Knight at the Movies Archives
A lavish but dramatically sparse look at a queen in the making, the "king of the world" returns with a sci-fi epic populated by blue
Jean-Marc Vallée, the French-Canadian director of 2005’s gay film festival fave C.R.A.Z.Y., a moving dramedy that centered on the
coming out of the teenage son and its effect on his dysfunctional family, returns with his sophomore effort, The Young Victoria.
The film, which stars British actress Emily Blunt who got her start in the hot lesbian romance My Summer of Love and broke through
with The Devil Wears Prada and Sunshine Cleaning, also focuses on the plight of a teenager stuck in a dysfunctional family – this one of
the royal stripe.
17-year old Victoria is up for the throne but her widowed mother (Miranda Richardson) is under the spell of her conniving but sexy
brother-in-law (Mark Strong, playing yet another baddie) who covets the throne for himself and has placed so many constraints on
Victoria that she’s not even allowed to walk down the stairs unescorted. Everyone’s scheming behind the polite smiles and stifling
social rituals of life at court – especially about who will win Vicky’s hand in marriage and whether or not the old, cantankerous king
(Jim Broadbent, having a whale of a good time chewing up the scenery) will name her as his next in line. The German Prince Albert
(handsome Rupert Friend), coached at length by his presenter (Thomas Kretschmann) seems to have the inside track.
But we quickly learn that though she’s not much more than a royal Rapunzel Victoria is a high spirited lass and nobody’s fool. She’s
initially resistant to meeting Albert but from the moment it’s finally arranged their chemistry is apparent. “Do you ever feel like a
chess piece?” she whispers to him as the two play the game of strategy under the watchful, oppressive eye of their elders as he nods
(it’s the perfect analogy for all the behind the scenes machinations swirling about Victoria). “I know what it’s like to live inside your
head,” he tells her at the conclusion of their first meeting and then asks casually if he might write. Albert’s made all the right moves
but she’s not about to “walk straight into another jail” and there are still a few more bumps (the biggest being Victoria’s wolf in
sheep’s clothing advisor played by Paul Bettany) to overcome on this road to royal love and happiness.
The Young Victoria offers the expected gorgeous spectacle such a story promises (sets, costumes, locations, et al), good acting work
from Blunt and Friend in the title roles, top flight supporting actors (Richardson, Broadbent, Bettany, et al), and even the inclusion of
the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, onboard as one of the film’s producers. But the early scenes of royal intrigue have prepared
viewers for some theatrical fireworks – none of which happen. Though the film has Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth beat in the visual
splendor department, there’s nothing quite as dramatically thrilling here (or brutal for that matter) and the obstacles, once
identified, are easily sidestepped. By the time of Victoria’s reign, apparently, intrigue was limited to whispers behind closed doors –
no one gets sent to the Tower or stretched on the rack, killed by a poisoned dressed, nearly assassinated by bow and arrow while
barging down the Thames, or sent to the chopping block.
Instead, The Young Victoria gives us a fairly diverting portrait of the young queen in the making as we are taken on an insider’s scenic
tour of England’s breathtaking historical sites. Like Victoria herself, this first of what may be three or four movies (she ruled the
Monarchy for a really long time) is a veddy proper film that wouldn’t presume to misbehave with an ounce of unnecessary
melodrama and abandon. We are amused and entertained – but not terribly so.
A dozen years after the juggernaut that was 1997’s Titanic, writer-director-producer-self-proclaimed “King of the World” James
Cameron returns to the cinema of blockbuster action, technical effects and mega sized budgets and marketing campaigns that he
helped ramp up back in the 80s with The Terminator, T2 and Aliens. Avatar, the picture in question is rumored to have cost $300
million with an estimated $150 million in promotion costs. Five years in the making, shot in 3D in motion capture mixed with live
action, this almost three hour movie finds Cameron back in sci-fi epic territory, his genre of choice. Like Titanic, the picture has been
the subject of intense pre-scrutiny with critics, bloggers and the general public wondering if Cameron can pull it off again. Many of
the initial reviews have been hosannas and based on the technical bravura that Cameron once again wields, Avatar is indeed a
breathtaking journey into a self-created world. But compelling story? Memorable characters? Unique set pieces?
Something/anything to get excited about beyond the technical wizardry as it goes into its long last section? No and no again.
Though the movie is entertaining enough and stunning to look at Avatar is essentially an exceedingly detailed three hour video
game – without the benefit of remote controls to mute the dialogue that makes one wince and kill off the annoying cartoon villains
hours before Cameron deigns to. It’s based on Cameron’s original script and is set on the planet Pandora, a place as lush,
mysterious and beautiful as the rain forests of the Amazon and filled with deadly flora and fauna, monstrous creatures and a race of
indigenous primitives who hate their human invaders and kill them on sight. These “primitives,” known as the Na’vi resemble
humans but are extremely tall, have blue skin, dreadlocks and feline noses and can communicate with the plant life and other
creatures with the feelers embedded in their tails. They speak in their own language and are fierce warriors who live in the great tree
in the middle of the forested planet.
The piggish people of earth have come to Pandora becomes we’ve run out of oil and are now dependent on a natural resource
known as – I kid you not – “unobtanium.” And just wouldn’t you know it? There are huge deposits of the stuff right beneath the
great tree where the Na’vi are living. The Big Money interests in charge of drilling out the stuff, headed in the personage of Giovanni
Ribisi as the standard issue corporate villain, have joined forces with the military to learn the best way to get at the unobtanium.
One plan involves scientifically bonding humans with the Na’vi via one of those virtual reality chambers, thereby infiltrating their
culture on the inside as “avatars.” Sigourney Weaver plays Grace, the chain smoking head of the science division who wants to
coexist peacefully with the Na’vi and their exotic world (she’s got an avatar too) and has no inkling of the corporation/military’s true
intentions. She unwillingly takes on Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), a paraplegic soldier whose DNA is a match with his late
brother, a scientist trained for the infiltration program.
Once Jake transforms into a Na’vi there’s no stopping him and after encountering the fetching and fearless Neytiri (Zoe Saldana),
daughter of the tribal leader, he’s all for some human-Na’vi interaction (we are spared their coupling). The couple zips around the
planet on giant flying insects and Jake gets to know and love the Na’vi (in sort of a sci-fi variation on the Captain John Cook-
Pocahontas story). But Jake hasn’t been completely honest with Neytiri or her people: he’s actually collecting intel for the evil
Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) head of the military operation so the military can figure out the Na’vi’s weak spots. The creepy
Quaritch, who seems to favor spray tanning, clutching coffee mugs in the midst of battle and seems to only wear muscle t-shirts, has
promised Jake that the military will pay for an expensive operation to restore his useless legs if the intel is good (there are also
decidedly yucky homoerotic undertones in his clenched jaw encounters with the handsome, non-responsive Jake).
Everything seems to be going hunky dory until Jake becomes Enlightened (there are echoes here of the children’s eco friendly
Ferngully: The Last Rainforest). As he falls for Nytiri, her people and their way of life, he eventually turns on Quaritch. Then, natch,
there’s hell to pay. Up to this point, the picture has been breathtaking to look at as the story has meandered along entertainingly
enough. But then the plot comes front and center and goes into hyper action drive (and Lang begins to overact with an
embarrassing intensity). The long, long movie moves at this point from one not particularly involving set piece after another with a
batch of the usual plot reverses tossed in for good measure.
At the fade out, as a sort of “My Heart Goes On” ballad blares out the real stars of Avatar are announced during the long end credit
sequence. These are the hundreds – literally – members of the design team who must have had a delightful time creating this
detailed world. Until the film moves aggressively into the tired action stuff, it has worked as a marvelous, sort of off world
travelogue thanks to these tireless innovators working under Cameron’s direction.
Like other exceedingly imaginative sci-fi animated pictures – I am thinking of The Fantastic Planet and Light Years by French animator
René Laloux and the Japanese anime pictures of Miyazaki – the eye is constantly dazzled – though there is an odd familiarity about
some of the imagery. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it until the name “Frazetta” popped into my head after the screening.
That's it – so closely does much of the created world of Avatar resemble the sci-fi/fantasy artwork of Frank Frazetta, the artist popular
in the late 70s and early 80s with stoners and seen on head banger album covers and black light posters, it actually seems a
backhanded homage to the reclusive artist.
But that doesn’t lesson its impact. And to be sure, it is in the visual department that the movie works best (and is it’s only real
triumph). With Avatar Cameron has again proved that he’s a master at marshalling the forces of movie technology to realize his
dreams. But he should learn to collaborate in the script department – especially when it comes to dialogue. Cameron’s bold vision
and immense directing gifts have wrought a visual masterwork – but Avatar sits atop the very thin precipice that is his questionable
facility with the spoken word – and that will be this behemoths lasting, fractured legacy.
The Young Victoria-Avatar
12-16-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
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