are undoubtedly homage to James Cameron, from pulsating, luminous wildlife in the trees, as in Avatar, to illuminated aliens straight out of The Abyss. This appears to be Edwards’ self-indulgent aspect of his film, allowing an insight into the creator’s mind of what might have been produced with a bigger budget to hand – although bigger is not necessarily better. Edwards’ credit here is just what he’s achieved in atmosphere and tension with very little finances.

The chosen pseudo-documentary style seems to be becoming the norm for this genre, as in District 9, as though any other cinematographic style would not be credible anymore. But the pace is a graceful, almost serene, especially in the jungle river scene, which is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, allowing us to get a feel for the territory that the couple invades and disturb.

Monsters has déjà vu elements for certain, but it also has a unique style that feels slightly alien in itself. It’s often very relaxing to watch, like an extraterrestrial wildlife expedition from remote jungle land. The couple’s chemistry is genuine, as are the events like the parades in the film that justify Monsters being described as ‘the most realistic monster movie ever made’. For fans of the genre, it’s definitely one to catch and respect for its low-budget film-making values. In fact its success may be to Edwards’ detriment, should he have planned another, as money may give birth to a Hollywood monster instead.

4/5 stars

By L G-K

Avatar 3D – 4*

In the famous words of one American icon, “I have a dream…”, Hollywood got all giddy and happily jumped aboard the James Cameron vision express with his latest epic, Avatar, even though the blockbuster film-maker of Aliens, Terminator and The Abyss has been less than influential (studio-translated, ‘mega profitable’) on the movie scene over the past decade since ‘that weepy boat tragedy’, Titanic. Unless you’ve been on Mars, you haven’t been on faraway moon Pandora, and heard about the troubles between the warmongering and greedy humans and the beautiful, coltish-looking, blue-skinned indigenous Na’Vi population. This is where the grand Cameron fantasy takes place in the year 2154, and it’s a stunning ride of vivid, awe-inspiring intensity that is undeniably unique-looking, as production designs go.

Whether Tinseltown has been wise in indulging Cameron is by the by – the curiosity in the film will help recover some of the studio spending. Avatar is arguably the most imaginative live-action film to date with 3D effects so subtle that anyone seeing it in 2D will not experience anything less magical. But it does have to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated, just not necessarily on an IMAX one. Thankfully, the vast arsenal of technology does not override the performance-capture performances from the leads that eerily bring to life each facial expression and nuance, including central character Jake Scully, a wheelchair-bound marine who is chosen to control his dead brother’s engineered hybrid (human and Na’vi DNA) ‘Avatar’ body through a form of telepathy, played by rising Terminator star Sam Worthington. A credit to the almost seamless blend of reality and effects that Cameron has WETA to thank for is Sigourney Weaver as visionary, fag-puffing scientist Dr Grace Augustine’s final moments under the spiritual ‘Tree of Souls’ that reinforces how cutting edge this production is – although ‘revolutionary’, as Cameron claims, may be a little audacious, given recent performance-capture offerings like A Christmas Carol.

Cameron’s battle cry sounds firmly for Mother Nature throughout every luscious scene in Avatar in an unashamed manner that has had some mocking his tree-hugging, hippy tendencies – even his Na’vi attempt to reach out and educate us before it’s too late. That said concerns for the environment are now universally felt, regardless of whether these are played out on Pandora that does not look that alien in hindsight, apart from some ultraviolet touches that lift the vegetation textures out of frame. In addition to the rich tapestry of foliage and looming mountainous landscapes and waterfalls that hang like Dali-painted rock sculptures from the sky, Cameron has created whole new species of prehistoric- and underwater-styled creatures to delight in, influenced by his passion for deep-sea marine life that would make David Attenborough a little green around the gills.

References to man’s obsession with mining natural resources are not lost either, as the humans try to solve their eternal energy crisis by plundering the rare mineral ‘Unobtainium’ from Pandora’s core, resulting in displacing the Na’vi and the tragic devastation of their Home Tree community. Global corporate power is still alive and well in the 22nd Century. The over-simplified political connotations are equally evident as the nature ones, with the gunship finale reminiscent of another Vietnam, and the toppling of the Home Tree and its subsequent, rushing cloud of enveloping ash not dissimilar to 9/11 footage. This is where the film reverts back to ‘action epic’ type and reinvents the wheel, given Cameron’s great ‘revolutionary’ claim, with the genocidal, two-dimensional military villain, Colonel Miles Quaritch, played by a pumped Stephen Lang – like life-sized Chip Hazard from Small Soldiers, spouting groan-inducing, Uncle Sam-styled rallying one-liners. There are also moments of déjà vu with some of the military hardware borrowed from Aliens, such as Quaritch’s robotic ‘AMP Suit’ that is similar to Ripley’s in her alien fighting scenes.

Cameron does not miss a controversial trick in stirring up anti-invasion (post-Iraq) sentiments, too, going back as far as European colonisation of the indigenous Americans. Whatever Cameron says, his Na’vi quite literally represent the latter, living in a tribe, chanting in a tribe, throwing spears and arrows, living off the land, and believing in spirits like the jellyfish/fairy-like ‘Woodsprite’. Their horseback skills are demonstrated on the back of ‘Direhorses’ and flying winged creatures called ‘Banshees’ that they must connect with, mentally, in order to tame to ride. The story also flags interracial unions between the human/Avatar, Scully, and the spirited tribal leader’s daughter, Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana, who sulks like a teenage Xena, Warrior Princess and growls when things don’t go her way. The whole message is one of unity that is the Cameron-desired harmonious effect, or one that will spark scoffs from the more cynical among us.

Cameron’s claim that Avatar is the most challenging film that he has ever made is imaginatively correct. This sumptuous feast of visual vitality absorbs the viewer completely and has the necessary ‘wow’ factor and thrills. This alone is deserved of any cinema entrance fee. Narrative-wise, it can be a little preachy and convoluted in places, plus eyes-to-the-ceiling obvious in others, such as the call-to-battle scenes, but you are wooed back onto the side of Na’vi because of their gentle and graceful nature. For Cameron fans and cinema aficionados it is a must-see epic of epics for effects alone, but also because Cameron has another Avatar 2 story waiting in the wings…

4/5 stars

By L G-K