<p>Jake (Sam Worthington) finds himself singled out by a spiritual harbinger in James Cameron's 'Avatar'</p>

Jake (Sam Worthington) finds himself singled out by a spiritual harbinger in James Cameron's 'Avatar'

Credit: 20th Century Fox

'Avatar' footage hotly divides Fantastic Fest audiences

James Cameron's sci-fi epic continues to spark controversy

Great.  So now I'm "the angry guy."

I'm not, though.  I'm just passionate about what I've seen, and I'm increasingly irritated by some rote reactions that I think are dismissive and, frankly, demonstratably inaccurate.  I guess I'm just at the point where I feel like someone who has rejected the "Avatar" footage we've seen so far is on such a different wavelength than I am that I can't really find a common ground in what we're looking at.  Just as they can't see what I'm reacting to, I can't see what they're reacting to, and that gulf is frustrating.

Tonight, Jon Landau brought about a half-hour of foootage to the Drafthouse as part of Fantastic Fest, and while much of it was familiar for those of us who saw the Comic-Con presentation and the "Avatar" Day footage, there were two new scenes, and it was nice to see how the Real-D version of the film is going to look, having seen the IMAX 3D presentation on "Avatar" Day.  Afterwards, I had about five different conversations with five different groups of people, as well as several smaller conversations, and I've definitely seen a major divide.

The main narrative knock I keep hearing is that it's "just 'Dances With Wolves' in outer space."  Fair enough, although I don't think Kevin Costner created this particular basic storyline.  He just happened to hit a pop culture home run with his version.  I think it's a fairly simple and, yes, familiar spine for a movie:  a guy from our culture encounters a native people who he is drawn to, and the more he engages with their culture, the more he wakes up to the things that are wrong with his own culture.  It's a fish out of water story, and it's also a story about our own values as seen through new eyes.  If that automatically bothers you, then nothing's going to suddenly win you over and convince you.  There are several people I've spoken with now who just plain hate that storyline, and my guess is that they'll feel the same way after the film as they feel right now.  If I hate romantic comedies about people who lie and lie and lie and lie and suddenly succeed in spite of all that, then I can pretty much count on each and every Kate Hudson film annoying me.  Sometimes, a film isn't made for you, and it's better to accept that and just recuse yourself than it is to pound on a movie for what it's not, rather than what it is.

[more after the jump]

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<p>Rain stars as a dude who looks exactly like I do with my shirt off in 'Ninja Assassin,' one of the high-profile premieres at Fantastic Fest 2009</p>

Rain stars as a dude who looks exactly like I do with my shirt off in 'Ninja Assassin,' one of the high-profile premieres at Fantastic Fest 2009

Credit: Warner Bros.

The M/C Review: 'Ninja Assassin' is bloody good fun

Wafer-thin but enjoyable gore fest makes Rain a credible movie star

James McTeigue, director of "V For Vendetta," is back in the saddle for the new Warner Bros. action movie "Ninja Assassin," and the good news is that it's an energetic, gore-soaked bit of fun. 

It's Teflon, slick and without substance, and you may have a hard time describing the film's plot two hours after you see it, but I'm not sure I would hold that against the film.  It's so aggressive about delivering a series of crazy set pieces that I admire it for it's single-mindedness, and there's at least one major choice made by McTeigue that I really like.

Hats off to Warner Bros. for taking a chance on Rain as a lead actor.  Although I'm one of the most ardent supporters of "Speed Racer," I wasn't convinced that Rain really worked as a lead.  Here, he's absolutely charismatic enough to pull it off, and although it's a very simple character arc overall, Rain plays enough shade and nuance to make me think he can handle even more the next time out.

Naomie Harris ("Miami Vice," "Pirates Of The Caribbean") stars as an analyst for an intelligence agency who is convinced that she's uncovered proof of a shadowy organization of ninjas who work as paid assassins around the world.  Her investigation eventually brings her face to face with Raizo (Rain), who is the one member of that organization to ever successfully walk away.  Together, they go on the run and have to face down the killers who are chasing them.

The end.  It really is just that simple.  There's some stuff about Raizo's childhood, and some stuff about the people Harris works for, but most of the film is a chase, one set piece to the next, and on that level, it really works.  McTeigue's best decision in the entire film is to shoot the ninjas as monsters and to shoot the film as a horror movie.  That way, it gives him permission to keep them offscreen except for glimpses, and it keeps them from feeling ridiculous.  Cranking up the gore to a ridiculous degree also works in the film's favor.  The action choreography is good but it's also studio-safe, meaning you don't get the same kind of kinetic "did they just kill that guy?" thrills you get from Thai action movies, so they ladle on the CGI gore as a distraction.

[more after the jump]

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<p>An iconic image from one of the most iconic films in Hollywood history as 'The Wizard Of Oz' arrives on BluRay this week</p>

An iconic image from one of the most iconic films in Hollywood history as 'The Wizard Of Oz' arrives on BluRay this week

Credit: Warner Home Video

DVD & Games Forecast: 'Wizard Of Oz' dazzles in BluRay

Plus 'Monsters vs. Aliens' and Jim Henson fantasies on BluRay

Welcome to the DVD & Games Forecast for Sept. 27, 2009.

I'm not going to dwell on this one today because I'm in Austin for Fantastic Fest.  As much as I'm going to want to dig into my stack of new titles when I get home, this week is all about Fantastic Fest.


"The Wizard Of Oz: 70th Anniversary Collection" (BluRay)

Even if you're not at Fantastic Fest, you have the option now of picking up the single most remarkable film experience of the week, taking it home, and enjoying it on your own high-definition set-up.  A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going to Warner Bros. to watch a demonstration of how they had handled the clean-up and restoration process for the new 70th anniversary release of "The Wizard Of Oz."  It is a sensational, jaw-dropping, standard bearing release of the film, and even having seen the film however many times over the course of my lifetime, I felt like I was looking at something brand new.

Using the original three-strip Technicolor elements and taking them through an 8K scan, George Feltenstein and his amazing team have worked real miracles with this picture.  They've coaxed details out of the picture that have never been part of image before, freckles on Dorothy or the details of her gingham dress or the carvings on a table in the witch's home or Toto's eyes.  There are so many of them that my first viewing of the film, I barely watched the story because I was so amazed by the visual grace notes.

In addition to a jaw-dropping transfer, the 70th anniversary collection comes with a slew of extra features, including a fistful of silent-era "Oz" movies, a new documentary on the restoration, and a lovely "Oz" wristwatch.

[more after the jump]

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<p>Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle return in the action sequel 'District 13: Ultimatum'</p>

Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle return in the action sequel 'District 13: Ultimatum'

Credit: Magnolia/Europa

The M/C Review: 'D13: Ultimatum'

Bone-crunching parkour action movie reteams original's leads effectively

I've got a real soft spot for the Luc Besson action movie sausage factory.  They are all generally the same film, narrow variations on formula.  As such, I tend to enjoy these variations, and how much I enjoy them depends largely on who's starring.

It's nice then that "District 13: Ultimatum" is a direct sequel to "District 13," because the reason to see this is the chemistry between Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle as a supercop and a street rat, forced once again to team up to save the militarized slum of District 13.  The problem is that the film takes soooooo long to put them together again that by the time they do end up fighting side-by-side, the movie's in the home stretch and heading into act three.  Still, there are a number of solid and inventive action scenes heading up to that moment, so I'm not saying the film's a wash.  I just think any time you have the two of them together, it's gold.

Luc Besson's got sole screenplay credit on this one, and his director is Patrick Alessandrin, who really hasn't done one of these before.  He handles the action fairly well, shooting some of it to particularly bone-crunching effect.  I can honestly say after this one that I will do whatever it takes to get through the rest of my life without getting kicked by Cyril Raffaelli.  It looks like the end of the world, each and every time.

[more after the jump]

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<p>Heath Ledger's last performance is just one of the many virtues of Terry Gilliam's latest film, 'The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus'</p>

Heath Ledger's last performance is just one of the many virtues of Terry Gilliam's latest film, 'The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus'

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The M/C Review: 'The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus'

Terry Gilliam's latest dazzles and delights

It would be an understatement to say that I was excited by tonight's secret screening, the third of the festival, when it was revealed conclusively that we'd be seeing "The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus."

Although Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" is one of my two favorite films, it's been a while since I wholeheartedly adored one of his movies.  After talking to him this summer, it was obvious that he thought he'd done something special, and now that I've finally laid eyes on it myself, I would agree.

Working with co-writer Charles McKeown, Gilliam has crafted a simple, desperate little fable about the things we wish for, the things we fight for, and the things we are unable to change or control.  It's very much a "Terry Gilliam film" in a way we haven't seen since "Munchausen," and it's almost eerie how well the film serves as a thematic goodbye to Heath Ledger thematically in a way no one could have predicted.  It's a sad film, a film made by a filmmaker who is looking at the end of his career in the foreseeable future, and comparing this to his earlier fantasy films reveals some fascinating evolutions in his outlook as an artist.  Just on that level, I'd argue it's a significant entry in his filmography.

But beyond that, it's also an entertaining, imaginative effort that indicates that Gilliam can still summon magic when he's given the proper support.

That's always been the issue, hasn't it?  I've always wondered why you would hire Terry Gilliam and then fight him on every creative choice, and yet it's happened repeatedly.  Even on films where he's not actively being fought by his producers, he almost seems cursed.  Here, it feels like this is his film, for better or for worse, from start to finish.

[more after the jump]

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<p>Paramount's trying to build a grass-roots campaign for 'Paranormal Activity,' a horror film shot for less than $100,000</p>

Paramount's trying to build a grass-roots campaign for 'Paranormal Activity,' a horror film shot for less than $100,000

Credit: Paramount Pictures

The M/C Review: 'Paranormal Activity' sneaks up on the audience

Micro-budget horror film offers genuine scares

I originally reviewed "Paranormal Activity" back in January of 2008, the same time that I reviewed "Cloverfield," and since then I've been waiting for people to get their shot at seeing this micro-budget haunted house movie.  Finally laying eyes on it again, this time with a full audience at the Drafthouse, that wait feels justified.  As long as Paramount doesn't oversell the film too hard, they've got a shot at a real buzz sensation here.

Here's some of what I originally had to say about it:

... I'm not sure who is going to buy PARANORMAL ACTIVITY after it screens at Slamdance, but I'm fairly sure someone will. It's an accomplished little thriller that uses the "found footage" framework to tell a ghost story that is more effective than any remake of a Japanese ghost story that the studios have offered up in the last five years.

So when you buy it, Hypothetical Distributor, do yourself a favor. Right away, play it straight. When you sell it, use the actors. When you put up the website, don't try to convince me it's real. The thing about these viral games and this sort of "extended reality" thing is that you have to be careful. Too much of it can turn the audience against your film or create expectations your film can't deliver. When people invested time and attention in all the online games for CLOVERFIELD (which wasn't that much, truth be told... a few websites updated sporadically with a few cryptic bits and pieces), they built up this mythology that they thought was going to play out in the film. However, by the very nature of what kind of movie they set out to make, director Matt Reeves and writer Goddard and producer Abrams never planned to offer ANY answers, something which has infuriated some viewers.

[more after the jump]

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<p>Patrick Fugit, Chris Massoglia, and Jessica Carlson react to one of the many nasty surprises in Paul Weitz's film version of the popular 'Cirque Du Freak' series</p>

Patrick Fugit, Chris Massoglia, and Jessica Carlson react to one of the many nasty surprises in Paul Weitz's film version of the popular 'Cirque Du Freak' series

Credit: Universal Studios

The M/C Review: 'Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant'

The first of the Weitz Bros./vampire franchise movies to screen this fall... how is it?!

The trickiest part of any intentionally-structured franchise movie making is that you run the risk of making the audience feel that they've been cheated of a complete experience in favor of a set-up.

"Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" certainly suffers from a bit of that, which is a shame because in the film's best moments, it offers up a weird and occasionally wonderful fantasy world.

I haven't read the Darren Shan books that the film is based on, but I'm generally aware of them.  Like the Series of Unfortunate Events, Darren Shan is both author and character, and here, Chris Massoglia plays Shan as an average high school boy, eager to please his demanding parents (Don McManus and Colleen Camp) by doing well in school and behaving himself at every opportunity.  His best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) is the opposite, a loney troubled kid who has no real ties to life except Darren.  When the two of them attend an after-hours freak show and encounter a real vampire, Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), both of their lives are changed, and what begins as a close friendship becomes a deadly rivalry.

Darren has no interest in becoming a vampire or in leaving home, but he is forced into it when he makes a deal to save someone's life.  Crepsley presses Darren into service, making him a half-vampire and putting him to work as his assistant.  Darren joins Crepsley in his life on the road with the Cirque Du Freak, and some of the best stuff in the movie deals with life behind the scenes in the show.  The rest of the freaks are fleshed out by an interesting and totally game cast of supporting actors.  Patrick Fugit ("Almost Famous") is very funny as Evra the Snake Boy and Jessica Carlson is charming and sweet as Rebecca, whose freakish nature is a secret that Darren has to earn from her.

[more after the jump]

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<p>Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg co-star in the horror-comedy 'Zombieland,' which turns out to be one of the fall's biggest surprises</p>

Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg co-star in the horror-comedy 'Zombieland,' which turns out to be one of the fall's biggest surprises

Credit: Sony Pictures

The M/C Review: 'Zombieland' delivers big laughs

Horror-comedy isn't easy, but this film does it well

Horror-comedy is one of the most difficult genres to pull off, and the list of titles that have crashed and burned when trying to mix the two is legion.  I know why people keep trying, though... there's a delicious appeal to seeing it done right.  If you pull it off, you end up with "An American Werewolf In London" or "Shaun Of The Dead," and those are films that play beyond a genre audience.

I think it's safe to assume that "Zombieland" will end up on that list of attempts that worked, and there's a chance for this film to be a huge breakout audience smash. 

It's got nothing on its mind beyond pleasing you from scene to scene, set piece to set piece, and director Ruben Fleischer ladles on just enough style to make it all fun without overwhelming the simple leasures of the film completely.  Jesse Eisenberg further hones the awkward-but-sort-of-cool white nerd archetype that he and Michael Cera seem to be perfecting these days, and Woody Harrelson steps up with a badass zombie-killing persona that somehow manages to not play as yet another knockoff of Bruce Campbell's Ash.  Throw in a sultry Emma Stone, a charming Abigail Breslin, some of the most enjoyable daffy narrative left turns in any mainstream film this year, and the entire thing adds up to a really solid piece of popcorn that has just enough red meat for real horror fans, but not enough to turn off the mainstream.

At the start of the film, Columbus (Eisenberg) is on his own, and that's the way he likes it.  The world has fallen to the zombie plague, and survivors are few and far-between.  Columbus is an unlikely survivor, as if Woody Allen were the star of "I Am Legend," and it's largely because of his list of rules that he has developed.  Fleischer visualizes the list of rules in a very clever way, and the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick demonstrates why those rules are important, making for a solid and satisfying act one in the film.

[more after the jump]

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<p>James Purefoy brings Robert E. Howard's 'Solomon Kane' to life in a new fantasy film by director Michael Bassett</p>

James Purefoy brings Robert E. Howard's 'Solomon Kane' to life in a new fantasy film by director Michael Bassett

Credit: Davis Films

Fantastic Fest Mini: 'Solomon Kane' kicks ass for the Lord in '80s throwback

Robert E. Howard's first pulp hero finally comes to life

Michael Bassett has been toiling in the world of low-budget horror for most of the decade, managing to bring two small films to the screen so far.  "Deathwatch" and "Wilderness" are both promising pictures that are hampered more by ambition than by anything, and it's obvious that Bassett has a big imagination he's been itching to set loose.

It seems perfect, then, that he was tapped to bring Robert E. Howard's first great pulp creation to life.  Everyone knows Conan the Barbarian, but Solomon Kane was actually created while Howard was still in high school, and it's a far more difficult character to get a handle on, particularly considering modern cinema trends.  Much of the iconography of Kane has been co-opted by other filmmakers, most notably with the visual appearance of Hugh Jackman's "Van Helsing,' who is essentially ripped off wholesale from Kane.  If you compare that film to this one, though, I think the things that Bassett does right are magnified, and it speaks well of where he's heading as a filmmaker.

Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) is a bloodthirsty battle-hardened bastard when we meet him at the start of the film, and it's only when he comes face to face with one of the Devil's Reapers that he is forced to confront the cumulative weight of all the sins he has committed.  Realizing his soul is in danger of damnation, he retreats to the safety of a cloistered abbey, where he covers himself in religious iconography and spends his time praying for salvation.  He's sent out into the world, though, told that he will find his redemption through actions, not prayers, and the rest of the movie is the story of this perfectly-honed killing machine doing his best to become a man of peace.  When he finally does decide to kill again, the difference is the reason why, and he ends up seeking his salvation at the end of a sword.

[more after the jump]

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<p><span class="smallest">Jemaine Clement is a stand-out in Jared Hess's new comedy 'Gentlemen Broncos'</span></p>

Jemaine Clement is a stand-out in Jared Hess's new comedy 'Gentlemen Broncos'

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Fantastic Fest Mini: 'Gentlemen Broncos' and settling in

Scattershot grotesquerie not enough to make this film work

As the first day of Fantastic Fest ends and I prepare to take a quick nap before diving into my second full day of programming, I want to take a quick look back at what we've already seen in the first day.

I got into town around noon, picked up my car, and then immediately drove straight to the S. Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, where badge pickup takes place.  I love the Alamo staff, and the volunteers, and the festival programmers, and the audience... it's one of those happy collisions where everyone seems to be in the same general spirit, everyone here for the same reason.  There's no other festival anywhere that works so hard to keep so many people so happy, and as soon as I walked through the doors of the theater, all the stress of the last few weeks started to melt away.

A quick lunch at Threadgill's, an hour or two of unconsciousness, and then I was up and on my way downtown for the opening night movie at the Paramount.  I adore the Alamo, but over the last year, I've begun to warm to the particular charms of the Paramount, a true movie palace that's been an Austin fixture since the vaudeville days.  It's a very different vibe than the Alamo screens, but as soon as Tim League took the stage tonight, he made it clear that he is ready for this year's party to get started.  His special thanks were particularly poignant tonight, with his mention of his awesome wife Keri, who is so obviously a big part of Tim's ongoing success.  For a guy who is slowly but surely taking over the world, Tim still seems like he's not about anything other than entertaining an audience.

[more after the jump]

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