More By This Author

Current Issue

Current Issue

Posted: September 02, 2009

Dave on film: A sneak peek at James Cameron’s latest blockbuster-wannabe

Plus Taking Woodstock

Dave Taylor

Can 15 minutes of a movie that's not coming out until December be sufficiently interesting that people will queue up to see it, and still want to see the movie when it's released? 

 If it's from blockbuster director James Cameron, you betcha! This week I'll talk about the 15-minute preview of Avatar I saw in IMAX 3D, and also review the lackluster Taking Woodstock.

Ready? Oh, a quick tip: This might be the one column I write where having a doobie handy could well enhance your appreciation of both films... grin

Review: Avatar (Avatar Day footage)

Whether or not you liked Titanic it holds a remarkable record of being the best grossing film of all time. Yes, you read that right, over $1.5 billion in gross sales. Amazing, really.

When the director of Titanic says to the studio that he's had a dream for ten years about creating a completely different world and having a film set in that amazing fantasy universe and really doing it right, the studio says "yessir". To date, Cameron has spent over $200 million on Avatar and it's a fascinating experiment with computer-augmented cinema.

It's also garnered a huge amount of buzz, not the least of which is the amazing reputation of Cameron, but also the budget: District 9 cost less than $30mil to make, by contrast. What do you DO with $200 mil?

To promote the film and keep fans talking about the experience, Cameron hosted a one-day screening of 16 minutes of Avatar on IMAX screens throughout the United States and I was lucky enough to be invited. Donning the polarized 3D glasses, I was then blown out of my seat by the astonishing world he's wrought. Visually, Avatar is amazing!

What I was most interested in though was the story because even amazing digital effects can't make a great movie: if there's not an engaging story to tie it around, no-one is going to care and the film will end up as a technological demo reel.

Best as I could tell from the footage shown, Avatar is about the challenge and dilemma facing a soldier who has "gone native". It's a classic storyline: the mission is to represent their own nation and culture while living within another culture and people, but it's not quite that easy...

There are a number of brilliant films that have addressed this topic, with the protagonist gaining a sympathy, liking, and eventually identification with the foreign culture, including some of my very favorites, notably Lawrence of Arabia, Dances with Wolves and A Passage to India, just to name three.

In Avatar, the setting is shockingly, dramatically different than anything we've seen on screen before, but the basic storyline has a handicapped soldier, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), confined to a wheelchair and without any use of his legs, stationed on the far-distant planet Pandora where "everything wants to eat you or kill you", from the vegetation to the wildlife to the natives.

The planet is so incredibly hostile, in fact, that human soldiers wouldn't last five minutes and instead they control completely immersive "avatars", 15-foot tall blue creatures adapted to the planet's atmosphere and environment while their bodies are nestled in control devices deep within the medical facility.

Cameron knows well that without a love interest, it's not going to be a very satisfying film experience, so Sully, in native Na'Vi form, meets and falls for a local alien female called Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). She "adopts" him (in a manner that I'm guessing is quite unlike how most of the military avatars are attacked and, most likely, killed as soon as they show up on Pandora) and leads him through a variety of coming-of-age rituals in her culture that are part of the popular "going native" (or, perhaps, "hero's journey") mythic tale.

For reasons we don't learn in the footage that was included in the Avatar Day 16 minutes, the military decides to attack en masse and after learning to appreciate the beautiful, dangerous, very alien world of Pandora, we are then faced with typical military craft, gun fire, explosions, and more, all very similar to the cheesy Starship Troopers.

To really appreciate the visual brilliance of Avatar, I'd like to invite you to see my writeup on because I include lots of stills from the film.

That isn't to say that there aren't still big questions being discussed in the sci-fi and film geek worlds, including whether Avatar will look über-realistic or will the visual effects break down in certain portions, but since I'm more interested in the story anyway, I'll wait impatiently to see the other footage and finally be able to learn how Cameron tackles a classic film story in a way that's uniquely his own.

{pagebreak:Page 1}

Review: Taking Woodstock

Switching gears from space aliens to stoned hippies and free love, the other film I screened this week was Taking Woodstock.

You'd have to be hiding under a rock not to know that August was the fortieth anniversary of a little outdoor concert in upstate New York called Woodstock. On August 15, 16, and 17, 1969, an incredible lineup of over thirty folk and rock groups played on stage, including Ravi Shankar, Arlo Guthrie, The Grateful Dead, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Janis Joplin, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix.

With 500,000 in attendance, Woodstock took place in the small (population 4,200) Catskills town of Bethel, about 100 miles north of Manhattan. The movie Taking Woodstock is based on the book by the same name written by Bethel motel owner Elliot Teichberg.

Director Ang Lee does a good enough job with the historical retelling of Elliot's (Demetri Martin) story of Woodstock, but fails to create engaging characters, instead leaving us with a motley collection of one-dimensional caricatures, like Billy (Emile Hirsch) the scroungy misunderstood Vietnam war vet and Elliot's stereotypically Jewish parents, the angry, critical and secretive Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and the long-suffering Jake (Henry Goodman).

If you were at Woodstock or just love the music, you'll be disappointed how little of the concert shows up in the film: It's exactly mirrored by the presence of the momentous Apollo 11 landing in the film, which we see on TV, all but the most pivotal moment of Armstrong taking that one giant leap for mankind.

There were attempts to create drama in the movie and to perhaps dip a toe into the waters of a coming of age film, but both fell flat. For example, at one point Elliot visits his sister in Manhattan and they commiserate about their parents and the failing motel, but she then never shows up again, even as the family motel becomes the central focus of Woodstock planning.

Elliot also gets mad at his mother in one scene, but in a very tentative manner, and then their relationship is never resolved. In a third element, the local toughs paint anti-Semitic slogans on the wall of the hotel,  but then are never seen again.

The film starts with Elliot as the president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, even though he lives in New York City and is far younger than any of the other business owners in the Chamber. The family motel is $5,000 in arrears and they're begging the bank to let them have just a few more months to pay off their debt.

With few other options on the horizon, Elliot reads about the Woodstock concert losing its permit to perform in Wallkill, New York and contacts Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), offering him their acreage for the concert.

There was lots of split-screen added to the film, and a lot of digital compositing, adding the actors to stock footage from the Woodstock concert (think Forrest Gump), much of which was pretty obvious but all of which gave us a much needed actual view of the concert venue and, once or twice, the concert itself.

Organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society appear in the film too, but unlike the  actual SDS and its radical 60s activism, in Taking Woodstock the group is portrayed as a completely innocuous bunch handing out bumperstickers and complaining about the US presence in Vietnam.

Taking Woodstock is not a bad film, even given my comments, and there are some amusing moments, but ultimately the lack of any actual dramatic storyline and the preponderance of stereotypes and caricatures doom it to being boring when the concert most definitely wasn't. I'd wait until it was on DVD if you watch it at all, or perhaps consider the 1970's documentary Woodstock instead.

{pagebreak: Page 2}

Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Leave a comment

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

ColoradoBiz TV

Loading the player ...

Featured Video