Saturday, January 30, 2010

Toerifc February: Sam Fuller's White Dog

Toerifc February is almost upon us.  On Wednesday the 10th Joseph Campanella will be hosting the discussion at his blog Cinema Fist and the film he has chosen is Sam Fuller's 1982 film White Dog.  Fair warning:  It is not on Netflix Instant Viewing, Amazon Video on Demand or i-tunes - You must get the DVD itself from Netflix, Blockbuster or your local rental store of choice.  Don't wait until the last minute.  Get the movie and enjoy it now. 

Here are the two sidebar banners.  You have your choice of angry, attacking dog or calm, pensive dog.  I chose angry, attacking dog to scare away solicitors from the site.  Link the picture to Toerifc where the date and time as well as the two banners will be displayed on the top selections post.  Thanks and see you there!


Friday, January 29, 2010

Opening Credits I Love:
Bunny Lake is Missing

Everyone seems to have a favorite Saul Bass opening credit sequence. Lord knows, the man did so many and with so much ingenuity it's easy to see why so many claim his credit sequences as their favorites but it also presents the problem of which one to choose. With such credit sequences as Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, North by Northwest and Walk on the Wild Side on his resume it's a veritable cornucopia of title sequences from which to choose. And while it's hard to deny those, especially that slinking black cat from Walk on the Wild Side, I have to go with Bunny Lake is Missing for my own personal favorite.

One of the factors in my choice, aside from the obvious, which is to say the fantastic tearing away motif, is probably that I like Bunny Lake more than Walk on the Wild Side what with its twists and turns, Keir Dullea on the swingset and Noel Coward in one of the most entertaining supporting performances of the sixties. And of course there's Laurence Olivier, walking through all of it with his kitchen sink accent, the kind he used in his cameo in The Magic Box or in his role of Archie Rice in The Entertainer, the kind where he tries to sound as if he isn't completely refined and sort of succeeds. And I'm not being derisive, I love Olivier's kitchen sink accent, even if it never quite pulls off the deception. It has a wonderfully rugged flatness about it that's entertaining just to listen to.

Back to the credits. I love them enough that they even inspired one of my favorite banners of the nearly 400 I've made here at Cinema Styles, this one here. Anyway, enough of this talk. The credits speak for themselves... and here they are.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Straight, No Chaser? Those Hurtin' Basterds

I watched The Hurt Locker recently and started thinking about the nature of film and how writers and directors use different approaches to achieve various results.  In this case I was thinking of war movies and specifically the two most recent I have seen, The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds.   I started to think about those cocktail party distinictions between the Documentary-Style war film and the Hollywood war film.  Basically, the Doc-Style film, The Hurt Locker, has a gritty verisimilitude, an uncomfortable relationship with reality that keeps the viewer off-balance while the Hollywood war film, Inglourious Basterds, goes for fantasy and mythos and uses the language of film to achieve something that in the real world does not exist.  These days most war films fall into The Hurt Locker column but for decades most war movies fell squarely into the Inglourious Basterds one.  

Back in the forties and fifties Hollywood made almost as many war films as it made westerns but even when Hollywood was trying to play it in earnest, with films like The Sands of Iwo Jima, they still wore their patriotism on their sleeve and kept the physical horrors of war well hidden from the innocent audience.  There was the occasional film like Battleground to keep the Doc-Style fires burning but for the most part Hollywood went the other way.  By the sixties and seventies, with movies like Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone and Kelly's Heroes, the Hollywod war film became the standard and World War II - the greatest conflict in human history with over fifty million (some stats say 60) casualties, the first use of nuclear weapons on a civilian population and a wholesale and systematic genocide that shocked the world - became a backdrop for the latest action or heist plot.  While there were serious war films, like Battle of the Bulge or the biopic Patton, they still had a glossy technicolor finish that distinguished them from the gritty black and white of Battleground in the years before.  Some films like Tora, Tora, Tora even tried to overtly emulate a documentary style but still came off feeling like an action movie (at least its last 15 minutes), not a presentation on the horrors of war. 

Then by the late seventies Vietnam became a subject for war films and because the actual war had been seen in news footage during the sixties and seventies it seemed wrong to try and gloss it up for a movie version, as John Wayne had done with The Green Berets in 1969.  But somewhere between The Deer Hunter and Platoon, Rambo was born and suddenly Vietnam had the same Hollywood style action pics of old being made with it as a backdrop.  The Missing in Action movies would continue the trend.  It was in the nineties, with Saving Private Ryan in particular, that the gritty Doc-Style war film finally wound its way back to World War II but moreso found its new look with a decision director Steven Spielberg and DP Janusz Kaminski made to desaturate the colors for the film's in-the-field scenes and desaturation has been upon us ever since.  In fact, it has become so prevalent, achieving cliche status years ago, that most studios attempt to use it to repackage the past.  Below is the new DVD cover for Patton as well as the original cover.  The new cover takes the glorious technicolor of Patton and desaturates it in, I suppose, some sort of futile effort to fool the modern viewer into thinking that Patton has the same textures of the modern war films to which they have become accustomed.  That Inglourious Basterds nixed this approach and went back to the classic Hollywood style look seems downright revolutionary considering the now standard Doc-Style approach. 



But which is better?  Or is one better?  Or is it something to be taken on a case by case basis?  Most likely case by case as with most things in life.  I find I enjoy the Hollywood style more although at a younger age I would have certainly gone with the Doc-Style.  I can just see my younger self spouting nonsense about the gritty realism and the verisimilitude and how those older films, while great, didn't really give one the feel of war.  Well, yeah, I guess but cinema is an art form.  I'll never have the feel of war unless I go to war and listening to the stories of soldiers in interviews and seeing the horrific scenes in news photos and videos will bring the experience much closer to me than any movie so I turn to the cinema, as I always do, to give me something else.  I turn to the cinema for unique experiences that fall outside the range of the real.   I love The Bridge on the River Kwai precisely because it doesn't give me story of what it's like to be a prisoner of war under the Japanese, it gives me the story of a mentally unbalanced Colonel unwittingly helping the enemy and a slacker American soldier forced to go stop him.   There are certainly elements of realism throughout but that's not why I go to it.  I go to it for the story and the characters and how the war is used to support that story and those characters.  In many ways, Kwai is the best balance between both styles of war movies, giving us some realism and plenty of fantasy.  And it's here that my thoughts return to The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds because they exist not in between, as Kwai does, but at opposite poles. 

I found The Hurt Locker to be an excellent example of Doc-Style war filmmaking but as Roderick Heath said to me an online conversation, I find it hard to have anything else but technical admiration for it.  It is intense, as they say, with one tension-building suspense scene after another.  The camera is hand held but not too shaky.  The shoot-out in the desert is brilliantly done.  But when they got to the end, and the heavy metal started playing and the lead character was back on duty I found myself profound unaffected on any real cinematic level.  Emotionally it worked as well as it could I suppose, and to it's credit it doesn't waste time trying to insincerely tug at the viewer's heartstrings.  It presents the situation as is (soldiers, death, bombs, diffusing, the end) and leaves it up to you to take or give whatever emotional response feels right.  But cinematically it felt too technically proficient and not artisically reaching enough. 


Should The Hurt Locker win Best Picture I will have no real qualms but given the choice between it and Inglourious Basterds I'll go with the basterds every time.  That movie, brilliantly using cinematic formalism to contrive a post-modern fantasy, felt alive to me and pulsating in every frame.  No shaky cam, no blurred action, no ramping, just steady shots following the characters in dialogue as their actions and words lead us to a fantastical conclusion that redefines both the Hollywood style war film as well as the Revenge Fantasy film, mixing Where Eagles Dare with Death Wish and then presenting the whole thing with the patience and confidence of a director not afraid to observe his characters and scenes until they are ready to exit on their own terms. 

I have several Doc-Style war films that I love but probably many more Hollywood style ones in the final analysis.  The Bridge on the River Kwai, falling in between as it does, will probably always be my favorite as well as many other 'tweeners, like Patton.   I may like the occasional straight up, no chaser serving of the gritty war drama, but in the end I think I prefer to have mine with a twist.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday Morning Mumbles


First, the next Toerifc discussion will be a little earlier in the month than usual for the February selection because we want to get it in before the Film Preservation blogathon which begins on February 14th, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. After two months off Toerifc will return on Wednesday, February 10th at the usual time of 10 a.m E.S.T. with a discussion on Sam Fuller's White Dog (1982), hosted by Joseph Campanella at Cinema Fist. I'll have up promotional sidebar banners in a day or two. I look forward to seeing the movie and seeing you there for the discussion.

Second, some of you may have noticed the Cinema Styles Screening Room banner to the left in the sidebar. This is something I've been doing for a couple of months now and just started to advertise it. Basically, the software I have now makes it so easy to record and edit clips from movies that I find myself doing it whenever I watch them on my computer. If an ending is a favorite or a scene catches my eye I'll edit it and put it up, if only to return later to watch it again. And now you can too. As Cinema Styles pares down to reviews, essays and video posts (like The Land Before CGI and Opening Credits I Love), I'm putting up stills and video clips at Unexplained Cinema and Cinema Styles Screening Room (and the joke posts are now almost entirely reserved for Facebook). I hope you'll enjoy visiting them when you can.

Third, I watched The 400 Blows again the other day (and put up a post on it at Unexplained Cinema and a clip at The Screening Room) and was reminded how beautiful it is. It had been years since I'd seen it last and I think perhaps I'd forgotten too much about it. But mainly what struck me was the realization that I love, absolutely love, long takes. Not enough directors do it anymore. And I'm not necessarily talking about masterful long takes of complex scenes done without a single cut like the dynamite planting scene in Touch of Evil, although I love that too, but shots of someone going to a destination and the director having the patience, and guts, to simply show it in real time rather than cut it down to speed things up. There's something hypnotic about watching the banal unfold. Watch the clip to see what I mean. And now I must watch Stolen Kisses again immediately and you can be sure when I do you'll see a post or two, or three, up on it soon after. Cheers!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Opening Scenes I Love:
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

And now for the second in the series, Opening Credits I Love. For this edition we have Martin Scorsese's 1974 Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, not a film most people think of when they think of Scorsese but another great entry nonetheless in his stunning succession of films that started with Mean Streets in 1973 and ran through King of Comedy in 1983. Watching it again this week I realized that so many Scorsese films have superb opening title sequences. Think about the cab moving through the smoke and steam rising up from hell at the beginning of Taxi Driver or the beautiful image of Jake LaMotta, alone in the ring, shadow-boxing, in the opening of Raging Bull. Whatever you may think of the movies, and I think highly of them, those opening title sequences are marvelous. But here, in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, we have my favorite of all Scorsese's openings.

It begins in Academy aspect ratio rather than widescreen as the music and blue satin background emulate the starry-eyed showbiz tales of old. After the titles themselves comes Scorsese's version of Dorothy's Kansas, except it's in color with a Gone With the Wind tinted red sky throughout. Alice as a child strolls along the landscape singing and despite the lack of appreciation she feels she gets, she knows she will be a star. Only little Alice's language betrays the rustic nostalgia on display, purposefully, and helps jolt the viewer forward in time to the present where, aided by Mott the Hoople's All the Way from Memphis and a sweeping crane shot (GWTW again?) that beautifully makes majestic the ordinary, we find the grown-up Alice at a sewing machine (Singer?), presumably having never succeeded in becoming a big-time entertainer. It's a fantastic introduction to the character and the story and it's one of my favorite opening credit sequences. Enjoy.



At Unexplained Cinema, the dark side of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Land Before CGI: 1941


Welcome to another edition of The Land Before CGI. In this edition, we'll be covering 1941, the infamous Steven Spielberg comedy that laid a big box office egg back in 1979. After its disappointing initial run it found success on network and cable television with the extended version. I'm personally not a fan of either but must admit the extended version is infinitely better. Netflix currently has the theatrical version which is so choppy and exits so many scenes before they finish you'll find yourself hitting the "eject" button almost before you begin. The extended version may not tickle anyone's funny bone either but at least it makes sense. It is the extended version that has become a mini-cult classic, mini in that it's not revered like so many low budgets cult-classics of the sixties but still has a faithful following. But this is The Land Before CGI so I'm not here to talk about the film's success or failure at the comedic level but at the miniature and full-scale effects level and there it succeeds mightily.

Special Effects creator and legend A. D. Flowers worked closely with Miniatures Supervisor Gregory Jein and fellow effects legend L.B. Abbott to achieve a seamless flow between live-action shots and miniatures, used interchangeably throughout. The alternate shots between real planes, close-ups of actors in mock-ups and models flying through elaborate miniaturized sets blend together so well that at times the viewer would be hard-pressed to point out where one ends and the other begins. It was in this period, the late seventies through the late eighties that miniature work reached its greatest heights before computer generated imagery would forever relegate it to the dustbin of cinematic history.

While the miniature sets and airplane shots are terrific it is the movie's final two set-pieces that raise the bar as high as they could be raised for such work, the Ferris Wheel sequence and the house by the sea sequence. Neither is particularly funny, mind you, but visually awesome they are indeed. The Ferris Wheel scene was done using a miniature set of an amusement park by the ocean and the house scene was shot using a full-scale gutted mock-up of a real goddamn house, falling over a cliff.

That's Eddie Deezen (with his dummy) and Murray Hamilton in the Ferris Wheel and on the sub giving the order to fire is the great Toshiro Mifune. I chose to start that scene not with the order to fire but a beat before where Deezen proclaims they are trapped, "like beavers," which may be one of the funniest lines in the movie for me (as well as almost everything that comes out of Slim Pickens' mouth).

In the house scene you'll see a trim Ned Beatty with most of the rest of the cast (which you can find at IMDB) if you so desire) but keep an eye out for a very young Mickey Rourke, making his film debut. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Seven things I know about me


Thanks to Bill Ryan and Kimberly Lindbergs I am the recipient of two award thingys but as Kimberly says at Cinebeats, they're really just excuses to start a meme. So first, a special thanks to Bill and Kimberly and a double thanks to Kimberly for giving me two awards, the unnamed award Bill gave me and the Zombie Chicken Award.

For the first award there's all kinds of rule stuff the first of which is to post all the rule stuff here, which I'll do, via a link to Bill and Kimberly where they have kindly already posted it for me. Thanks guys! Just check them out if you want to know all the rules, which I technically posted because I did provide links. You're also supposed to put up a picture of the award but I'm not going to for a couple of reasons. One, I hate substituting the letter "k" for the letter "c" in advertising or promotion, such as the name of the award which is "The Kreativ Blogger Award" (and no, it's not the German spelling because that spelling has an "e" at the end). Why the "e" was removed I don't know but, two, the main reason I'm not putting up the actual image is because it is an atrocity of design with its checker patterns and circles, ribbons with blues and pinks and a truly horrible script font and... well, to whoever originally created that award logo may I just say, "Job shittily done! Please never design anything again." The only really important rules, the sole reasons for the meme to exist, are to name seven interesting things about yourself and give the award to seven others so let's get started.

1. I am a mammal.
2. My tail is functional but not prehensile.
3. True story: One time I met this guy while I was out walking. He stopped in his car and said, "Excuse me," and then proceeded to ask me for directions. I then gave him sufficient directions to arrive at his destination. Didn't make a word of that up. Really happened that way. Seriously.
4. I do not have large protective armored plates running down my back.
5. I no longer have heat vision.
6. That thing over there in the corner? Yep, that's mine.
7. True story number two: One time I was at the bus stop and this person walking by nodded their head to acknowledge me and I did the same back. Really happened that way.

Okay, maybe some of those aren't true but let's be honest folks; it took me two years to tell anyone my name, so the seven things are just going to have to wait.

And now I must select seven others but at this point it appears everyone has been selected, best I can tell. So to hell with it, I really don't care if most of these end up being double dips into the awards/meme tagging pool, I'm picking 'em anyway.

Larry and Flickhead because I'm assuming, or hoping, that they will take this in roughly the same vein.

Brian Doan because I'm desperately trying to get him to visit Cinema Styles again.

Fox, because that son of a bitch has fallen off the face of the Earth and maybe this will bring him back (don't worry, he said on his own comment thread that everything was fine, he'd just lost the urge to blog, and I'm just here to say, "Get it back!").

Pat Perry, one of Cinema Styles friends.

Pat Piper, one of Cinema Styles friends also named "Pat"

And Sam Juliano, one of Cinema Styles new friends.

And as always, with any meme here, let me make clear that none of you have to do this for fear I'll be offended if you don't because I won't be, truly. For now, Cheers and Happy Meming!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Toerifc February: Don't Miss It!


Toerifc will be returning in February after a two month break with the Joseph Campanella hosted White Dog, Samuel Fuller's 1982 drama. Due to technical difficulties Toerifc won't have a discussion this month but I think we can all agree that Ikiru is a great film with or without Toerifc's input and we can all discuss it freely in our heads or with unsuspecting bystanders if we so desire.

Also, Cinema Styles sister blog, Unexplained Cinema, moves into its second week of updating. Please stop by if you have a chance, thanks.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Luise Rainer, 100 Today



Luise Rainer was born on January 12, 1910. She turns 100 today. Living in London and still active she will celebrate her birthday, according to The Telegraph, "at the Arts Club in Mayfair with pals such as Sir Ian McKellen, Jarvis Astaire and Lord Taverne."

Luise Rainer's film career* is not one known to many non-cinephiles these days but to everyone who loves Hollywood movies of the thirties, she is a familiar face if only for the two films for which she won Oscars, The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth. She did only a handful more and nothing more impressive. She is perhaps most famous for being the first actor to win two Oscars as well as the first to win two in a row, just beating Spencer Tracy by one year before he would duplicate the feat.

Join Cinema Styles in wishing the lovely Miss Rainer a happy and healthy 100th birthday. Happy Birthday Luise!

Luise with her first Oscar, for The Great Ziegfeld, at the 1936 Oscars (held in 1937) with Paul Muni (winner for The Story of Louis Pasteur) and Frank Capra (winner for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).


portrait, 1938


Original caption for above photo from the Los Angeles Examiner: "'This is the happiest moment of my life.' So said actress Luise Rainer, formerly of Vienna, when she became an American citizen. She is shown studying her new citizenship papers. After taking the oath of allegiance she jumped up and down and clapped her hands like a schoolgirl."


The Toy Wife, with Robert Young.

____________________________
*For a full biography and commentary on each of her films as well as her shaky marriage to Clifford Odets please get the full details from The Siren.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I See You: The Road to Avatar

When one walks into a movie like Avatar, with all the advance hype and two camps, one of worshippers and one of haters, seemingly pitted against each other, one definitely wants to have a strong opinion of it. And as that nominal one I can tell you I certainly wanted to have a strong visceral reaction, one way or the other. I wanted to either hate it and let everyone know why and how wrong they were if they loved it or I wanted to love it and admit that the bashing is just so much senseless backlash. The last thing I wanted was to have the closing titles emerge to a feeling of overwhelming indifference and yet, here we are. While it's true I am rather stunned anyone could be very impressed with it I'm also a little stunned at anyone truly hating it. But all of this requires much more elaboration than that so let us begin.

Avatar is James Cameron's latest science fiction film after years away from the genre and his first sci-fi done in 3-D which, I must agree with Jim Emerson, looks simply like multi-planing and, for me at least, simply recesses into the background after the first fifteen or twenty minutes. I forgot it was even in 3-D enough of the time to make me question why anyone would or should go to the trouble of filming it in 3-D in the first place. I can honestly say that I believe a new viewer would be better off seeing the 2-D version and that James Cameron's movie would be better off without the needless P.T. Barnum hucksterism inherent in hyping a technical process as the main attraction to get asses in the seats, to quote Joel Silver.

As for the story it involves a security group of former Marines and assorted military types (think Blackwater), the corporation they work for, a far away moon named Pandora and that moon's indigenous people with whom the corporation has been trying, futilely, to negotiate in order to get mining rights to a precious ore. The indigenous people, the Na'vi, are also the subject of study by a group of scientists headed up by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who want peaceful relations with them. She runs the Avatar program which allows human users like Augustine and paraplegic Marine veteran Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to mentally enter the bodies of the lab-grown Na'vi, bodies that have been made expressly for this purpose. The user goes to sleep and enters into the avatar, not in a dreamlike state but literally having their thoughts and movements transplanted to the avatar. This is done, presumably, for better relations with the Na'vi except that, one, the Na'vi know they're just avatars (they call them "dreamwalkers") and, two, the users headed up by Augustine seem to have no concern for going all the way with fitting into the Na'vi culture because they make sure their avatars wear safari shorts, tee-shirts and baseball caps. It's a bit like doing a movie about a group of people wanting to make peaceful relations with a village under Sharia law and making sure the women cover their head with a veil only to have them also wear mini-skirts, fishnets and spike heels.

And the first observation, that the Na'vi know the humans are just walking around in fake Na'vi bodies, is not a minor nitpick but a central flaw of the logic in the film. The idea of two cultures meeting and exchanging ideas revolves around just that, exchange, not pretending to look and act like the other one. But more importantly if the humans simply go as they are, in their own bodies (and why not since the Na'vi aren't fooled by the avatars), then they never have to fall into a stupor anytime they wake up. Allow me to explain: Because the humans only inhabit the avatars when they are asleep, the avatars are likewise comatose whenever the human users are awake. And so at several points in the movie, always of course when an important point is about to be made or physical danger is imminent, Jake Sully is awakened and his avatar collapses into a limp pile of jello. Now, what science team wishing to improve relations with another culture would devise a plan in which at any given moment all diplomatic progress could be halted or reversed because your avatar collapses into an immovable silent stupor?

But avatar comas aside I also question the very reality of a scenario such as the one devised here taking place in 2154.* 150 years into the future the human race can travel across light years of space in hibernation, transport millions of tons of heavy machinery, aircraft and military ordinance, grow alien bodies whole and then have the extraordinary ability to mentally link up to them and remotely use them while asleep but - BUT - they cannot mine an ore beneath the surface of the Na'vi village without all-out genocidal destruction. What? As famously described by Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood by using a milkshake analogy, men have possessed the ability to tunnel under and drain from an area far away from the starting point as far back as at least the 1920's but we're supposed to believe that 150 years into the future the only way this unobtainable ore (and yes, it is named unobtanium) can be had is by destroying a massive village that lays on top of it. I kept thinking, "Surely with their stunningly advanced technology they could just mine it out from a few hundred miles away and replace it with granite or some other solid substance that would maintain the support of the structures above it." That's not something we could do now, easily at least, but in 150 years?

In the end of course, the ore is nothing but a MacGuffin so I suppose it's more important to understand and discuss the characters and indeed it is. Problem is, there's not much to the characters. James Cameron provides no interesting or insightful dialogue from which to understand the characters on anything but a surface level. And as many others have already noted, Cameron relies heavily upon cliche in his dialogue. From "you're not in Kansas anymore" to "let's do this, people!" to at least four instances by my count where someone pumped their fist and said "Yeah!" or "Woooo-Hoooo" or "Whoa!" much of what the Avatar viewer must sit through in terms of character expression are truly cringe-worthy. Also, when the Na'vi ask Sully his name and he says, "Jake Sully" you just know they're going to call him by his full name for the whole movie, and not to disappoint, they do. As for the rest of the Na'vi dialogue, it is almost entirely extracted from fortune cookies or some heretofore unknown book entitled Chicken Soup for the Na'vi Soul in which every phrase that drops from their feline pie-holes is encrusted with pearls of wisdom. I'm afraid I must confess that my eyes rolled dozens of times during the showing I attended. And their method of greeting friends and loved ones, "I see you", is a bit too cloying for this viewer. If Dances with Wolves, it's closest cinematic relative, turned the Lakota Sioux into cuddly Native American plush dolls then Avatar ups the ante and turns the Na'vi into angelic tree elves who kill wild wolf-like creatures to save themselves or others from being eaten alive and then mourn the death of the animal they just killed. You know, the animal that just tried to kill them. Goddamn do they respect life!

But all of this is moot because Cameron is a visual storyteller so that's where the attention should be focused. And this is the area in which I seem to disagree with most people, even the film's detractors. I've read several reviews, Jim Emerson and Larry Aydlette excluded because they didn't seem very impressed with the look either, that say even if the film's story isn't that great at least it looks great. Well, not to me unfortunately. The Na'vi, after two hours and forty minutes, never looked like anything more than CGI creations, and this bothered me. Why? Because it was and is wholly unnecessary to use CGI in the first place. With the exception of their faces, skin color, tails and height, the Na'vi look like humans which means the facial features, tails and skin color could have easily been taken care of with the age-old Hollywood craft of makeup which would have instantly Made. Them. Real. And if one wants to use CGI then fine, use it to increase the height next to humans but this is only even apparent in the very few scenes in which the two species share the same space onscreen. So what we're left with is the fact that, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum's famous declaration from Jurassic Park, James Cameron was so thrilled with the idea that he could create CGI Na'vi that he never stopped and asked himself if he should create CGI Na'vi. Really, if you've seen it, or hell, even if you haven't and have only seen the stills, ask yourself, "Wouldn't it look so much better with real actors being filmed with makeup instead of using barely updated versions of Jar Jar Binks?"

Despite all of this, Avatar does have several things going for it as well. For one, Stephen Lang is quite good as the former Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch despite being given nothing but standard issue dialogue to spout. When it comes to acting I'm always a little sensitive having spent years acting myself, so when I read statements like "the acting is terrible across the boards" I know this is not true and it irks me. No one in the film gives anything near a great performance but given the dialogue I'd say almost everyone acquits him or herself quite admirably. Lang is the best but even Weaver and Worthington are fairly good. Zoe Saldana, although never actually seen behind the deluge of CGI artwork, probably gives the most fully realized performance in the film, if not the most charismatic (again, that goes to Lang).

The action sequences are also a high point of the movie with Cameron handling them deftly and confidently. He manages to do so without resorting to any of the hackneyed gimmicks employed by most action directors today in which it is thought, for some unknown and bizarre reason, that making the action on the screen blurred and visually indecipherable makes it more exciting. Hacks like Michael Bay could learn a thing or two from James Cameron about how to handle an action sequence that keeps the audience engaged by, horrors(!), allowing them to see the action. Several times during the final battle sequence the camera follows the central figure from point A to point B without furiously cutting away and only twice did I notice any form of ramping and even then, when Jake battles Quaritch, it was quite graceful compared to the ramping jolts of a Zach Snyder.

Finally, the politics did not match any of my worst-case scenario expectations. I walked in thinking I was going to be seeing a mindless Hollywood anti-American screed and realized soon enough that its politics most resembled Aliens updated. Cameron's military group is a group of guns for hire working for the main villain which very much resembles the "Company" of Aliens. It's easy to build up an enemy in faceless corporate greed even as we all patronize corporations daily and reap the benefits of their success with our indulgent lifestyles (and I don't imagine Cameron lives in a grass hut using only windpower himself). Nothing earth-shattering going on here, just Cameron putting white and black hats on the characters and pointing the finger, as have so many sci-fi writers before him, at humanity and its abuse of nature. Sure, the ore could stand in for, and in Cameron's mind I'm sure it does, the oil in Iraq but the political message of the film is so incompetently handled (once or twice the word "terrorist" is used in case you're not getting it) and put on a backburner to the whole "we humans just don't understand and respect nature" routine that it's final result is one of impotence.

And so I exit Avatar with neither disgust nor adoration but an existential shrug of the shoulders. I truly don't mean to come off as flippant when I say that I genuinely don't know where the worship came from, or the hatred (not the pre-judging kind, I mean the kind after seeing the movie). I walked away from Avatar thinking it was an at times enjoyable, at times sluggish, and at all times mediocre sci-fi adventure. True, I am a bit more bewildered at the praise from some critics than the condemnations if only because anyone who has taken in their fair share of the world's cinematic treasures, which I would fully expect, nay, demand of a film critic, and still thinks Avatar is very impressive makes me wonder just how much they understand about film. Avatar is average, standard stuff. I wish I could say more, or less, but I'm afraid it didn't impact me either way with any substantial weight. I'd recommend Avatar only to hard-core sci-fi fans for a decent two and a half hours but would suggest seeing the 2-D version or just watching it on the home theater setup in a few months. For everyone else I'd steer clear. There simply isn't much to offer in the film and no way to describe it honestly except as a mildly successful entertainment for viewers not expecting much in the first place.

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*Another mild nitpick is that Sigourney Weaver smokes. I mean, it's 2154. We all know how impossible it's becoming to be a smoker in 2010 so I found a character 150 years into the future puffing on smokes about as believable as a teen flick made today where all the high schoolers have snuffboxes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

For the Love of Film Blogathon


Now, to quote Leslie Groves, it can be told. As many of you are no doubt well aware, there is a new blogathon in town, one about film preservation and it will be co-hosted by the dynamic duo of Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme, aka The Siren, at The Self-Styled Siren. I can elaborate no better than Marilyn and Farran have at their respective blogs and so I would advise you to go to them both, here and here, if you have not done so already.

I have put together a blog where the banners and commercial for the blogathon can be found, the blog entitled quite predictably For the Love of Film. Please put them on your sidebar to get the word out and of course, take part! The blogathon is not only trying to raise awareness but raise money in an effort to preserve treasures of our film culture before they are lost. The blogathon will be run in conjunction with the National Film Preservation Foundation. In their own words:

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. Growing from a national planning effort led by the Library of Congress, the NFPF began operations in 1997. We work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.
So please help out, advertise, contribute a post or whatever else you can think to do. Below is the first official commercial I put together for the blogathon that you can embed onto your own homepage. The music was written and recorded by yours truly, everything else is public domain. The movie still of the two men at the table is from Ernst Lubitsch's The Patriot, a 1929 film now sadly lost forever. The Greta Garbo film is A Woman of Affairs, a film restored years ago but still not available on DVD. It can be viewed here in its entirety however. The blogathon runs February 14-21, just in time for all of us to give a valentine to that art form we all love so much, the movies. Hope to see you there.

Monday, January 4, 2010

News and Announcements


Toerifc will be returning for January. I think. I haven't contacted Ibetolis yet of Film for the Soul but he's next in line with the legendary Ikiru as his selection. Once confirmed I'll provide an exact date and time, sometime around the week of the 18th most likely. The film is one of Akira Kurosawa's most higly regarded works and that's saying something. It's available pretty much everywhere, including Netflix instant viewing so no one should have a problem getting access to it.

Also, I've spent the last couple of weeks putting together a couple more "Land Before CGI" posts that will be going up soon. Still no narration as I haven't had time, or quiet in the house for recording purposes, to put one together but soon enough.

I continue to update at The Invisible Edge and The Gunslinger and will soon, very soon, be taking Unexplained Cinema in a whole new direction. Rather than my personal photos, which will still post on Flickr, it will be devoted to movie photos and stills that I have manipulated in some way and use for commentary. I explain it all there but the long and short of it is I don't do picture posts here anymore and I'd like Unexplained Cinema to take over those duties as Cinema Styles continues to move towards only essay and video posts with the occasional review thrown in for good measure. So if you're a fan, subscriber or follower of Cinema Styles I would ask that you become one of Unexplained Cinema as well as it will become the sister blog to Cinema Styles.

That's it for now so remember to check out a copy of Ikiru today and join us for the discussion, tentatively scheduled for the week of January 18th. Hope to see you there.