Monday, August 30, 2010

Rambo Marathon!

'Live for nothing, die for something.'

Oh, aren't those words to live by, dear readers? There is only one man capable of uttering such a line with the ferocity, seriousness and intensity of an 80s action hero living in the 00s, and that man goes by the name of John Rambo.

It's about time Bill (from Bill's Movie Emporium) and I get together and bash heads in another joint marathon slugfest. This time however there shall be no graceful lightsaber duels. Nay, it's time to wear our size small t-shirts, show off our huge muscles, and bring out some massive machine guns (and some bow and arrows while we're at it). The Rambo marathon begins this Sunday, September 5th!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Review: I Live in Fear

I Live in Fear (1955, Akira Kuroswa)


Many of Akira Kurosawa’s films which saw the light of day in the late 1940s until the mid 1950s dealt with the cultural, economic and social challenges facing Japan in the aftermath of WWII. In I Live in Fear, Kurosawa investigates an issue that was on the minds of many since their country’s crushing defeat only years earlier: the reality of the nuclear age. The proof, sadly, was in the pudding. Atomic bombs existed and could wreak unspeakable havoc on whatever areas they were targeted towards. Entire cities could be laid to waste, turned into nothing more but dust and rubble without the single hint of any life forms remaining. To make matters worse, the longevity of atomic energy and its many ill effects on the human body could be felt for years following the initial attack. These dark and evil thoughts are what plague Kiichi Nakajima (Toshirô Mifune, wearing plenty of makeup and prosthetic material), an elderly factory owner, who can’t help but fear about the possibility of a nuclear attack that would instantly wipe out himself and his family. It would be quite apt in fact to conclude that Kiichi is obsessed with this notion, almost crazed by the fearful potential of the bomb’s destructiveness.

Kiichi, who has owned the factory for several years already and whose sons have also entered the family business, is so appalled by what might happen were there to be a nuclear attack that he is perfectly willing to uproot his extensive family from Japan to Brazil which, as far as he understands, is one of the most secure locations on the globe in regards to protection from atomic energy carried over from ocean winds. It goes without saying that his family, in particular the grownup sons and daughter who work at the factory, do not see eye to eye with their increasingly paranoid father and do not wish to relocate and begin the entire lives anew in a foreign country. They have begun to take some dramatic measures in insuring that Kiichi does not waste the family’s funds on such a preposterous project why trying to have the elderly man declared incapable of making such an important decision. Senile, to a degree, if you will. Kiichi is infuriated by his own family’s attempts at shunning his honest efforts in protecting the ones he loves at all costs. Their relationship was never grand and beautiful to begin with, but this episode in their lives will test whatever connection they may have left.

I, like many people, tend to agree that Kurosawa’s more interesting and hence more memorable efforts are those that followed the exploits, whether dramatic or comedic, of samurai. There is some true zeal to many of those pictures that captivate the viewer and send them off to another time and another place that sometimes do not want to even leave once the films are over. His projects that attempt at social commentary in post-WWII Japan, in my humble opinion, do not tend to possess the same level of exquisite craftsmanship. They are obviously smaller pictures with perhaps simpler plots even and dealing with issues that are more topical (one could even go so far as to say that these topicality of these films make them ‘dated’). Still, there are always some fascinating character explorations in them. What I applaud Kurosawa for in particular his willingness to give all sorts of characters screen time, be they young up and coming cops, a young and reckless gang member, or fearful old folk. He is a writer and director who was interested in all sorts of people and what made them tick during one of Japan’s most important periods of the twentieth century, one during which the country was at its weakest most point in centuries. The characters we see in films such as Stray Dog, Drunken Angel and I Live in Fear are representations of those who experienced a determinant transitional phase in modern Japanese history, and therefore these films hold a particular value for not only for cinema buffs but also for those seeking for answers in the past. The character of Kiichi, as played by the famous Kurosawa collaborator Tohirô Mifune, earns a special place in the director’s long list of memorable creations. The man is old, living the last few years of a life filled with hard work and strict parenting. He has seen his country suffer a blow at war so unforgettable and catastrophic that there fact that instrument which delivered the blow exists is sufficient for his mind to fear for the worst. Whether any country, the United States or otherwise, would ever think of utilizing the A-bomb once again isn’t even part of the equation for Kiichi. The weapon’s potential was there for all to see not so long ago, and that is more than reason enough for the business man to pack up his belongings, abandon his home and native land and settle in a corner of the globe that he believes, rightly or wrongly, will offer more adequate shelter from any future nuclear attacks.

There are numerous qualities that make the character interesting, but the two that stand out are the setting that drives the characters fear and the stark opposition he is facing from his family. By setting, I am referring to period in Japanese history and the weapon Kiichi fears so much, elements we have already discussed briefly. The other aspect about the character is how noble intentions differ from what the rest of his family believes to be best for them. One simply cannot deny that the man’s intentions are honourable and good natured. Essentially, he doesn’t want to see his loved ones annihilated by the A-bomb. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that. But his paranoia about a potential nuclear attack appears to be clouding his judgement and behaviour, significantly so at that. The family has had their factory for many years. They are well established and reasonably prosper. The war has long been over and Japan is in a (forced) re-structuring phase. Why in heaven’s name would anyone attack them again, least of all with another nuclear bomb? What the films delivers therefore is a conflict of two opposing forces, both of which have interesting points of view. Kiichi, however honourable his intentions, does come across as the one with the opinion one might find more difficult to support. At first he comes across as ruthlessly dogmatic in his vision of things to come and, while he still comes across as pretty dogmatic by the end, we have seen throughout the movie that he genuinely fears for the safety of his sons and daughters, both the legitimate and illegitimate ones. It is a sad situation in which the one who wants nothing more than to do well is the kooky. A claim can be made about the irrationality guiding the man’s train of thought, but how much so? Back then, was it really so implausible that anyone else might try to use the A-bomb? What about tests which incurred the risk of spreading atomic energy procedures were to go awry? The rest of the family might be saner, but the lengths to which many of them are willing to go in order to muzzle the old patriarch are disheartening. They might be evaluating Japan’s chances of survival more aptly, but their behaviour towards Kiichi is far from amiable.

I Live in Fear
is small, intimate movie, but one that concentrates on what were huge issues at the time in Japan. The importance of family, its dynamics, what connects members together and the psychological aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks one takes lightly. Either side of the conflict in I Live in Fear deserves the time to be heard, but through everyone’s behaviour and irrational decisions, nobody will earn the viewer’s utmost respect. Kurasawa understood the duality and complexity that will forever live inside of Man. This is another entry in the long standing tradition of Kurosawa films in which characters are never entirely good nor entirely bad. There is always a way for honourable intentions to go sour, it’s just up to each and every one of us to discover that murky delimitation.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Marathon news

There always comes time to face reality. This is the final weekend of August, meaning that the summer is, alas, coming to an end. Those super charged blockbusters that graced the silver screens for the past 3 1/2 months are leaving the multiplexes for what we hope will be some captivating dramas soon to be released this fall and winter. Along with the final weekend of August comes the final entry in the 'Homemade Summer Movie Marathon' (Memento, reviews here). I hope you enjoyed the marathon. It seemed to attract a decent amount of comments from readers and fellow bloggers, all of which I very much appreciated.

Now with the fall just around the corner, it's time to start thinking about what's coming next. Not long ago there was a poll question asking readers to choose between the continuation of the Satyajit Ray marathon or a new Apichatpong Weerasethakul marathon. Well, guess what: the poll ended in a draw! We at Between the Seats will have to think a little bit about how to approach this unique situation, although I am certain a suitable compromise will be reached.

The Rambo marathon with Bill from Bill's Movie Emporium should be up and running in the coming weeks (yeah, I do remember posting earlier this summer that that marathon would start in late July, but, you know, stuff happens). In the meantime, I'll be posting a few random reviews and articles to keep the activity here lively, but fear not, the marathons will return in full very soon.

As always, thanks for visiting.

Homemade summer movie marathon: Memento

Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)

: Memento is replacing A Scanner Darkly as the final film in the 'Homemade Summer Movie Marathon.' I figured that with a hugely successful Christopher Nolan film released this summer, it would be more interesting to look some of the director's previous work. On with the review.

In recent years writer director Christopher Nolan has been busy impressing mainstream audiences with fantastical tent-pole release the likes of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception, but it was not so long ago that the Englishman made a name for himself in the Hollywood scene with smaller, more intimate and independent minded projects. The first to truly put him on the proverbial map was Memento, a murder mystery tale that took audiences on for a ride inside the mind of a man desperately searching for his wife’s killer but who has suffered from a particular form of amnesia which deprives him of the ability to form any new memories.

The film opens with Leonard (Guy Pierce) starring intently at the photograph of a man he has just shot in the head. We notice that with every wave of the picture, the image morphs from crystal clear to paler shades and eventually to white. Of course, everyone knows that Polaroid pictures development in the opposite manner, that is, from a pure shade of white to the moment in time that was capture on camera. It quickly becomes evident that the scene is unfolding in reverse order. This is but a small taste of things to come as director Nolan, who was inspired by a short story written by his brother, structures the entire narrative in reverse chronological order. Every scene which reveals a little more of what happen earlier is intercut with black and white sequences of Leonard discussing with someone over the phone in a motel room about memory and the story of a man, Sammy Jenkis (Steven Tobolowsky) who suffered from the same case of amnesia as himself. Along the way the film presents two vastly different characters, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and a bar made named Nathalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who at first seems to want to assist Leonard in his quest for vengeance, but appearances can always be so deceiving...and Leonard is such an easy target to take of advantage of, what with his ‘condition’ as he calls it.

Memento represents a lot of what films should be, and especially film noir. The mood, plot, cinematography and character interactions all find their inspiration in classic film noir. There is the beaten up protagonist who will do whatever it takes to quench his thirst for personal justice, the attractive woman who displays, on the surface at least, a desire to help him but who may be guided by her own selfish motives, a story which is infested with sadness and despair, and some exquisitely moody lighting choices. Like in the great film noir’s, there is no genuine hero to the piece. Someone has been wronged and they are hunting down the perpetrators, nothing more. Guy Pierce’s strength is in how he succeeds in giving his character a sense of humanity. For much of the movie he does earn the viewer’s sympathy, whether through his recollections of his deceased wife (as trustworthy as they can be), the gutsiness with which he ventures into some seedy characters of the city, and the even the obsession that drives him, to the point that he has ‘facts of the case’ tattooed all over his body just so that he can remember who is he looking for and how. Leonard’s is a quest for blood, but through the actor’s performance his journey elicits a form of sympathy from the viewer.

The real coup de grace of Memento is in how Nolan weaves his plot. Rather than follow the usual path of the central character discovering tips and clues to the puzzle as the story evolves, the director takes an unorthodox decision in revealing each scene of Leonard investigating in the opposite order in which they happen. The film thusly begins with him looking over a man he has just shot in the head, the next scene explains how the murder came to be, the scene after that is what occurred before Leonard decided he had to kill his victim, so on and so forth. What might come across as ‘gimmicky’ is in actuality one of the cleverest and effective efforts by a film in having the viewer really step into the shoes of a protagonist. Movies with characters who have amnesia have been done many times already, as have movies for which the story is told in non linear fashion, but the fusion of the two in Memento make a dangerously delicious cocktail. With everything told in the reverse order, it is understood that Christopher Nolan is deliberately withholding information from the audience, not in the traditional sense of a murder mystery in which clues must be discovered and put together one by one. No, whatever events which have led up to a given scene one is watching have already occurred within the time frame of the movie. Leonard has already lived through whatever led him his heinous murder in the opening scene within the time frame of Memento’s plot. Director Nolan simply isn’t letting us see what those previous events were until later (or earlier, kind of). The reason this works so well has everything to do with poor Leonard ‘condition.’ If he cannot create new memories, and thus cannot recollect what has occurred only minutes earlier, than whatever did happen is no longer information in his memory bank. By that extension, there is no pivotal reason why the audience should be privy to that same information either. If we are to follow Leonard around and understand what he is going through, the direction taken by the filmmakers for Memento is arguably the best one possible. By the time the viewer discovers every new reveal, twist and turn, we my hope that things could have turned out differently, but that is not a possibility because has already forgotten them, and therefore for us, the viewers, to be more knowledgeable than Leonard would have defeated the purpose of the experience of following this chap around town. His mind is in such poor shape that with every ‘present’ situation, the present has already become too late because we know he will forget some critical information. He may be taking down notes on pictures and have some tattooed reminders on his skin, but he is still prone to being taken advantage of.

This brings upon a mood of fatalism to the picture, but one that fits in perfectly with the story. Memento is not a pleasant picture to experience, but nor should it be. It is concerned with a character who is doomed to repeating the same mistakes over and over again. In fact, when one character attempts to reason with him with divulging critical information about his past, Leonard shuns him because it doesn’t correspond to what he himself remembers. People and events of his past are garbled together which may have corrupted Leonard’s actions and mission with a toxicity that one couldn’t have predicted in the earlier stages of the movie. Does he even believe he is a good person? Has he ever been a good person? Were he to have the full capacities of his memories, would he behave in a more honourable manner? Snippets from his past hint that this may not be the case, but then again, he doesn’t seem to remember things very well, so... All this make Leonard a fascinating character to evaluate and study. Top it off with a compelling performance from actor Guy Pierce and you have yourself a film for which it is difficult to take one’s eyes away from. It is impossible to write an in-depth and full analysis of Memento all the while withholding some of the more important revelations, but suffice to say that Nolan delivers the good in spades. I could go on about the few things that didn’t not quite work for me (such as Leonard’s retelling of the Sammy Jenkis story, which goes on for a little too long in my opinion and doesn’t earn the payoff I believe the film wants it to have), but as film noir pot boiler, I can’t recommend the film highly enough.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010, Edgar Wright)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Review: The Expendables

The Expendables (2010, Sylvester Stallone)

American action movie superstar Sylvester Stallone has had an interesting career. In the 70s, 80s and even in the very early 90s, he was a household name who could sell just about anything, be it a good or bad product, after which things went into a downward spiral for at least a decade, the lowest point of the cold streak being, in my opinion, the Get Carter remake. Rocky (2006) and Rambo (2008) proved the doubters wrong for the most part, and so when word got out that Stallone was working on yet another film, this time a hard core action film featuring some of today’s and yesterday’s most popular action stars and professional wrestlers, my own hopes of another solid hit had risen. The Expendables tells the story of an American mercenary group for hire who travel the world to perform rescue missions as well as politically tinged interventions by using the only method they’re good with, brute strength and force. The latest business proposal coming their way would have the proverbial band of brothers intervene on small island named Velina t overthrow a military general who has taken power. A brief reconnaissance mission by the Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham characters sheds some interesting light on the subject: the dictator is in fact being financially supported by a former CIA operative and the most significant resistance movement against the regime is led by the general’s daughter. The Expendables, which includes Sylvester Stallone, Jasan Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crew and formerly active member Micky Rourke who provides a home base back in the U.S., are in for the mission of their lives, especially given how one of their own, Dolph Lundgren has recently turned on them.

About halfway through the film, something struck me which should have been obvious from the start. The script to The Expendables was trying to mimic (or pays homage to) a lot of those cheesy 80s action films in which the villains were very one note and vulgar, the heroes were not the most handsome but certainly the most rugged and muscular, and the plots were of such simplicity that I dare say my 7 year old brother would been capable of following along. I’m uncertain as to why this was lost on me for the first 50 minutes of the movie. I suspect that the source of my confusion was in part due to the movie’s very modern cinematography and editing. The Expendables tries to sell the grittiness of the picture all the while embracing some of the more over the top aspects of the type of films most of the actors involved here were starring in back in the day. This is where many of the film’s problems lie, for I don’t believe that those two ingredients, the dark grittiness as often found in modern action flicks and over the top 80s elements, mesh very well together here. The former CIA operative (Eric Roberts) who is pulling all the strings behind the scenes and bossing the military general around is such a farcical character I was at times wondering if his lines were supposed to be taken as stabs at humour or if he was really trying to come across as diabolical. The subplot concerning the relationship between the dictator and his rebellious daughter is also shamefully contrived, with some scenes teetering into unintentional comedy (everything about daughter and her father both being painters was just embarrassing to see). I imagine that some who are more forgiving than me will be able to see through this thick fog of styles and appreciate what Stallone has concocted for them. I don’t mind cheesy. In certain cases cheesiness can even save a film from utter mediocrity, but with The Expendables, the farcical moments were juxtaposed with the ultra violence and grittiness of the world the characters inhabited, and, to me, gave the impression that the film wanted the audience to take those story elements with a grain of seriousness and dramatic authenticity. That is something I found myself completely incapable of doing. If it was going for cheesy, it didn’t mesh well with the rest of the picture. If it was trying to be serious, it just bad writing.

This review would have missed the point entirely if I were to omit any comments about the star-studded cast. If the majority of people who willfully choose to see this movie (which includes me) are honest with themselves, the men leading the way through the chaos and carnage are among the product’s highest selling points. Here again the film ends up being a mixed bag. Now, I’m not going to pretend that the legions of people who will end up paying for tickets to the film came for Randy Couture, Terry Crew or ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. I’m pretty certain it is Stallone, Li, Stathan, Rourke and a few others whose cameos were hinted at in the trailers who are really doing all the selling here. That being said, I don’t think that is a sufficient reason to forgive the treatment guys like Couture and Crew get in the movie. Their scenes are, to put it bluntly, atrocious. Dialogue, ‘banter’ that is supposed to set apart as individuals among a group of mercenaries and quite frankly the performances are disappointing to say the least. More generally in fact, with whatever ‘guy moments’ that occur throughout the story, which typically involved macho chit chatting loaded with ‘I’m cool, you suck! Ha, ha!’ type of one-liners, the rest of the group doesn’t fare much better. Jet Li’s life is harder because he’s short, Jason Statham is Zorro because he understands a little bit of Spanish, Randy Couture claims it ‘isn’t easy being green’ because he has broccoli ears...I mean my god. The film also feels compelled to add a love angle to the Jasan Statham character which simply has no business being in this movie and Mickey Rourke, now a tattoo artist, gets a moment to cry about how he failed to save a woman many years ago on a mission.

If there is anything that saves this endeavour from the abyss it is the final half hour when The Expendables, as a unit, arrive on the island of Velina and spoil the enemy’s hopes of tightening their grip on the innocent citizens. The final 30 minutes deliver on a level I had been expecting from the get go, so I’m still tempted to say it arrived late, but at least it got there. The action is intense, unflinchingly violent and relatively well filmed. The edits are rather quick but the camera is usually resting at the right spot for the viewer to truly witness what disgusting and painful end one of The Expendables just put an enemy soldier through. And yes, the deaths are horrific at times. I understand that Stallone’s gang are gifted in the art of death, and let it be known that they put on quite a show. Knives in the face, vicious head butts, limbs being contorted in manners that had me gasping, mostly in shock and bodies torn to pieces by heavy machine gun name it, The Expendables probably did it to some sorry schmuck during the movie’s climatic battle. It was basically why I had come to see the movie, not everything that transpired before. Even Stone Cold finally gets in on the action and has a decent fight not only against Stallone, but also against Randy Couture.

All in all, this is a completely disposable film. I would have loved for the old saying ‘never two without three’ to apply in the case of The Expendables, but after Rocky and Rambo, Stallone’s efforts here, as producer, co-writer and director, come across as a gross miscalculation.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Red Cliff (extended cut)

Red Cliff (2008, John Woo)

Following a rather hit or miss stint as a director in the United States during the 90s and early 00s, world renowned Hong Kong director John Woo felt the time had come to make his way back home to China. Earlier this summer we took a quaint look at one of his earliest films, The Killer (reviewed here). It was a beautifully wrapped little box filled of sugary goodness for action movie fans, including the right dose of melodrama for good measure. As sophisticated and intense as those action scenes were, as fun as the comic book level character interactions were, as strong an impact as the film score had, all those are practically peanuts in comparison to the film he directed and co-wrote upon his return on native soil. The fruit of his efforts, following years of research and the largest budget awarded to any Asian (let alone Chinese) film ever, was Red Cliff.

Set in 208 A.D. during the dying years of the Han Dynasty, Woo’s film recounts the story of a war thirsty prime minister named Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) who duped the Emperor into allowing the sending in a mammoth-sized army force into the southlands in order to repel a supposed rebellion two warlords were engaged in, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Not typically allies, both warlords agreed to combine their respective forces and tactical brilliance in the hopes of repelling the awe inspiring armada sent in by Cao Cao.

That is a general plot summary, but the film itself, which runs a whopping 288 minutes (that is not a typo), awards much time to some of the more intricate aspects of war planning, the negotiations that form alliances, and the friendships that even bond some of the characters who otherwise would have remained distant rivals. The film opens with Prime Minister Cao Cao pleading with the Han Dynasty Emperor to suppress the rebellion building in the south, a mostly fabricated claim, and then switches perspectives to that of high advisors in the Liu Bei (Yong You) camp, most notably his lead military strategist, Gan Xing (Shidô Nakamura), who suggests that they and the Sun Quan (Chen Chang) camp form a temporary alliance to augment their chances of withstanding the inevitable onslaught from Cao Cao. Negotiations follow, which eventually bring Gan Xing and Sun Quan’s viceroy, Zhu Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) together in an epic partnership that their people will have not soon forgotten.

Through this summer marathon we’ve watched plenty of films that were very large in scope, impressing the eyes and the mind with their intense visual splendours and there often intelligent and noteworthy thematic resonance. With the marathon nearing its completion, it seems fitting that we tackle what will more than likely end up being the biggest movie of the bunch. Red Cliff easily won over audiences back in director’s John Woo’s native land and managed to make North Americans take notice when it was released sparingly across Canada and the U.S. late last year. I for one saw the international cut of the film, which was considerably trimmed to approximately 2 ½ hours. Going in I already knew that there existed an longer, more epic version of the movie, but I was still considerably entertained, moved by the production values which were as authentic as possible for the time period, the engaging characters and the hard core battle sequences. There was little doubt in my mind that I would seek out the original version offering the director’s true vision of these historical events. When the film was released on Blu-ray in both versions, the choice seemed obvious enough. Last Sunday afternoon I sat down in my living room and spent 4 ¾ hours glued to my television as the gargantuan battle of Red Cliff took place in front of my eyes.

Allow me to make at least one thing clear before I venture into a spasm of fan-boy hyperbole: Red Cliff is something of a crowd pleaser. Despite its potentially testing running length and some moments in which the violence gets fairly bloody, John Woo’s vision of how things went down takes some creative liberties with the facts and adds some little character interactions that fit right in place with many of the action adventures film we see at the multiplex every weekend. Some of these additions and changes are bit too much on the nose while others hint that perhaps Woo was trying to be too cute and feared that a straight up historical action movie might hinder his chances of gaining a widespread audience. One scene (which was not in the international cut) has the military strategist Gan Xing assist a female horse belonging to Zhu Yu and his loving wife as their prized pet gives birth. It’s a very, very bizarre scene which, certainly in the context of the story, has strictly no business being there. There is also a female spy (Wei Zhao, who is pretty cute I must admit) from the Sun Quan clan who is sent into Cao Cao’s camp with the mandate of retrieving information on the Prime Minister’s plan of attack. Throughout this section of the story she forms a friendship with a dopey and excessively innocent soldier who fights for the enemy. For her to form a bond with someone on the opposing side is nothing terrible had it been handled with a bit more tact. The way it comes across is patently goofy and ends in a predictably tragic manner, thus making the ‘tragic’ aspect void.

Notwithstanding the few elements which don’t quite fit into place, John Woo’s efforts are wondrous to behold. I tell no lie when I write that the 4 hours and 45 minutes it took me to sit through Red Cliff ticked away rapidly. Imagine that, a 288-minute long film felt briefer than some films which claim to only be a scant 90. It is somewhat difficult to pinpoint how exactly a story which takes up over 4 hours of one’s time can possibly move along at a brisk pace. Maybe it was something in the cookies I was eating (strawberry and white chocolate), maybe it the sad weather which forced my mind to concentrate on nothing else except what unfolded before my eyes, or maybe it was because John Woo had constructed a darn good movie. If a movie is going to have 4 or 5 scenes of military men talking about what strategies will enhance their chances for victory, whether or not the tortoise formation is too outdated for it to effectively push back Cao Cao’s land attacks, or which way the wind will be blowing in 2 days time, it had best deliver those scenes in compelling fashion. The truth of the matter is that every one of those moments is both interesting and entertaining. There interesting because they offer some intriguing insight into how exactly battles on land and at sea were planned under such rushed circumstances and in a time period vastly different from the one we live in now, which by default meant that large scale combat was approached from considerably different perspective with different variables taken into consideration. Those same scenes are equally entertaining in part due to Woo’s excellent camera work, his editing, and the performance of the actors like the inimitable Tony Leung and an actor I’ve had on my radar since seeing him in Clint Eastwood’s Letter from Iwo Jima, Shidô Nakamura. Most of the cast has great charisma (despite the fact that most of these people are in fact warlords. Small detail, but again, it goes back to the fact that the film is a bit of a crowd pleasure), but many of my favourite scenes involved Tony Leung and Shidô Nakamura specifically. At times there was respectful banter between the two which consistently remained within the limits of what seemed natural that lent their friendship, if it can be called such, a credibility. While the movie does spend some time with Zhu Yu and his wife, in my mind the most important relationship was that between the Viceroy and Lie Bei’s top military strategist. They both know that in the future, if the variables change, both could easily face off as enemies. They accept their fates but appreciate the temporary partnership that has formed between the two. Great stuff.

This being a John Woo film, some time should be reserved for discussing the action, which is stellar through and through. The director and his crew really went the extra mile in order to bring the epic scope of the Battle of Red Cliffs to life on screen. There are 4 major battles that occur throughout the course of the film and each one feels fully unique. There is a bloody skirmish in a small town under Liu Bei’s umbrella of protection, a minutely planned ambush (tortoise formation!) along the dusty plains next to the Red Cliffs, a night time river battle involving kamikaze ships on fire, and finally the last assault on Cao Cao’s forces, an attack which seems eerily similar to the Normandy invasion by the Allied Forces during D-Day in WWII. Woo chooses to play a unique juggling act between gritty realism and the fantastic during these battles. Fear not, there is nothing supernatural about what transpires, only that many of the war heroes we see engage the enemy display some surprising physical prowess, with many of the kills being expertly choreographed. It wasn’t enough to take me out of the moment, not at all in fact, but I wonder if it might turn some people off, especially those who might be seeking a slightly more realistic vision of how sword fights probably went down back then. I thought they were a blast to behold and superbly executed, but as I’ve already written, most of the kills are far too perfect and ‘cool’ for them to be only taken seriously. John Woo, while showing that war can be a violent and bloody affair, is also clearly having some fun and relishing opportunity to make these Chinese war legends into action movie characters.

Finding a balance between historical accuracy and crowd pleasing entertainment, Red Cliff is not without its faults, but I still fell madly in love with it. The set design, the costumes, the score (Which is immediately catchy. I’m still humming the theme!), the visual effects, the solid cast, the engaging character interactions, the vast scope of the picture, all these combine to make one of the best action movies I have ever seen. There are undeniably some John Woo sensibilities sprinkled here and there, not all of which work, but what does in fact work is so darn good that I have to award the film with some high praise.

Welcome home John Woo. This is how you kick some ass.

Yes, there is a dove scene in this movie. Just in case you were wondering.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

reviews are coming

Yeah, I've been going through another period where it's a wee bit difficult for me to write decent reviews on a regular basis. Fear not, this weekend things will change. The Homemade Summer Movie Marathon continues with a review of the full extended version of Red Cliff, a review for Scott Pilgrim Versus the World and, lest we forget, The Expendables.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Special announcement: Cronenberg blogathon

Hello readers,

While visiting the magnificent Lamb this morning, my eyes took notice of a very interesting advertisement for a blogathon happening at Cinema Viewfinder. Starting on Labour Day Monday (September 6, 2010), they'll be hosting a David Cronenberg marathon! As some of you may very well remember, we at Between the Seats did our own little exploration of the Canadian director's filmmography. While we might not have that much more to write on the subject, I shan't miss an opportunity to promote one of my favourite working directors. So get your fingers clicking those mouse buttons and head on over to Cinema Viewfinder to find out some more details about their exciting project.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Avatar

Avatar (2009, James Cameron)

After conquering the world of cinema with such unforgettable critical and box office successes such as Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2 and Titanic, Canadian-born writer director James Cameron took a long hiatus from telling fictional stories and got lost at sea, figuratively speaking, by making a series of documentaries about underwater life. Then, during the holiday season of 2009, 20th Century Fox studios released Cameron’s long awaited return to the science-fiction genre, Avatar. As was the case with Cameron’s previous efforts, Avatar was the most expensive movie ever made at the time (and still is given that the movie is still very recent), employing revolutionary visual effects and vaunting a unique and immersive 3D experience for movie goers hoping to get all the bang for their bucks as possible. Did the film fulfill its promises?

The film tells the story of a paraplegic soldier, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who agrees to take his dead twin brother’s place in an important colonization mission on a fantastic jungle-covered moon planet named Pandora. The importance of Pandora is in its valuable natural resources, something our home planet of Earth seems to be lacking in this futuristic tale. Everyone appears to have made an investment in this mission: the military, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) are there to tame the local alien population the Na’vi, the corporations, led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) are there to extract the resources, and finally there is the scientific community, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who are guided by their inhibition to study and observe Pandora’s remarkable ecosystem as well as the dominant Na’vi species. Jake Sully is to participate in some exploration missions on the planet’s surface, but the twist is that he will be doing so through an avatar, that is, the body of a Na’vi creature, thus blessing him with the ability to walk once again (this is accomplished through some rather complex and sophisticated technology that I won’t bog down the review with). Things go awry during one of their exploration expeditions, which separates Jake from the rest of the group. Lost in the thick and treacherous jungle of Pandora, he encounters Neytiri (Zöe Saldana), daughter of a Na’vi chief. Through Neytiri Jake comes to learn about and appreciate the Na’vi culture, but is forced to make life changing decisions when the military announce their plan to strike the Na’vi at their very core and be done with their mission on Pandora.

Where does one begin when writing about Avatar? The film is still very much in the conscious of film lovers and debaters, seeing how it spent a heck of a long time in theatres (and is returning to theatres later this summer), made the most money of any movie ever, and was also in the running for Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards ceremony. The whole ‘most expensive movie ever’ tag probably had bit to do with it as well... Needless to say that it entered theatres last Christmas with lofty expectations resting on its shoulders. After all, Cameron kept repeating how he had been working and planning the film for over a decade. That’s a bloody long time to make a single movie if you as me.

I think there are two ways to discuss what is it like to watch James Cameron’s Avatar, and quite honestly I don’t see any other way of dissecting this particular film. First, there is the experience, that is to say what was it like to venture into Cameron’s elaborate Pandora planet and embark on the high-octane adventure the character of Jake Sully lives through. Visual effects, score, cinematography, action set pieces, small character beats, all these play a crucial aspect in making that experience worthwhile. In that respect, the movie Avatar fulfills every single promise it confidently boated prior to its initial release. With regards to the technical aspects of filmmaking (or craftsmanship if you prefer), especially with a film such as Avatar which wants to invite viewers to completely different world and thus demands elaborate set designs and visuals, there are few films in history that can confidently stand toe-to-toe with Avatar. The film is stunning from start to finish. Whether in theatres or Blu-ray, I can only offer that highest praise to the director’s technical crew as well as the director’s vision. Pandora really as to be seen in order to be believed. The intricacies and sophistication with which the world’s ecosystem is realized is a true rarity in film. The principal selling point is of course the Na’vi who, while they are evidently mostly cg creations, move with a grace that is difficult to find in visual effects laden blockbusters these days. Cameron wanted to make the species as realistic as possible, including facial expressions, something that is notoriously difficult to reproduce faithfully via computer generated effects. The results are wondrous to behold. Yes, the Na’vi don’t really exist, but I’ll be damned if they don’t make me wonder, if only for a second, if James Cameron actually discovered Pandora and is really showing us documentary footage. There is a richness and a texture to the visuals that I, as a fan of these types of films that involve fantastic creatures and monsters, can only love.

Things don’t merely long stunning when the story settles down to develop Sully’s discovery of the Na’vi culture, no sir. This is also an action film, and let me reassure the readers that, even though Cameron hadn’t flexed his action-man muscles in over a decade, the action sequences are both captivating and thrilling. Actually, they are also one more thing: epic. Some of the battles and violent encounters that occur in the final third of the film are on a mammoth-like scale which I hadn’t seen in some time in a film. The filmmakers clearly wanted to Avatar to be not only a story of reconciliation, redemption and discovery, but also feature some seriously bad ass, off the hook shit. A perfect example of this is when Colonel Quaritch and sully square in the final battle of the movie. There are some things that really don’t need to happen (such as Quaritch using a giant blade to hack around instead of guns), but they do because they make the action all that more intense.

With all this praise, what has prompted me to award the film with only a B score? Now comes into play the second way to discuss Avatar: what is it like as a story? This is less about the experience and more about what the viewer gets in terms of plotting and character development. I return to the notion that James Cameron advertised that fact that work on the script had begun over 10 years before the film hit the silver screen. That in of itself is not an issue, or at least it shouldn’t be. However, and I find it disappointing that what follows is the only conclusion I could arrive at, the script is pretty uninspired. The story of paraplegic re-discovering life through an avatar as well as learning to appreciate and respect what he has been taught to hate and fear is a good story, that part isn’t the problem. The problem is that is an idea for a story. One has to develop characters and more intricate episodes within that idea in order to tell an adventure that not only has a beginning, middle and end, but that can also retain the viewer’s interest and attention. This is where Cameron fails with the film. Seeing Sigourney in a big film again was nice (and she gives a decent performance), and Zöe Saldana is very impressive as Neytiri despite the fact that we don’t actually ever see her real face. Even Stephen Lang has a presence about him in the film that is hard to deny. That being said, everything, literally everything in the movie is predictable and by the numbers. In fact, not only was I correctly guessing how certain hurdles would be resolved, but I was also correctly guessing what characters would do next in order to resolves those hurdles. There wasn’t a single surprise in the movie. Surprise probably isn’t the correct word because I don’t ask to be surprised when I watch a film. A film that lacks originality does not consist of an automatic failure in my book (and I should caution readers that I do not consider Avatar to be an automatic failure), but I will grow a least a little bit frustrated if I get easily predict every single little thing that is going to happen next story-wise. More importantly, and on a more basic level of film discussion, if I am actively guessing what will happen next because I find it easy, then it means that I am not wholly invested in the story. I know I am getting into semantics, but I am trying to make myself as clear as I possibly can. There’s guessing (‘Gosh, what will happen next?!? Maybe...’) and then there’s guessing (‘Oh, he’ll probably just!). I was doing the latter while watching Avatar.

The actors are certainly not at fault, not even Sam Worthington (an actor who seems to have earned the scorn of plenty around the internet), who I think gives an okay performance, both with and without the cg makeup. A couple, such as Weaver and Saldana, give legitimately good performances. I think the actors do the job Cameron asks of them, which where the issues inherently being. The problem is in the material they are working with and with what exactly Cameron is asking of them. I’m an actors and actresses kind of film lover, but there are moments when not even good acting is going to keep me from getting a bit restless. I know full well that this criticism has been mentioned countless times across the internet already I honestly loath caving in the popular consensus, but... damn, this is what you wrote in 10 years, Cameron? Really!?! If the script had been cooked in a couple of weeks or a month, then I truthfully wouldn’t mind, but don’t go telling the world that you’ve spent 10 years on a story that is as predictable as watching ice melt on a hot summer day. Please, just don’t.

Good gracious, I given in to the one thing I vowed never to do as an internet blogger: ranting. I hope readers will forgive me for subjecting you to that most uninspired of film criticism methods. Huh, fancy that, I made use of a lazy criticism method to discuss a lazy scri- no, that’s enough! More earnestly however, as I left the theatre room back in December and, more recently, as I ejected the Blu-ray disc from the player, I felt that overall I had had a good time watching the film. Everything about the sights and sounds of Avatar works on a terrific level, the actors involved pull their fair share of the load and, as I’ve already touched upon, the idea behind the story is a good one. It really is the evolution of the plot that leaves me wanting for so much more. Despite my strong negative feelings towards some aspects of the film, Avatar is a B I would more than gladly recommend to anyone looking for a decent movie watching experience. The potential was there for so much more, and while it never reaches those heights I wanted it so badly to touch, it is still a fine movie.