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The Joy of Low Expectations

December 22, 2009

I think it’s pretty safe to say I’m something of a cynic. I learned a long time ago not to expect too much from people or events – especially those that tend to over-promise on what they can reasonably deliver. Sure, my tendency toward skepticism can make me seem curmudgeonly and my propensity to expect the worst is not always the most endearing trait. On the other hand, though, I find that it provides me with a nice little thrill when my (admittedly) low expectations are met or, even bet yet, exceeded.

Such is the case with three movies I’ve seen in recent weeks. In each case, I’d read the usual glowing reviews about amazing performances, screenplays or special effects, and still found myself heading toward the theater or my cable box fully prepared to come away disappointed. In our culture of bigger, better, bolder, I’ve found that nothing, including – and especially – Hollywood movies, lives up to the hype. So imagine my surprise when Tropic Thunder, Inglorious Basterds and, most recently, Avatar all left me entertained and, in some cases, amazed.

Let’s start with the Thunder. Even though Robert Downey Jr., a fine actor fresh off his triumphant Iron Man performance, had a starring role in this ensemble comedy, I couldn’t bring myself to pay good money to watch this in a theater. While I like both Ben Stiller and Jack Black, neither one of them are close to being my favorite actors and, the story about a movie within a movie just didn’t seem that interesting. On the other hand, I pay for a variety of movie channels at home and, when this appeared on HBO a few months ago, I figured it was worth a couple of hours of my time.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t give anything away, but I can say that I don’t remember the last time I’ve laughed that much at a movie that was actually trying to be funny. The performances were, across the board, fantastic and for as good as Downey was, Tom Cruise actually stole the show as the over-bearing studio exec. I almost feel guilt for not forking over my $10 to have watched this romp through the jungle on the big screen.

Another movie that, in retrospect, I would have happily paid to see is Inglorious Basterds. I’ve always liked Tarantino, but I find that he often tries way too hard to be clever. This sometimes results in him becoming his own worst enemy, as he creates dense, character-driven stories with such convoluted plot lines that a casual viewer can easily lose track of who’s screwing who over. Sure, his dialogue is often fresh and inventive and he casts interesting actors, but that aside, there’s often only so much Tarantino I can take before I feel like self-medicating myself.

Such is not the case with the Basterds, which features the most traditional movie arc of any Tarantino film I’ve ever watched. The story of a band of Jewish Nazi hunters relies on great performances and sparkling writing set in a rather linear format that actually enhanced my enjoyment of the movie by letting the characters logically progress from one point of the story to another rather than jumping around from unconnected point to unconnected point as so many other QT films have done. Sure, Basterds isn’t perfect, but it sure ain’t bad and I highly recommend it for an evening’s entertainment.

That said, I can’t think of a more entertaining movie than Avatar, which I watched in 3d last night. Again, when I first heard about this movie, I couldn’t get past the hype. James Cameron’s first new film since the blockbuster that was Titanic. Revolutionary new 3d animation. A budged of $250+ million. In my mind, there was no way this film could be anything but another Transformers – a potentially fun but self-indulgent exercise from a notoriously prickly director. Still, the animation did look incredible, even in the 2d previews, and I figured this was a film worth seeing on the big screen.

I’m thoroughly glad I did.

Sure, the story isn’t the most original thing you’ve ever seen and none of the actors (including the always great Sigourney Weaver) will win any Oscars for their performances, but that’s not the point of Avatar. It’s an experience with a capital E, especially in 3d. The look and feel of the movie is unlike anything I’ve seen before and Cameron uses the technology to literally draw you into the movie.

Did I openly grumble about paying $13.75 for a ticket before the movie started? Yes, I did. Would I pay that money to see the movie a second time? Happily. It’s that impressive and, if you don’t believe, go see it for yourself.

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