In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2. Avatar

The Fremont Theatre
The Fremont Theatre (aka "The Big Fremont") was built in San Luis Obispo in 1940 with a single screen, but has since been expanded to include three additional screens to the side of the original building, collectively called Mission Cinemas. Interestingly, the two theaters have different pricing options: general admission to Mission Cinemas is $8.00, whereas the Fremont charges $9.50/$10.50 for weekday/weekend shows (+$2.00 for 3-D). It's the first I've seen of charging the viewer extra for a nicer theater (or less for a generic theater, depending on how you look at it), and less for weekday nights; seems like a good strategy to me.

The neon-lit marquee at the front of the Fremont is quite fetching. Framed posters line the sides of the exterior lobby featuring current and upcoming films. There is a stand-alone box office front and center, a classy, old-fashioned touch. The inside lobby has great decorative patterns adorning its ceiling, as well as more posters from upcoming films, large cutouts, and a table with some freebies (small posters for upcoming Dear John and Takers)

Here's a note on freebies. Small movie posters, given to theaters in bulk to hand out in promotion of the film, are typically going to be for films that have not yet been released (and therefore I don't yet know if I like the film) and that are in need of some extra advertising boost (I'm guessing it's much cheaper for the studios to advertise directly to the audience that already frequents the target theater than to advertise on the side of a bus to everyone who sees it). So, chances are that I won't want one of these, but it's the thought that counts, it's free, and on the off chance I actually see something I like, how cool.

Also on the freebies table were two flyers for events at The Fremont. First, a schedule of older films that will be showing during their "SLO Rewind" program (I learned during my visit that San Luis Obispo is shortened to "SLO" or "San LOO-iss" by the natives, but not to "San LOO-ee", so be warned if you want to blend). Movies like The Princess Bride and The Goonies will be shown on Tuesdays for $7.50. There are a few theaters near me in Oakland that do this, but often these showings are at midnight, long after I've already put on my slippers. Second, a brochure for the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, showcasing 100+ movies March 12-21, 2010. Ahh how I wish I'd paid more attention to film festivals in past years when trying to break my movie record.

The screen auditorium is magnificent, with 1,060 seats swooping down to the large screen, attractive murals on both walls, and more swirling patterns on the ceiling (seat count courtesy of a post on Cinema Treasures). Ideally, the seats would be more raked; I imagine someone sitting directly behind me would have trouble seeing the screen. Also, in moving from a too-close position to a just-right position, my party and I noticed the rows were closer together beginning about fifteen rows from the front, resulting in less legroom.

Sound and picture quality were fine and the staff was pleasant (despite our having accidentally entered the lobby before we should have). The Fremont was quite the hopping place on a holiday Friday night.


Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
This teaser wastes half its time with showing us some unknown person exiting a cab, entering the Empire State Building, and pushing a button in the elevator. Am I meant to be gripped with anticipation and curiosity? "Who IS this sneaker-clad hero? How INTERESTING that he's entering a BUILDING of all places!" The basic plot is: boy enters skyscraper, gets secret key, ascends to Omega level, and finds himself at the foot of Mount Olympus. The shot of Mount Olympus is the payoff, and for that (and the more interesting full trailer) I will see the movie, but you can pass on this trailer that does very little with 37 cuts.

Clash of the Titans

Robin Hood
There are two moods in this trailer. The first third is a disjointed group of images in a forest akin to that of some supernatural thriller, mean to convey apprehension. Then Russell Crowe rises screaming, in slow motion, from the water, and that means the second mood of the trailer is "Grrrr!" When Russell Crowe comes on screen, my testosterone level triples. He has been a great actor in L.A. Confidential, The Insider, American Gangster, and State of Play, but as Gladiator showed, I'm just as happy to see him take on an invading army with nothing but his incisors and stubble. The man can do no wrong, and don't try to throw Proof of Life in my face because I didn't see it. But is he Robin Hood? There is very little in this trailer to suggest the emerald bandit's lore, except an awesome shot at the very end focusing from arrow tip to dirty knuckles to bleeding, determined Russell eyes. Will I see it? You betcha. 79 chaotic cuts, with a few great money shots.

Alice in Wonderland
The teaser was simple, with fewer than 40 cuts, and showed us only a few glimpses of Wonderland. This trailer, with its 87 cuts, is much more full of eye candy. It reveals that the plot will be Alice returning to Wonderland, only to find it under the Red Queen's control; Alice must team up with a colorful cast to liberate the kingdom. A bit like Narnia, in that respect. We get some nice speaking moments from the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). I like Johnny Depp, but the Mad Hatter seems a bit too obvious for him, so it will be interesting to see how this turns out. Visually stunning, with a nice blend of real and computer animated/distorted characters.

Shrek Forever After
The last Shrek outing was less than stellar, but still above average for the digitally-animated market these days. This trailer suggests that Shrek will be thrust into some alternate "what if" dimension that portrays what the world would have been like without Shrek. This annoys me for two reasons. First, the supporting cast as we know them will not appear in much of the film; Shrek will be developing relationships with their counterparts, not them. Second, this is a great concept for a Star Trek episode, but not for a movie that is supposed to further a franchise, since the bulk of our story will not occur in continuity. Still, looks like it will have some amusing moments. 40 cuts.

Let's get this out of the way. In my opinion, 3-D adds nothing to a movie. There, I said it. It appears that Hollywood has been secretly toiling away for the past 25 years to improve 3-D technology beyond what we saw in Jaws 3 and Captain EO, but the result is pretty much the same. Additionally, it increases ticket prices and forces me to wear glasses during the show. I've seen six 3-D movies in the past 14 months. There are some highlights, like the needle in Coraline spiking out toward my face, but the typical result is an image with only a bit more depth and texture to it. I never feel I'm actually looking at three-dimensional objects. Unfortunately, some of these newer movies are difficult to find in a non-3-D version, and taking off one's glasses during the movie isn't really an option, since the image is blurry without them. Note: according to this source, we can look forward to 19 3-D movies in 2010.

Next, the plot. What you can get from the trailer is that an ex-marine, Jake (Sam Worthington) is a new recruit to a human mining colony on an alien world, Pandora. Jake is the operator of an avatar, a hybrid clone of the native Na'vi, tall, blue creatures that will remind you of Hollywood's romanticized versions of Native Americans. Jake's consciousness is able to enter his avatar, and through it, interact with the Na'vi. His mission is to gather intel on the Na'vi and help negotiate their relocation, freeing up rich ore reserves, but he becomes sympathetic to them. That's what you get from the preview, and that's what you get from the movie. The plot is very straight-forward, a "Dances with Wolves on Pandora", as one of my party put it. Everyone does a fine job acting, including turns from Sigourney Weaver, Joel Moore, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michelle Rodriguez, but for the most part each of their characters ends where they began, without much development.

But despite the 3-D and the simple plot and characters, this movie is absolutely awesome. It is immersive, and every frame (outside the human colony) is a delight to see. The Na'vi are beautiful, as is their world, and its flora and fauna. Director James Cameron and his team have done a meticulous job creating this alien land, down to anatomical choices that imply common descent for all the various large creatures. In terms of how well this film creates a fictional world, with a history long-since past before our story begins, I would rank Avatar right up there with the other great, immersive fantasy epics: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Harry Potter. In each the world feels real, with a present that has followed logically and still exhibiting evidence from events in the past. In Avatar, there are some shots of lush, jungle-covered rocks, floating above the mist, with planets and moons filling the distant sky that are just breathtaking. Many of the plants and animals are bioluminescent as well, allowing for some great nighttime shots.

My favorite element of the film is the synaptic tendrils the creatures all possess, allowing them to link up, regardless of species. The Na'vi use this bond to communicate with their various steeds and even with the trees around them. This bond makes the Na'vi very sympathetic to their fellow creatures, and elevates the film from mystic naturalism to science-based environmentalism. The pro-environment message might be overbearing for some, but I imagine I will continue to enjoy it, however heavy-handed, until our culture better matches our ideal.

Since half our characters are digitally animated, it is important that they are believable. None of the Na'vi achieve Golem-level emotion (though Zoe Saldana's Neytiri comes close), and their voices all sound too human, but otherwise a fine job has been done blending them into their surroundings and animating their movements and expressions. I was particularly impressed with the synching of lip movements to their speech; they never seemed stiff to me. Contrast their movement with that of the characters in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Each frame of that film looks photo-realistic, but the transition between frames result in awkward motion. In Avatar, the Na'vi are hyper-dextrous.

The music in Avatar is quite good. James Horner's use of horns is reminiscent of his great work for Willow and Aliens, and really ramps up the tension during battle scenes.

This is a must see on the big screen, as much of the majesty and detail will be lost on a home television set.


  1. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief:

    I dropped out the second I realized it was a high school film.

    Robin Hood “But is he Robin Hood?”

    I had the same thought. Before I realized what it was and as the trailers wording was talking about the man and the myth, etc, I thought the movie might be a prequel to Gladiator.


    Same thoughts about the 3D. A couple of times it really hit. Many times it caused blurriness and discontinuities on the screen (my brother would later explain it was because I was focusing on the wrong part of the screen then the director had intended at that moment). The rest was nothing worth wearing the silly glasses for.

    “every frame (outside the human colony) is a delight to see.”

    I thought the human colony was delightful as well. I love shots of HUUUUGGGGEE machines.

    Jackie saw the movie the same night we did and had a few thoughts. The first was that her favorite scene was when Naytiri finds the human body of Jake Sully and holds him, emphasizing that their love truly crosses the racial, or in this case species boundaries. She also pointed out something that I noticed but never quite clarified in my mind. Throughout the movie Naytiri appearance becomes more human like and pretty. As it turns out, she had read this was intentional, that they made Naytiri ever so subtly more attractive so that we would experience the same transition that Jake Sully does in his love for her. I certainly didn't put it into so many words, but I certainly remember about 2/3 through the film thinking she looked much more human then when we first saw her, when her features where more distorted and alien like.

  2. I can't wait to see this movie - thanks for posting Will

  3. OSR, do you have a link for what Jackie read about the transformation of Neytiri's face? I didn't notice any physical transformation, other than the different expressions she makes, which do affect how she looks.

  4. What, you think I document my sources? How am I supposed to make stuff up when that is expected?

    No, I don't know where she read it. I'll ask her.

  5. Great review. I thought this was an excellent movie, and I totally got lost in it. For me, the 3-D wasn't too bad (usually it gives me massive eyestrain) and used with Cameron's subtlety, it added to the immersiveness of the world.

    One other thing that made me happy: Zoe Saldana, after Star Trek and now Avatar, may be breaking in as the next great, kick-ass female sci-fi actor. It was so cool to see her and Sigourney Weaver, veteran kick-ass female sci-fi actor, work side by side in this film.

    Also, I'm pretty sure that the Colonel is the baddest MF-ing badass in cinematic history. Which, even though he was a baddie, made me happy.

  6. @OSR ["Many times it caused blurriness and discontinuities on the screen (my brother would later explain it was because I was focusing on the wrong part of the screen then the director had intended at that moment)."]

    Wow, I thought I had it bad when a Peet's barrista (upon hearing complaint about my chai being scorched) told me I was "tasting it wrong". Now, I guess we can "see films wrong", too? I'd avoid 3D films on that ground alone.

  7. Hi, my name's Tara, and I don't like 3D either.

    Love the project, Will!

  8. I kind of liked the 3D in Avatar, especially on the mountain scene where Jake is suppose to find his flying-bird-thing-soul-mate. Also, I thought the concept of the avatar was done well - who is Jake? Is he the guy in space bed or is he the 12 foot blue creature? I enjoyed the existential question the film poses.

    However, I did think the movie was predictable and rather flat. I never really sensed Jake's inner struggle between being a good marine and his newly discovered love for the Navi. Moreover, the colonel character was just too much testestoterone for one movie.

  9. FYI, from a pure box office $$ receipts standpoint, AVATAR passed TITANIC for the all-time domestic title yesterday.

  10. Daniel, I hadn't really thought of it that way, but that is indeed interesting. If we think of Jake as just his mind or spirit, then his initial human body is a bit arbitrary; his avatar is as much him as his human body is.

    I wonder if this film is a bit anti-accessibility, suggesting that its better to be an alien with legs than a human without them. Would we have been as willing to embrace his avatar form were he not wheelchair-bound?

  11. I'd rather not project myself bluely. But, of course, I say that now using only a cane. Ask me again if (God forbid) I end up confined to a wheelchair.


  12. Well, OSR, looks like you got your wish. Thanks to the re-release, Avatar finally crested $750M domestically.