MQGTTM! Avatar (2009)

My Queue Goes to the Movies:

Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Sigourney Weaver

Avatar. Looks expensive.

Given the budget and the fear Cameron’s directorial clout induces on his underlings, it’s a wonder this film didn’t descend into a Phantom Menace-esque self-indulgent disaster.

Lying somewhere between Dances with Wolves and Return of the Jedi, this over-hyped sci-fi epic definitely dazzles. It’s hard to find fault with something so technologically polished, acutely tuned in the way only a half a billion dollars can do. Everything from the the facial expressions and performances translated by the motion capture, to the awe-inspiring 3D environments and creatures all serve to immerse the viewer in an experience that many people are saying they dream about the night after watching.

Yet as I sat there in my seat for the first, second, and final hour of the film, one word kept nagging at the back of my brain.

Ewoks.

Anyone who’s ever wanted to stick their ponytail in their cat’s ear and read its thoughts can skip this paragraph. I’m not the only person who’s griped about the alien design. While this film does have heart and is immersive, it’s easy to slip out of the illusion when a character looks just a little too wide-eyed and goofy. The performances come through the facial rigs, but there’s still something inherently cringe-worthy every time the alien princess screams a Xena battle-cry or you’re watch a family of Na’vi mowed down by machine-gun fire. Think of that one shot with Ewok lamenting the death of his comrade in Jedi. That’s what I’m talking about.

But that’s not my main reservation about giving this movie four-stars. It’s the story. It’s derivative and predictable. The characters were archtypical and mostly one-dimensional. The sense of deja vu you get when watching The Abyss and this film is palatable.

The simple fact that we’ve seen this story before so many times, and done better for hundreds of millions of dollars less makes you take pause and wonder what the billions of dollars surrounding this film both in cost and revenue could have done to resolve a real-life territorial invasion. I marveled on what each shot must have cost and wondering, is the story better than Battle for Terra? A film that came out earlier this year with the exact same plot but made for a hundredth of the cost of Avatar. Better than Ferngully? Or Star Trek: Insurrection? Well, that last one, yes.

Is it better than Dances with Wolves or have a bigger impact? Maybe this is this generation’s Dances. Will the theme stay with you and make you think about taking up arms against corporate greed and industrialism? How can you when the film’s production is mired in financial excess?

But spectacle seems to be what this movie is all about and if seen in Imax 3D, a spectacle is what you’ll get. Is it gorgeous? Yes. Will you want to see it again? The three hour time stamp will probably deter multiple viewings. Will you walk away discussing its cultural ramifications with your friends? No. This is superficial entertainment.

But damn it looks nice.

Other films by the director: Titanic (1997), Terminator 2 (1995), The Abyss (1989)

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MQGTTM! The Road (2009)

My Queue Goes to the Movies:

Directed by John Hillcoat
Written by Novel: Cormac McCarthy
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron

I had a rare chance to escape to the movies over the Thanksgiving break, amazing how tough it is when you have a child. I state this due to the added impact this film had on me as a new father. I was equally thrilled and filled with dread at the opportunity to catch The Road adaptation, being familiar with the source material. The film was devastatingly good, heart-wrenching, and depressing, but completely immersive, terrifying, and honest.

Viggo delivers one of the best performances since his Cronenberg film duet as the diseased and desperate father, trying to lead his child to safety through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Unlike the schlock big budget 2012, Road spends a scant 30 seconds on the disaster that salts the earth. The aftermath of the apocalypse is the mileau for this tale, following the pair’s struggle to find food in world devoid of any kind of life, scavanged by starving bands of cannibals.

The imagery in this film is impossibly bleak and unrelenting. Compositions of forrests of burning dead trees, black skeletons smoking amongst rusted hulks of cars, gray landscapes with lonely rotting houses permeate every minute of the film. Father and son constantly have the look of gaunt terror in their eyes, staring out from sooty visages. Viggo’s character is plagued by horrific encounters at every turn and haunted by the suicide of his wife when he closes his eyes. The direction and execution are flawless, leaving the audience trapped in this future with no hope. Beware, this film is riveting, but also not for the weak of stomach, or heart.

Other Films by this Director: The Proposition (2005)

The Conversation (1974)

Theconversation
 
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford

Revisited this one recently to show it to my wife who has a penchant for mystery thriller movies. I find this to be Coppola’s third best film after Apocalypse and The Godfather, its use of sound design editing music, dialogue, and sound effects to reveal aspects of the mystery was innovative and engaging. A reflection of the times in which it was released, this became an unintentional echo of the Watergate trials.

The film follows a freelance surveillance expert working in San Francisco, hired to monitor a couple’s conversation for a cryptic business executive played by Harrison Ford. Disturbed by details of the conversation and an increase in suspicioius events surrounding his business and the job, Hackman’s character decides to delve deeper into the background of the assignment and discovers a horrible secret that could ruin his career if not his life.

Several scenes in this movie still stick with me, and it was refreshing upon viewing again after about 10 years to see my mind’s eye had preserved them accurately. The long lens deep focus shots of the couple walking through the crowd, the lonely, empty frames capturing Hackman at work in his warehouse office, the horrific toilet scene overlaid with distorted screams, and the final shot of Hackman, mentally broken, surrounded by the destructive power of his own paranoia. Credit where credit is due to Walter Murch, master editor and crafter of many these memorable interwoven sounds and images.

Also by this director: The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979)

Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs_tp01

Directed by Pascal Laugier
Starring Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï

Wow, just got done watching this one and it is…intense. Like with my Cannibal Holocaust review, I recommend this film only to horror fan aficionado who feels they’ve seen it all. This is not for the faint of heart and will more than likely offend or scar you. In many screenings, vomiting and fainting has been reported. That said, let’s jump in.

Martyrs is divided into three acts which stand in stark contrast to one another. The first follows a young girl’s path of revenge against the people who kidnapped and tortured her and the demons she faces out of her past. This plays like your standard horror fare, but technically competant and successful in its scares, harkening back to the original Grudge. A satisfying resolution leaves the viewer wondering where the film willl go next. The next act follows her friend’s exploration of the girl’s past, at which point the film descends into sickening dread and revulsion. Without going into too much detail, the third act, punctuated by an unnecessary expositional scene, locks the viewer in the room with its victim and subjects them to a transcendant level of torture imagery. An ambiguous conclusion lends less of an explanation and more of an excuse for the violent extremes explored.

Having a similar opinion to British film reviewer Mark Kermode about horror being the last genre to push the art form that is film, I think this is worthy of a viewing. Is it torture porn? Yes. Is it expoitational? Some argue no, I say yes. But for the structure and cinematic crafting of sound, image, and effects to create an experience you cannot ignore, this film accomplishes its task. Much like Noe’s Irreverisble, this is one film that will stick with you and probably alter your psyche a bit. It’s rumored the director has been tapped to remake both this film and Hellraiser.

You’re not gonna like what you see. Or maybe you will, sicko.

Also by this director: Saint Ange (2004)

MQGTTM! Inglourious Basterds (2009)

New feature on My Queue, My Queue Goes to the Movies (MQGTTM). These will be peppered throughout the dvd reviews as reviews of current releases, be they good or bad. In this case, mediocre…

Inglourious_Basterds_poster

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger

Saw Basterds last night,the story follows a motley crew of Nazi killers, all Jews aside from the part Apache 1st Lt Aldo Raine and crazed ex-Kraut, Sgt Stiglitz. It also follows a French Jewish woman who escaped the Nazi killing squads led by Col. Hans Landa to Paris where she opens a cinema soon to be the focus of the film’s final set-piece…it also follows a British film critic turned Army Captain’s secret mission to contact a German film star who wants to turn state secrets.

Basterds feels like a hodge-podge of ideas that never coalesced into a singular theme. I’m not sure why it was called Inglorious Basterds for the amount of time you spend with them, getting to know their characters, it could have been called, “The French Cinema Propreiter,” or “Random British Film Critic Commando.” Most of the crew end up as unexplored silhouettes, used only as stand-ins for action scenes. Definitely no Dirty Dozen. Strong performances by Cristpoh Waltz and Malanie Laurant, but Pitt’s protean Brando impression was distracting. Tarantino’s exploitational cutaways, whimsical fonts, and anachronistic music choices draw you out of what could have been immersive dialogue scenes, but ultimately most of those could have been edited back as well. Some moments of interspersed brilliance, like the final set-piece, but other action scenes were brief and overcut.  Somewhere between Grindhouse and Reservoir Dogs, but too confused and self-indulgent to be either.

Other films by this Director: Pulp Fiction (1994), Resevoir Dogs (1992)

A clip…

The Celebration (Festen) (1998)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Starring Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neumann, Trine Dyrholm

A Danish film based on a lie told on a radio talk show, Festen, is the story of a terrible family secret revealed at a father’s 60th birthday. Regarded as the first Dogma 95 film, Festen shuns the excesses of modern studio filmmaking and focuses on creating realistic portrayals of characters, settings, and actions without the crutches of props, post-production, and artificial lighting. The result is a startling and immersive film.

For those who have not seen the movie, I won’t ruin the surprise and encourage you not to read anything on the film that would give away the secret before seeing the film. Even with knowing though, the complex character portrayals and interactions, the cinematic style, tension, and humor are engaging enough to warrant a viewing.

For those curious about Dogma 95 filmmaking, here are the rules laid down by directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg:

Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic).
The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.)
The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
Optical work and filters are forbidden.
The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
Genre movies are not acceptable.
The final picture must be transferred to the Academy 35mm film, with an aspect ratio of 4:3, that is, not widescreen. (Originally, the requirement was that the film had to be filmed on Academy 35mm film, but the rule was relaxed to allow low-budget productions.)
The director must not be credited.

Man Bites Dog (1992)

Directed by Rémy Belvaux

Starring Benoît Poelvoorde

Since out last film took place in Belgium, why not a Belgian film?  I revisited this film recently while preparing for a presentation on the subjective camera and it’s uses in film. In the past, I’ve found Man Bites Dog to be an inspirational film for me, one that I actually referenced for some comedic scenes in a children’s animated movie, Surf’s Up.

The film follows a fictitious documentary crew as they record the daily events of an amiable, erudite serial killer. Sometimes funny, sometimes scary, often times repellant, the film is decidedly original. The immersive nature of the camera work and natural acting on the part of Poelvoorde, draws the viewer into the strange world of the protagonist and eventually the film crew as well.

As the film progresses, the documentary crew becomes more and more involved in the killings and two members are coincidentally killed. We used this idea in Surf’s Up when we had the camera crew following a chicken hunted by cannibal penguins get hit with darts and spears. A little morbid for an animated movie about surfing penguins, but it got a few laughs and a nod for technical application.

It’s a student film on a shoestring budget, but it will draw you in and rivet you to your seat. Not for the squemish, this film is definitely a horror movie, but one with some interesting reflections on the media and modern society.

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