Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tangled--no spoilers review--see it before it leaves the theaters!

We saw "Despicable Me" in 2D a few night ago, and it made me determined to see "Tangled" in 3D before it left the theaters.

I was right. The animation is so textured, so fine-grained, so exhiliratingly believable, I had to focus to deal with the story. And the story was written by the guy who wrote "Bolt," and this is comparably good, so if you liked that seeing this should be a no-brainer decision. And the animation and 3D qualities are even better--and Bolt was really good that way.

So without giving anything away, here goes:

1. Story: Kids can get it but adults (most adults at least) won't be sitting there drumming their fingers. It's generally light-hearted but has some really serious moments.
Remember, Disney started off "Bambi" with his mother being shot by hunters. So don't think "Disney" automatically means fluff.

2. Music: generally forgettable, though not sappy or annoying--just not great. One song reminded both my wife & me of Ursula the witch's song in "Little Mermaid,"

3. Characters / character development: satisfying. Adults will see what's coming, generally, but that's not always a bad thing. Art stems from ritual, which by definition repeats tribal themes. The heroine is a spunky young lady who learns yada yada, the hero is a Player who learns yada yada, The sidekick is a small lizard that thankfully doesn't speak but is quite expressive--not to mention being color-coordinated for each moment. Ditto a horse (only without the color coordination). The villain is less interesting but works OK.

4. Visuals: stunning, stunning, stunning. The literati disdain such superficialities, but that's kind of silly. Emotional nuance counts, but sheer exuberant human and natural beauty do too. The humans are rendered in a stylized manner, with giant eyes like you might find on a nocturnal mammal or a Japanese anime (though it doesn't have the look of Japanese anime).

You can really see the leaps animation has made even in the last year. This isn't as spectacular as Avatar (what is?), but hair and swirling layers of clothing are even better (and the characters are more likeable, BTW).

And I'm not just talking about the action setpieces. There's moment with flowers floating on a lake that's quietly gorgeous, with the water actually waterlike.

5. Language: colloquial American English, which is anachronistic, but in keeping with the movie's vibe. It lends to a certain knowing quality to the film.

I think my favorite anime is still "Spirited Away" but this was, well, spirited in its own right, and exuberantly American in its feel, despite not being set in America (it's a very au courant retelling of the fairytale of Rapunzel).

This got 93% Tomatometer Top Critics rating from Rottentomatoes.com. I don't know of any second-rate movies that got such a high ranking.

This is a perfect holiday film to bring the extended family to, as long as you bear in mind the serious/scary elements--some kids will treat these with aplomb, while others the same age will not. Forewarned is forearmed.

Finally, when we get the DVD in 2D at least we'll be able to see it remembering how cool it was in 3D. So until we all have 3D TVs, this must be seen in a theater to get the real film. The DVD will be an echo of this.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

So You Think You Can Dance--the live show

Did you know "reality shows" have screenwriters? This came out during the screenwriters' strike. Maybe that helps to account for the histrionics in so many of these shows.

I watched the first season of Survivor, but that was that. It soon became apparent that the goal of the show was to find the most soulless, manipulative backstabber in a group of soulless, manipulative backstabbers and then reward that person for his or her soulless, manipulative backstabbing.

I would want to watch this why? These are all people I wouldn't let into my house, frankly.

Then there's the talent shows. These go back to the days of radio.

Here we get to see some people with real talent at something or other, in amongst people without that talent--usually spectacularly so--who appear to have no reality feedback mechanism in their brains, such that anything negative the judges or the audiences tell them just rolls off their backs.

This phenomenon is related to that bogus enterprise known as the employee performance self-review. It has been found that in these reviews, the worse the employee, the higher the self rating. Top employees tend to be very self-critical, OTOH.

The actually skilled performers on such shows can be quite good. But their natural skills can be swamped by other factors. In American Idol, even few of the top ranked performers sing anything like rock & roll. It's more of a squishy teen pop with gospel licks in all the wrong places.

How many of the show's top ranked performers have actually gone on to make a real name for themselves? Kelly Clarkson has proven to be a real rocker. That's about it in my book. Adam Lambert, the latest, behaves so narcissistically I don't enjoy watching him perform, even though he has a beautiful voice. I sympathize with the fact that his videos can't show his real love objects, and this makes things kind of awkward. But I'm not objecting to his homosexuality--I'm objecting to his self-absorption. And his goofy costumes...

Then there's America's Got Talent, which mixes genres, so one minute you may be watching something grotesque--a raunchy octogenarian comedian, a guy who flosses in one nostril and out the other, and the next you could be seeing extraordinary athleticism or artistic talent.

For shows like this, a DVR is the only answer. Then I can fast-forward through all the lame/ewwww! moment acts and just watch the good ones. Is that worth the trouble? I was for me, becasue that's how I found out about Jackie Evancho (see my review farther down in this blog).

Which brings me to "So you think you can dance." SYTYCD is my spouse's and my favorite reality show. The judging is generally constructive and supportive of real talent, and the performers, though competing against each other, keep it collegial. And there's some outstanding dancing on the show. In fact the show has genuinely helped promote dancing--in many forms--in the eyes of the public, and it has helped dance studios as dancers become inspired to cross-train in different dance forms.

So we thought we'd go see SYTYCD's live show. We'd done something like this earlier when we went to an Ice Skating traveling show featuring America's top skaters. That had been disappointing--they were dots on the ice as seen from our nosebleed section seats, and the skater we'd most wanted to see--Emily Hughes' older sister--was a no show.

This time we spent a lot more on the tickets--they cost $168 for the pair of us--for tier seating about halfway between the orchestra section and the nosebleed seats.

Turns out it still wasn't close enough. The dancers weren't dots, but they weren't really close enough to make out their expressions except on the grainy Jumbotron screen images above and flanking the dancers. I had binoculars but then I could only see one dancer at a time.

Part of the problem was that we'd seen all the routines on our big screen TV at home, so I guess we were a little spoiled about the view.

I conclude that if you want to see a live show of something you've seen on TV, either pop for the high price of pretty close seating or stay home.

And as far as SYTYCD goes, we have other reasons to stay home. It was fun to see the dancers we'd seen on TV, only live. And all the dancers served as the hosts introducing the acts and the dancers, which was also good. The only downside here was a tendency--especially by Dominick--to introduce acts in that annoying chanting style Oprah uses to introduce acts--AND HEEEEEEEEREZZZZZ....ALLLISON!!!!!!!!! Maybe I'd have like it better if I were a 13 year old girl, but as an adult it seemed both hackneyed and childish.

They pretty much only did routines we'd already seen on TV, and since they weren't competing any more, my spouse and I both got the feeling that they did the routines a bit less intensely.

Worse, they showed stuff on the Jumbotron instead of live dancing way too much. They had a long intro, a whole routine by a dancer who wasn't there, and lots of other bits, all of which we'd already seen, only in HD on our home big screen TV, instead of on these distinctly lower-rez Jumbotron screens--and we didn't have to pay $168 for that. So we felt a little ripped off. And we both came to that conclusion before we talked with each other about the show as we were walking to our car.

But worst of all for me at least was the sound level--the sound system was so cranked up that even when the dancer/hosts were just talking it was too loud for comfort. Then during the dances, the bass was pumped up so much it made my aorta resonate.

OK, maybe not, but it was making my flesh throb. If OSHA inspectors were visiting an industrial facility with sound at that level they'd require all the workers to wear ear protection. Here's a handy rule of thumb: if you experience ANY hearing loss at the end of a concert, and/or any kind of whooshing or tinny sound in your ears, and you recover in a few hours or a day--you have now experienced a small but permanent hearing loss. It seems to come back all the way, but audiologists will tell you it doesn't--not completely.

And that was what the sound level of this show would have done if I hadn't stuck my fingers in my ears most of the show. In all fairness, however, my spouse, who didn't plug her ears, says she didn't experience any hearing loss right afterward. So maybe I'm being overly sensitive. Back in the army I damaged my hearing by taking the marksmanship exam without ear protection, making me nearly deaf for about 24 hours, so I've been sensitive about this stuff since then.

But whether it was damging to the hearing or not, I found the sound level extremely uncomfortable.

One other note about the show: the audience was 90% female. I'm not kidding. It was like going to a cage wrestling match, only in reverse. Any males there get drowned in the estrogen.

And they loved the guy-on-guy dance routines--standing ovations! It wasn't quite like being a fly on the wall at one of those women-0nly Chippendale's male stripper performances, but the male dancers definitely felt the luv.

Afterwards my spouse said she was glad to have seen it once, but didn't feel a desire to go again.

We had a basis for comparison: we saw the Australian show Circus Oz a few weeks earlier. It cost less than half as much as SYTYCD's live show and we left it feeling much more entertained.

Friday, October 29, 2010

TV's best family values show airs at 10pm. Huh?

The TV show parents should watch with their teenage children and discuss afterward airs at 10pm on Tuesdays. Why? Easy. Parenthood is actually realistic, by and large. It's not a soap opera. Problems are not exaggerated to goose the ratings. There's a paucity of sex and violence. There's character development instead. And, to put it simply, quality--quality of casting, of execution, of dialog, of plotting.

The shows aired at 8 are, by and large, the sorts of shows that I'd call frothy (with strong exceptions such as House).

Yet the Parents Television Council doesn't recommend the show. Turns out their concerns are entirely negative--they don't care if the show models constructive family problem-solving. They don't care if the show offers positive role models. All they care is whether sex, violence or bad language are used/alluded to. So by that gauge they've give a rave review to a show that just had people reading innocuous passages from grade school primers.

Of course no one could stand to watch such a show. Nor would it offer any kind of role modeling--of guidance. But if innocuousness is the only value, as the PTC's ratings enshrine--my imaginary show would get a big thumbs up from fools like the PTC's staffers and all the foolish parents who think guiding their kids only means steering them away from thinking about issues they don't want to think about.

On the other hand, the blog "Connect with your teens through pop culture and technology" lists Parenthood in its entry "20 best shows for parent teen bonding."

Having no children at home, I watch Parenthood with my spouse because it's actually good. How many shows have you wanted to like but for the fact that they frequently descend into soap opera, even if they have a good premise and good castingl--possibly at the instigation of the networks' suits? I feel that way about Grays Anatomy, for example, which is a good show at its core, but which constantly channels "The Young and the Restless" because it doesn't trust the audience to stick with it if it were more realistic.

Lastly, I recommend using ratings of Parenthood as a bellwether--as a way to see whether a parenting/media watch organization really has our children's best interests at heart, or is just serving some backward ideology.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Jackie Evancho--a ten year old who sings like someone twice her age

I'm sure most people today who know something about Jackie Evancho do so because they saw her perform on America's Got Talent. I'd never heard of her before, until my wife directed me to the YouTube of her AGT performance. I sure have now, though, and I wrote this essay as a review for the Amazon.com listing of her first album.

I will buy this album when more are made.

That said, you should realize that you won't be hearing the soulful adult voice soaring out of a ten year old child's mouth that astonished viewers on AGT. This is her voice a year earlier. Here she sounds like a gifted child--an extraordinarily gifted child with near-perfect pitch, one of the best vibratos I've ever heard in anyone regardless of age, and an exquisite musical sensibility--but a child for all that.

So if you'll only be satisfied with what you heard on AGT, wait for her next album. But if, like me, you've become a diehard fan in the two minutes she sang on AGT; if you've gone to YouTube and listened to everything else she's done--then you'll want to make the small investment needed to get this historical record of where a great star of the future came from.

What we really need is a DVD of her performing. Then you could see something that isn't fully brought across by just an audio track--which is the fact that she's "inside the music." Meaning that she isn't just singing--she's channelling the composer's soul from deep within the essence of the piece.

I don't want to go too far with this. Evancho has the strengths and weaknesses of a happy childhood with what appear to be great parents and siblings--surrounded by love and acceptance. Compare this with, say, Christina Aguilera, another very talented singer, who first started singing in her bedroom to try to drown out the screams of her mother as her drunken father beat her mother (and then deserted them when Aguilera was still young). Aguilera at age 8 was a growly blues singer with a very adult understanding of pain and loss.

What Evancho does understand, though, is soulfulness. Some call her a spinto soprano, which soprano Rosalind Plowright has described as someone with the timbre of a lower register. That is, Evancho hits really high notes effortlessly--and without having to slide up to them to find the pitch. She just nails them. Yet her vocal texture is that of a contralto--dark and rich, like a night-blooming flower. It's the difference between Placido Domingo, a tenor with the timbre of a baritone, and Pavarotti, a pure tenor.

This gives Evancho the feeling of someone who isn't just a musical athlete, producing the notes perfectly but not necessarily much more than that--and delivering a feeling with the notes that makes you want to stop in your tracks and think/feel about what's really important in life.

Another vote for a DVD is that if you can imagine Joe Cocker as a 10 year old girl, you'll get a feel for the curious facial and gestural mechanics of her amazing musical production. But this is part of her being inside the music. If she were an athlete I'd say she was in the zone--in a place where the world, the audience disappears, and it's just you and the art you're embodying, where you become a window between the audience and powerful artistic experiences.

I should add some response to the many comments I've seen elsewhere that assume she was lip-synching either herself or someone else, or that her parents are pushing her, yada yada. I understand where such cynicism comes from. I was raised by a drunk and a deadbeat, with a family life a lot closer to that of Christina Aguilera than of the Evancho household.

Being forced to grow up in a corrosive environment can easily make you cynical. But I grew to realize that my experiences were not universal, and the goodness I failed to find at home does exist in others' homes--and I'm certain that this is true of the Evanchos. I don't think they're pushing her at all. If anything, I think they're trying to make sure that someone as driven as she is is NOT pushed. And that she doesn't do a Janis Joplin to her instrument.

And though I'm not a vocal coach myself, I'm pretty sure she isn't straining or overdoing it. She's just better than the rest of us. Her whole life people are going to be attracted to her because she's so extraordinarily talented, as well as beautiful, and charming. Some people just get all the goodies when the genetic dice are rolled, and she's one of them. You can either admire that or become envious. I prefer the former. You'll live longer if you go that way, BTW.

Bottom line: buy this album, even though it's an earlier stage of her development. Her family isn't rich. Her dad has some kind of security camera franchise in Pittsburgh, so they're not poor either. But she needs the best vocal coaches that can be found to protect and develop her instrument properly, and supporting someone like her is something Jews call a mitzvah--a Good Thing. Do it.

Followup note: I just read a good explanation of how she does it on an EW.com comment thread:

Fri 10/08/10 1:28 PM

...Jackie, together with her abundance of natural talent is practicing elements of the Bel Canto technique of singing. That “creepy” sound you hear is the result of singing with the full strength that proper breathing and breath control provides. Watch her breathing in her AGT videos- her dress actually raises up four inches off the ground, no small feat for someone only about 4 foot tall. Then notice how her shoulders don’t rise nearly so much. Her diaphragm harnesses all that air into her very core. Pop singers sing with their mouths and upper chest only which results in a thin, tight sound. Controlled diaphragmic breathing allows Jackie to project her voice resulting a rich and full sound. Diaphragmic control also allows her to fully relax her upper cavity which allows her to hit very high notes effortlessly. Pop singers have to do the opposite which means tightening their throats and straining their vocal cords, limiting the fullness of sound and damaging their voice. This is why a pop singer’s voice fails after a relatively short career while an opera singer can astound audiences for decades. There is nothing “creepy” about Jackie’s ability or the amazing sound that she produces. It has everything to do with what Bel Canto (beautiful singing) is all about.
Jackie still has much to learn, much more technique to master and her body is still developing. Still, we are witnessing the very beginning of what might well be the finest vocalist of our time.

Here's another addendum from another thread that addresses her high end:

Jackie is indeed singing in a falsetto register when vocalizing many of the higher notes which she sings. She has simply learned how to “blend” the modal and falsetto registers in such a way as to all but eliminate the “passagio” (break) which would normally be perceivable by the human “ear” when she transitions from modal (chest voice) to falsetto (head voice). This is not impossible, but it is an extremely rare attribute. You are also correct in that normally falsetto voice is much more limited than its modal voice counterpart in both dynamic variation and tonal quality. Once again Jackie appears to have the very rare ability to vocalize in the falsetto voice register with nearly as much tonal quality and dynamic variation as she employs while vocalizing in the modal register. Also, as you point out, she seems to do these things effortlessly, which leads me to believe that she wasn’t necessarily “coached’ in that direction in order to achieve these amazing feats, but that she may have actually been born with this remarkable ability. Much like many of the world’s greatest painters, vocalists, composers, athletes, etc., some people have “it” and some people don’t. No matter how hard a five and a half foot tall man who can only jump a few inches off the gound trains, he will never become a legendary basketball player. It is much the same case with Jackie, except just the opposite. Jackie has innate vocal abilities which have only been present in a miniscule number of people throughout the history of the World. How far she decides to develope these remarkable abilities is up to her, up to her, but the sky is pretty much the limit for this ten year old “mega-prodigy”!

And here's what I added to the EW.com thread:

I know enough about music to hear every shortcoming in Jackie Evancho's AGT performances--more than even her critics in this thread have mentioned, actually. She jumped the gun on her entrances several times in her Ave Maria, for example. And at the end of her Time to Say Goodbye she couldn't hold the last note, sort of squeaked and then clamped her lips shut to keep more odd noises from escaping.

But. I will buy every album she ever records--especially if she can keep the record company from overproducing her--and I'd buy her Prelude to a Dream too if her father has the good sense to re-release it.

Why? Because she already has true greatness, and it transcends her tiny gaffes completely. This doesn't show particularly when she isn't performing. Then, she just appears to be an unnaturally nice person who, as Mariah Carey's husband (?!) frequently pointed out, "always says the right thing."

But when she starts to perform she becomes a vessel for her art, effortlessly wringing all the depth out of it that's there, and then some.

Of course it helps that she's pretty. This is entertainment, after all, and attractive entertainers trump ugly ones, all else being equal. That's not "fair" but "fair" isn't an inherent quality of nature.

But what helps most is that she never commits what I call the "Barbara Streisand Sin" of looking as if she's thinking "watch me sing. Aren't I wonderful?"

For example, I saw Adam Lambert singing "The Prayer" in a duet with some young lady. She sang to him and he ignored her, directing his gaze exclusively to the audience, increasing his volume so they didn't blend at all and you mainly heard him. This has nothing to do with his gender preferences, but everything to do with his maturity and humanity as a performer.

I predict that Evancho will never do that, no matter how famous she becomes.

That's why I said she's a vessel. It's not just the pipes, or the training, or the wholesome attractiveness of the total package. It's that she understands, even at 10 years of age, the inner nature of art. And she communicates that in performance.

Nobody taught her that. Nobody can teach you that. She just has it. And it will take her around the world and into the hearts of many millions of people. She won't just be admired--she'll be beloved, because she embodies not just an extraordinary talent, but our highest aspirations.

When I watch her perform I want to be a better person.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lost finale

So many words have been written about the "Lost" finale and the series itself.

Did it make sense after all? Sort of.

But nobody--to my knowledge--has said what actually made the show special:

We got to see beautiful Hollywood actresses without makeup (or as close to it as one could wish for). In most shows the women look like Mary Kay spokespeople, or the average Texas woman (Austin excepted). On "Lost" they looked real.

And the female lead, Kate (Evangeline Lily), also let us watch a Hollywood star who didn't act like a Hollywood star, on or off the screen.

Most professional actors are empaths without much in the way of other career options. Lily seems different--seems as though she could and may choose to do something else and walk away from Hollywood without a glance backwards.

In other words, we need them, and most of them need us. I don't think Lily does, however, and that makes her more interesting.

Howard Stern dissed Gabourey Sidibe

Howard Stern criticized Oprah for giving Gabourey Sidibe unreal expectations of her future in Hollywood. This provoked a storm of criticism of Stern on various websites' comment threads.


Howard Stern’s character or lack of it is irrelevant to whether Gabourey Sidibe is too big to get work in Hollywood.

The real question should be whether she’ll live long enough to have a real Hollywood career.

If you compare Ms. Sidibe to big (in both senses) Hollywood stars like Queen Latifah and Mo’nique, you’ll see she’s in another category. They’re big, handsome women. Ms. Sidibe is morbidly obese. If she remains at her present weight she will almost certainly die of a heart attack before middle age—as happened to other talented celebrities like Mama Cass Elliott and several morbidly obese male comedians.

Humans perceive morbidly obese people as unattractive, because we’re genetically programmed to be attracted to healthy people. Duh.

People like Ms. Sidibe rarely look the way they do because of a “hormone imbalance.” It’s because they have an eating disorder—a mental illness that’s the mirror image of what anorexics like. Karen Carpenter had, and just as life-threatening.

Any true friend of Ms. Sidibe should urge her to get into therapy--to honestly confront her life-threatening mental illness. Her bravado on the red carpet showed evidence of the kind of denial anorexics show, and the support Oprah’s giving her makes Oprah an enabler.

An old Chinese saying goes “He who eats more than he needs digs his grave with his teeth.”

Her true friends need to tell her that.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Avatar--no spoilers review

I just saw "Avatar" with three other veteran science fiction fans--two middle aged couples.

Someone had described it as a film you have to have seen in order to be able to talk with anyone under 40. I suppose that's so, unless you have the sort of prosaic mind that can only relate to movies about people who look and act like you in places much like what we see around us.

I'm not sure it's a great movie. But it is great fun, as long as you don't think too much. And a bit moving, as long as you don't feel too much. And it redefines what you can put on a screen (if you've got his $300M budget)!

To me the most important aspect is facial animation. One of our group was underwhelmed by it--by how they'd been able to instrument the live actors' faces and transmit their expressions to the animated characters you see onscreen. Our friend had heard such glowing reports of it that perhaps he expected too much. He said he'd seen better facial expression animation in other films. But the rest of us thought it worked well and looked great. Perhaps it's that none of the actors were showing a lot of nuance--whether that's the acting, or the direction, or the limits of facial expression animation today, I don't know. But the animated characters definitely looked like the live actors.

In some ways it's like a cross between a traditional fantasy movie and a traditional science fiction movie, with a hint of sci-fi explanations for the sorts of things that are normally explained magically.

The forest scenes on the alien planet reminded me of the forest scenes in Hayao Miyazaki's great (non-computer) animated film "Princess Mononoke." If you haven't seen this film, I'd strongly recommend seeing it after you see Avatar.

The military scenes reminded me--less so--of "Starship Troopers." That, too, would be interesting to see after "Avatar."

I'm an educated layman when it comes to military technology, biology, exobiology, cinema, and Cameron's films--I've seen "Abyss," "Aliens," "T1," "T2" & "Titanic." And enjoyed them all. I know what to expect from Cameron. Unfortunately, I know enough about those subjects to know when Cameron was going for an onscreen effect and defying logic and what we know about those subjects. I'm also a veteran scuba diver, and I saw where he borrowed from underwater scenes I'm familiar with. Only sometimes the transplant needed anti-rejection drugs so I'd stop thinking about how he was borrowing cool images without thinking through what kind of sense they might be making. Still, Cameron's better than George Lucas and many others in terms of borrowing images more than real ideas.

Yeah, I know I'm a voice in the wilderness on this subject.

My biggest complaint is the same one I have about most Hollywood sci-fi--more fi than sci, and not always understanding that a whisper can sometimes be more powerful than a shout. Cameron puts all the money onscreen.

And speaking of screens--we saw it in a big Imax theater, on the far side, about halfway back. This was because we got there half an hour before showtime. Mistake. It wasn't awful to see it to the side like that, but it was definitely suboptimal. You'd see this best in an Imax theater from the back row as near to the center as you can get. Everyone in the audience who wasn't near that spot got less for their money.

The 3D was very, very good. This was, as I recall, "RealD" or some such. It used inexpensive 3D glasses with what looked like mylar lenses. I had some annoying reflections from the bottoms of the big lenses, though they didn't directly interfere with the screen image.

Later I want to see it once more in 3D on a non-Imax screen. Again, not necessarily because it's better than lots of other films with more intelligent screenplays, more nuanced acting, etc.; but because I want to see this cutting edge cinematic technology at work on a wide screen in 3D--and with me sitting in the exact middle and pretty far back.

So did the animation look real, or did it still look like animation--especially in the scenese that combined animation with live action?

Close. Not quite. Not yet. But we're getting close.

You can read dozens of reviews of Avatar that tell a lot more about the story and whatnot than I did here. Avoid em until you've seen it. You'll enjoy this film more if its surprises actually surprise you.


I just saw "Avatar" for the second time, under very different circumstances--nearly empty theater, on a conventional big screen instead of IMAX, using the Real3D system and glasses.
The theater being nearly empty, we got to sit it the right place this time. Huge difference being able to sit smack in the middle of the theater.

But also--I think I liked it better on a conventional wide screen than on IMAX. I can't say this for sure, since our seating was so crappy for the IMAX showing. We've seen other IMAX films, and always found that we only enjoyed the viewing if we were sitting in the back row in the middle, or nearby. This is a hard one to universalize, though. You may prefer the IMAX version. I will say they make for a distinctly different viewing experience, so you shouldn't just flip a coin. You'll probably prefer one over the other. Think it through.

As for Avatar itself--my spouse and I enjoyed it the second time around. The visuals are so spectacular, from the very first shot to the last, and so real-seeming, that they quite overcome the formulaic plot. As my Russian friend said, you could always tell what was coming.,

I told her that this isn't always bad, though. Some films are more like rituals, where unpredictability isn't what people are looking for. This is one of those films.

So don't let smartypants friends dissuade you from seeing it because they have objections to the screenplay. They're probably right, but if they weren't noticing what they were seeing in order to criticize the uncreative narrative--then they've got a real problem.

Some people regard works of art for what's missing. Someone wants said music lovers listen to music, while audiophiles listen to problems in microphone placement.

"Avatar" has strengths and weaknesses. Most of the complaints about its weaknesses are probably true, but the strengths are so off-the-hook strong that they make it not just worthwhile but necessary to see the film, and see it in a theater, in 3D.

Speaking of which we saw it this time with the Real3D glasses. I wear eyeglasses, and these fit over them comfortably. I was happy with the 3D experience they provided.

What follows are some further comments that you should probably wait to read until you've seen the film, though it doesn't have plot spoilers.

Here are the storytelling risks Avatar could have taken:


Unless Bill Gates whips out his checkbook, a $300M film must be a blockbuster to make a profit for all involved.

That's impossible for a film that just shows domestically. It has to be a world blockbuster. It has to be PG-13 for all those conservative countries, and it has to have an easy to follow good guys/bad guys plot for all those lower middle class moviegoers in Lahore and Belo Horizonte and, and, and.

Of course Princess Mononoke was vastly deeper. It could make a profit on domestic Japanese sales alone. Ditto various Japanese anime series.

Ditto, for example, the scariest, most morally complex vampire film ever, the Swedish shocker "Let the right one in." Which had virtually no special effects and no name stars...and which, I'm sure, could make a profit from domestic Swedish sales alone.

And ditto another film you could compare Avatar with, the Finnish/Russian collaboration "Cuckoo."

OTOH making the Na'vi look/act so much like us might have shown a lack of imagination or simply needing to make the film fly in the world market, but it made sense biologically. Actually I objected (on scientific grounds) to the Na'vi being as different from us as they were: erect bipedal hominids aren't going to have tails. Nor blue skin. And the huge yellow eyes--you'd see that in a nocturnal animal, while the Na'vi were diurnal. The hairy USB port thing was magic with a sci-fi gloss.

I say this because sci-fi fans generally suffer from what I call the "Star Wars Cantina Syndrome." They assume aliens will look/act alien unless proven otherwise, as in Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, where everything to do with the aliens was at all times inexplicable.

But science has a great rule of thumb principle called the Assumption of Mediocrity: we assume what we see and know is par for the course unless proven otherwise.

Moreover, you can see the convergent evolutionary forces throughout nature--and I've seen nature at its wildest, most diverse and fanciful, because I'm a veteran scuba diver who has dived from Indonesia to Canada to the Caribbean. It all seems like a hurricane of life forms at first, but later you discover there's a reason for everything.

And erect bipedal hominid is the ticket for a dominant tool using terrestrial lifeform.

The hexapedal animals, pollen sucking horse equivalents and other stuff was a lot less likely. Didn't interfere with repaying that $300M investment, but it lessened my own buy-in. One of most powerful evolutionary forces we've seen is the one forcing down the leg count on terrestrial animals above the scale of one with an exoskeleton.

If you want to see a fairly recent sci-fi film with an actually interesting plot/characterizations/moral complexity, see "Serenity."

There's no use to watching Avatar and thinking about how it should have been adapted to the viewing desires of an educated minority. As others have said, just wait for the technology Cameron pioneered to become available at a lower cost.

Then it will get very exciting. But for now and forever, the most cutting edge huge-budget films will always be lowest common denominator crowd pleasers.

Except, of course, for "2001." I'm still amazed Kubrick was able to get that financed.