There are visual wonders galore in James Cameron's science-fiction epic Avatar, but what's most amazing about the film's design is how offhandedly wondrous it is.

Cameron's floating-jungle world of Pandora, populated by vicious, toothy beasties and a race of peaceful, elongated, turquoise-blue natives called the Na'vi, is a marvel of imagination, and boasts a scale and scope that few movies attempt, let alone pull off. Avatar's writer/director, though, is so thoroughly, gleefully immersed in his make-believe universe that he never calls undue attention to the miracles on display. Nearly every frame of the movie features thrillingly unusual, eye-catching details: equestrian creatures with six legs; a lemur with arms resembling wishbones; terrain that glows when walked on, like the oversized piano keyboard in Big. Yet there's nothing self-congratulatory about these astonishments, which are oftentimes tucked away into remote corners of the compositions; Cameron wows you with stunning beauty, but invites you to notice the specifics, or not, at your leisure. Avatar is truly something to see. I just wish it wasn't so painful to listen to.

I understand that Cameron is an auteur, and from what I've read, probably not the easiest guy to get along with. But considering that Avatar's budget was a reported $230 million, couldn't, say, one million have been spent for a decent script collaborator? Uninteresting though it is, I really don't have a huge problem with the film's main storyline, which is like a trippy sci-fi take on Dances with Wolves or Disney's Pocahontas: White man infiltrates the natives' home turf, falls in love with their customs and a resident hottie, and eventually leads them in a fierce revolt against his own people. Yet despite Avatar's predictable arc - there isn't really one narrative surprise over 160 minutes - Cameron's stultifyingly leaden conversation is far more bothersome; the Pandora effects soar, but whenever some character makes the mistake of speaking, it all comes crashing down.

As those who saw Titanic can attest, Cameron's tin ear is hardly news. But as proven by this year's Star Trek and District 9, it's not an either/or proposition to ask for a smart, literate script to match excellent sci-fi visuals. You wouldn't know it from Avatar, though, which finds you wincing for fine actors such as Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, and Giovanni Ribisi, all forced into voicing one cringe-worthy howler after another. (It is, however, heartening to discover that references to Ranger Rick, Jujubes, and the Funky Chicken have survived into Avatar's year-2154 setting.) And when you're not being pummeled by the graceless dialogue, which is never worse than when aiming for iconicity - lead Sam Worthington all but shrieks "Freedom!!!" during his Braveheart-esque pep talk to the troops - James Horner's Irish-flute-heavy score is so hysterically derivative that a Leonardo DiCaprio cameo wouldn't come as any kind of shock. (Not that one is necessary, as the generally dull Worthington at least provides expert mimicry of DiCaprio's "Whoo-hoo!" excitement.)

Yet Cameron's film is so exquisite looking, and its battle scenes so thrillingly staged, that most audiences will no doubt let its creator off on a pass - again - for his dispiriting screenwriting shortcomings. And considering the visual magic on display, it would be hard to blame them, especially since Avatar does manage to top Titanic in one regard; unlike in that crowd-pleasing monster hit, it doesn't take Cameron a full three hours, this time, to turn his protagonist blue.


Mo'Nique in Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by SapphirePRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE

You may have heard that, in her portrayal of Precious' nightmarishly abusive welfare mother, comedienne and talk-show host Mo'Nique is incredible. Trust me, until you've actually seen her harrowing, ferociously brave depiction of unadulterated and human evil, you have no idea just how incredible. In real life, you wouldn't want to spend even three minutes with Mo'Nique's Mary, the monstrous tormentor to Gabourey Sidibe's morbidly obese, painfully withdrawn title character. On-screen, though, I could've watched Mo'Nique play his hateful woman all day long. The verbally, physically assaultive Mary is never less than repellant, and somehow even more loathsome when, in an astonishing climactic monologue, she offers a self-serving rationale for her behavior. Yet while Mary is plunging the lower depths, her portrayer is positively elating; this transcendent performance is alive with exhilarating control and gut-wrenching fearlessness.

I wish the rest of Precious (full, unwieldy titlle - Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) were at Mo'Nique's caliber, but in truth, director Lee Daniels' inner-city drama just misses. Despite the believable grit, this independent film's inspirational-teacher angle - featuring an ethereally loving, wise Paula Patton - isn't any less slick or convenient than when Hollywood foists it on us, and there are too many moments here that don't seem to counter exploitation clichés so much as queasily embrace them. (What are we to make of the scene where Precious steals, and subsequently consumes, an entire bucket of fried chicken?) Still, there's a lot about Precious that's very good, including the wonderfully unforced performances by Lenny Kravitz and a revelatory Mariah Carey, and Mo'Nique's transformative turn is not to be missed; she handily makes the mother from hell heaven on Earth.


Viggo Mortensen in The RoadTHE ROAD

In addition to Precious, this past weekend also delivered the area debut of The Road, the film version of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning downer about a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) contending with despair, starvation, and marauding cannibals in a gray-skied, post-apocalyptic America. Happy Holidays, moviegoers!

As screen adaptations go, director John Hillcoat's, with its script by Joe Penhall, is an unusually faithful one; beyond some well-placed, well-played flashbacks with Charlize Theron as Mortensen's wife, the film follows McCarthy's novel practically moment for moment. What it doesn't quite capture, though, is the book's raw, emotional power. Mortensen, who gives an anguished and deeply empathetic performance, is cast to perfection, and the scenic design borders on the astonishing; with its dilapidated homes and ash-covered desolation, you've never seen end-of-days emptiness looking quite this empty. But there's a bit of a made-for-TV banality about Hillcoat's pacing and compositions - this work that screams for memorable imagery has almost none - and Nick Cave's and Warren Ellis' score, while frequently beautiful, telegraphs the drama too neatly for comfort. (Employing no score at all, while a potentially alienating risk, might've been a smarter way to go - and certainly would've been closer to the spirit of McCarthy's vision.) It's a solid stab at intensely tricky source material, and a reasonably effective movie in its own right, but you still leave The Road wishing it had moved you more, and understanding why so many fans considered the book to be unfilmable. It turns out they may have been right.

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