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On movies: 'Avatar' can't win on special effects alone

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 17, 2009 - While director James Cameron was shoveling out hundreds of millions of dollars for special effects for "Avatar" - and the film is indeed visually spectacular, with or without the 3D glasses - he might have peeled off a few hundred thousand for a screenwriter. Instead, he wrote the script himself, apparently taking "Dances with Wolves," moving it into outer space and dumbing it down. Not an easy thing to do.

In 2154, on a planet called Pandora, tall, blue, loincloth-clad aborigines called the Na'vi live in peace. They hunt with bows and arrows and ride tall, swift equine-like quadrupeds, living in harmony with nature, coexisting with hammerhead rhinoceroses and crocodile-snouted wolves. When the Na'vi find it necessary to kill an animal for food, they thank the dismembered creature for giving up its life as sustenance. In what can only be described as a rain forest without the inconvenience of rain, the Na'vi live happy and ecologically sustainable lives beneath the sheltering leaves of a sacred tree, a tree that embraces the spirits of their ancestors.

There is only one problem, and it is us. Human beings arrive in the form of Marines and miners, intending to turn much of Pandora into a giant strip mine. It turns out that the traditional, sacred home of the Na'vi sits right on top of a mother lode of the most valuable mineral in the universe, a mineral that Cameron has cleverly named "unobtainium."

Let me repeat that to give you time to contemplate the wonders that can emerge from the human imagination. "Unobtainium."

At the earthling outpost, the mind of a man named Jake (Sam Worthington) is linked to the body of an aborigine, and this tall blue avatar is sent to live among the Na'vi. Jake's task is somehow to get them to move to less valuable property so the bulldozers can dig for unobtanium. Instead, he falls in love with a Na'vi woman -- well, womanoid. He is initiated into the tribe and ends up siding with the blue humanoids in the inevitable explosive battle between men and the minions of Pandora, which takes up the final hour of this two-and-a-half hour epic.

"Avatar" is both magical and laughable, which, I must admit, some friends of mine think is a perfect combination for an evening of entertainment.

Cameron has created an amazing new world in Pandora. The forests are teeming with fascinating life -- I was particularly taken with the hand-sized, umbrella-shaped little creatures that floated through the air like benign, windblown jellyfish, pulsating with life and seeming to bestow blessings wherever they landed. And the way the Na'vi used the tendrils wiggling at the end of their tails to connect with other species was very cool, particularly when Jake hooked up with a giant flameless dragon to ride into battle. And the Floating Mountains were wonderfully conceived and executed. I could spend days on Pandora, just wandering around, carefully petting the carnivorous plants.

On the other hand, Cameron has saddled his marvelous visual creation with a cheesy, predictable plot and cliched characters -- the tough-as-zircon Marine commander played by Stephen Lang is right out of Wrestlemania. And the dialogue is atrocious. This is a movie set in the middle of the next century on a planet far, far away, but men are still saying things like "Let's Boogie!" as they head into battle.

The final battle, which is basically "Transformers at Wounded Knee," goes on way too long, and has way too many false climaxes. As far as I was concerned, the movie could have ended after about an hour and a half. I loved watching Cameron create Pandora. I got no pleasure out of watching him blow it apart.

By the way, I watched the movie in 3D. I don't get it. What little the 3D glasses add in terms of, so to speak, dimensionality, they take away in terms of murkiness and blur. What's the point?

Opens Friday, Dec. 18

'Me and Orson Welles'

It takes a while for this comic coming-of-age story to get going, but once it does -- shortly after Christian McKay comes on screen and quickly personifies the brilliant, headstrong young Orson Welles -- it takes on a considerable amount of charm. It is set in 1937, and young Welles is dividing his time between lucrative dramatic roles on the radio and his duties at the Mercury Theatre, where he is directing and starring in a now-fabled modern-dress production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

Although Welles, a consummate egotist and con man, inevitably dominates the screen when he is on it, the story is centered on young Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a fledgling teenage thespian who manages to stumble into a part in the play, apparently because he can play the ukulele, which is close enough to a lute for Welles' purposes.

Richard is enchanted in different ways by both Welles and one of his assistants (Claire Danes), and in both cases he puts himself in danger of a broken heart. The film, directed by Richard Linklater ("School of Rock"), is mostly light-hearted, with splashes of poignancy, and does a fine job of spoofing theatrical pretension. At the same time, it gives us some perspective into the risk-loving nature of Welles' chaotic genius.

Opens Friday, Dec. 18

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies. 

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