Monthly Archives: April 2012

Buried Cinema — Rango

By Nathanael Griffis

Bats, dynamite, and Johnny Depp: this movie has it all.

Okay, admittedly, last year’s Oscar-winning animated film Rango is not buried, but I need a reason to write about it, so let’s pretend. It is the kind of film that can easily become buried though, so consider this a preemptive unburying, an attempt to keep the sands of our film apathy away from this little gem of a film.

I was really surprised by this film. After last year was so dry of any truly good animation, I avoided Rango, because everything else I’d seen was so weak. In retrospect it wasn’t so bad: we got a new Winnie the Pooh, and Chico & Rita was a great look at jazz and love. What is really so bothersome is the stumbling of Pixar with Cars 2 and another DreamWorks sequel in Kung Fu Panda 2. We’ve been spoiled and it hurts when reality hits and you realize the gods of animation are fallible.

If you’ve read anything about Rango, you’ve read the increasingly annoying mantra that it’s not for kids. Well, not really — it’s certainly violent, there’s a fair amount of swearing, and the humor is unabashedly adult. Still, it’s full of cartoonish slapstick comedy, so it’s a strange balance. It’s this strange balance that is so refreshing. This is a mature, smart cartoon Western. It still operates within the boundaries of a cartoon, so we’re expected to believe that a chameleon is perfectly capable of surviving being bounced across several car windshields. Yet it’s smart. The humor is directly adult. There is some child-aimed slapstick with burps and explosions, but for the most part you have to be older to catch the jokes.

If you're counting that's one bullet.

I’ve heard some critics pointing this out as a flaw, but I found it refreshing. Often in films the adult humor is hidden away, tucked inside innuendo so that parents watching a Disney film can still chuckle every half-hour. In some ways this is just catering to a smaller sect of the audience that watches cartoons. It’s smart marketing to engage parents, but it doesn’t directly benefit the story. Rango runs without and benefits from an uncensored script. They don’t have to follow the Disney rules: they can swear, make Fear & Loathing references, characters can die, and it’s all great. It’s genuinely funny and a startlingly original film.

The film is doing some amazing things with mythos and how a story plays out. It’s not meta exactly, but it continually reminds you that the Western is a created story with expectations, and plays with those. It goes as far as to have a pseudo-Clint Eastwood appear and offer advice to our young hero, who is himself unsure of who he is. It takes this concept of the hero that every young boy dreams of and delivers an extremely relatable protagonist, who is pretending to be just that as he’s thrust into a Western unexpectedly. The whole progression is predictable, but presented in a refreshing way. Not to mention that at times they blatantly tell what is going to happen next.  It’s an astonishing script from John Logan that reminds why he’s so good and makes me wonder why he’s not talked about more. Hans Zimmer delivers another awesome score that borrows and plays off of Morricone,  Apocalypse Now, and others when it needs to, but still has an unique style all its own.

Clint Eastwood shows up as well, so why haven't you seen this film yet?

The entire film feels like a thank-you to all of us film lovers who’ve been tirelessly watching Westerns and caring about the script more than the CGI explosions. Let me put it to you this way: This movie is good enough for me to forgive Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski for the Pirates of the Caribbean Sequels. Definitely take the time to check this one out. Don’t watch it with your young kids, but middle school-aged kids should like it. Something I didn’t even mention is that it’s absolutely gorgeous. This is the first animated film from Industrial Light and Magic, although I’m sure they had a hand in Dinosaur, and it’s a good sign.

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Cube: Ripe for a remake

By Steven Moore

Cube came out in 1997, a time when the indie film moviement had started getting its sea legs. Successes like ClerksReservoir Dogs, and Slacker had shown that studios were required for distribution but not filmmaking. Cube, in my memory, was the first independent sci-fi film. With a budget of $250,000, it managed to create a sci-fi thriller unlike anything I had ever seen. I was astounded by it’s Kasfkaesque story, great special effects, and unique style.

After watching it again recently, I realized that I was very young when I watched this. The film has serious problems. The acting is almost uniformly painful, and none of the characters seem to fit their role. Maurice Went, playing Quentin, the alpha male who slowly devolves into a statutory rapist, overplays his part to the point of absurdity. Nicole Boer, playing the college mathematician, seems about as comfortable with math as a theater major can pretend to be. Acting aside, the camera work rarely uses a clean shot, instead preferring extreme angles and closeups. I can almost hear director Vincenzo Natali repeating to himself, “My Professor said to let the camera be the emotion.” The film generally feels like the work of a young filmmaker with inexperienced actors.

What is incredible here, though, is that the movie survives all the amateurish mistakes to deliver a great story that sticks with you long after the movie ends. The notion that at any moment, I could wake up inside this murderous government pork project is horrifying. That alone makes Cube an important entry into the sci-fi canon. In the hands of someone more skilled with a camera and less interested in rape scenes (avoid Natali’s Splice at all costs if inter-species rape isn’t your thing), this movie could have been amazing, without qualification. With today’s special effects, a director who isn’t still paying off his or her student loans, and actors who can carry their role, a Cube remake could be a beautiful thing. I’m looking at you, Christopher Nolan.

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A Quick Rant — Titanic 3D

By Tom Kapr

I didn’t mind the fact that James Cameron was re-releasing Titanic using post-conversion 3D. Most films released in 3D through post-conversion look awful, because they were not actually filmed in 3D. But this is perfectionist James Cameron we’re talking about. His films are always on the front lines of technological advancement, and, with a few picky exceptions (obvious Schwarzenegger stunt doubles in True Lies), they hold up over the decades. And Avatar was one of the first films to really show what 3D technology can do for a film artistically.

Mainly, I just really wanted to see Titanic on the big screen, 3D or not.

Having now finally seen Titanic in the cinema for the first time ever, in 3D, I have to say, it is one of the most beautiful, visually stunning, emotionally gripping, and technically immaculate films ever made. The 3D, however, is a mixed bag. Here’s the good first: the depth of field is phenomenal. As far as pure dimensionality goes, it does exactly what 3D should do. It makes the world on-screen look as if you could step right into it. This is really only a next logical step in terms of cinema as a visual medium; it has always been a medium that created the illusion of depth (foreground, background, etc.). 3D just takes that illusion to the next level. And this is, without a doubt, the best-looking post-conversion 3D ever. No surprise for cinematic pioneer James Cameron.

But here’s the bad thing: You still have to wear those glasses, and even worse, in the case of Titanic, they darken the picture. I noticed this about halfway through the film when, just out of curiosity, I removed the glasses and looked at the film through my own eyes (well, my own prescription lenses, anyway). It was on a close-up of Kate Winslet. All of a sudden, without the 3D glasses, her skin looked much healthier, with more color, more red in her cheeks, and her hair was much redder. I went back and forth a couple times. The glasses made her look much grayer — almost sickly, in direct comparison.

Throughout the rest of the film, I would occasionally compare the picture with and without the glasses. The color was always much richer without. More reds, more blues. Especially during night scenes — so, for like, the entire second half of the movie — I was able to discern much more color detail without the 3D glasses.

I enjoyed the film immensely, and I actually have a much deeper appreciation of it than when I first saw it on full-screen VHS all those years ago. I would call it a masterpiece, even among Cameron’s higher-than-average number of near-perfect films (including Aliens and Terminator 2); and I would, in a huge change of opinion, say it deserved all the accolades it received back in 1998, including its Best Picture Oscar.

I am very glad I finally had the opportunity to see Titanic at the cinema. But I would much rather have been able to watch it without those 3D glasses, in glorious, illusory 2D.

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A few thoughts on Leo, Titanic, and middle school

By Nathanael Griffis

It takes me back to think it has been 15 years since Leonardo DiCaprio’s smirking face and unseemly stiff-gel-parted hair graced the big screen in Titanic. So much has changed. I never saw the movie in the theater because, well, there was a scene that involved inappropriate painting, I was told. Also, I was suspiciously certain there was a significant amount of kissing, which I wanted little to do with when I was ten. Yet despite having never seen it in the theater, I knew of the film and I knew of Leo. Oh how I hated his blue eyes and skinny little neck. I honestly don’t know why, but I despised him simply because he was in Titanic, and eventually, to protect my rep, I would brag about not having seen it.

I finally got a chance to watch the film on television, which was an enormous disappointment as a three-hour movie became a five-hour foray that was all the more disappointing for its lack of exposed breasts. I naturally blamed Leo and continued down my confused road of hatred. I begrudgingly enjoyed Catch Me If You Can, but didn’t watch Gangs of New York. Once I graduated high school, though, I realized that maybe I should have given Leo a break. It seemed that he had realized the error of his ways and was doing cool, gritty movies. Remember when your one friend was dating that awful bitch that you told him to dump, but he kept dating her, then they broke up and he came stumbling around and was always buying you pizza to make up for being such a dick? I feel like Leo’s career has been like that.

It’s as if he directly wanted to gain my approval. Like in some bizzaro universe, I was the father Leo never had, and despite all the accolades and praise he’d won for one of the greatest films of all time, I was never satisfied. Since Titanic, he’s made film after film that I love and has become one of my favorite actors. He’s worked with Scorsese, Spielberg, Nolan, Zwick, Scott, and Mendes. He basically could not have picked a more Nate-centric group of directors. Somehow he spoke directly to my heart and apologized for Titanic, how could I not forgive him? So in my forgiveness, after watching his face explode in The Departed, I sat down to watch Titanic during my sophomore year of college. I loved it, and came to realize that I had been simply jealous.

Looking back, I realize that it’s insanely foolish of us to hate teenage heartthrobs out of sheer jealously. What if it was my face that was plastered over every notebook? I’m not nearly as handsome. I didn’t sink down into the icy waters for love. I can’t sketch nearly that good, but I’d be willing to try. It’s taken 15 years, but I’ve come around and am excited to see Titanic in theaters, if only to finally see it on the big screen. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing.

Leo, if it means anything, I think I speak for all us middle-school haters out there: we forgive you. And I for one will gladly spend $14.50 on a revamped 3D version of your classic if only to thank you for the awesome career you’ve delivered post-Titanic. Here’s to you, Leo. You can sleep soundly now that your bizzaro-world father accepts you and is proud of you.

I love you too, Nate...

Now about this Zac Efron character. I hate that guy…

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Buried Cinema — Gallipoli

By Nathanael Griffis

Warning: Here be spoilers!

Ahhh, war movies and the loss of innocence, a theme that never gets old. And if it does, don’t say that out loud, because it makes people mad. Gallipoli is no different. The plot is simple. Imagine if Chariots of Fire was a movie about Australians, not Brits, and took place during WWI. I know that’s a joke (maybe you didn’t, so just so we’re clear, that was a joke, feel free to laugh), but it’s a pretty accurate description. They also seemed to have pulled the Chariots of Fire soundtrack along with them, which is an… what’s the word… annoyance. Electric mandolin is great over inspiring race scenes, but treks across the outback and grisly war scenes should not sound like a Brian Eno-produced Devo album. If you don’t get that reference, that’s fine, let’s operate on the assumption that it’s an awkward mixture.

Wait I was talking about a movie, wasn’t I? Gallipoli is about two Australian sprinters who join up to fight for their country during Australia’s Gallipoli campaign in Turkey. Far be it from me to talk history, so I won’t. Australia was in Turkey fighting the Turks, who were friends with Germany. Like most war films, the basic thrust of this film is that war destroys the innocence of the young men who go to war, crippling them in more ways than just physically. It’s a tried and true theme that is rarely exhausted, one you’ve come to expect from war films. But here’s the difference: Gallipoli is directed by Peter Weir.

If that doesn’t make you go, “oh, I get it,” then let me educate you: Peter Weir is a  spectacular filmmaker with an amazing filmography that includes Master and Commander, The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Witness, and The Mosquito Coast. He’s versatile enough to do something experimental like The Truman Show, or a sweet romantic comedy like The Green Card, and started out with horror in the early 70’s with films like Homesdale and The Cars That Eat People. What he’s really great at, though, is films like Gallipoli, the stirring epic that makes me think Weir has a little David Lean in him.

The way he shoots an epic is amazing. He has an excellent sense of pacing, and for a film shot in 1981, it is of outstanding quality. The film looks HD-quality to be honest. It’s not grainy or shaky, but the shots look better than most films now. It stars a young Mel Gibson, and Mark Lee, an actor who seemingly left TV for this single film and then abruptly returned to the obscurity of Australian television. Most of the film revolves around their relationship, with Lee’s Archie wanting to run off to the glory of war and Gibson’s Frank who doesn’t think the war should be of concern to Australia, but relents for the sake of his friends and volunteers.

Tell me this isn't from Chariots of Fire.

The first half of the film follows Archie and Frank as they race (trek, really) across the outback, debate the merits of war, and join up. Peter Weir deftly allows their characters to slowly develop and uses it as a chance to envelope us in a classic debate over fighting in a war. Their characters are also wonderfully layered: they’re naïve and innocent to an extent, but somehow we see them grow. The first half seems to pale to the powerful images of the second half, but it’s this character building that builds a foundation for the actual trench warfare.

The second half  is more memorable. We see Archie and Frank brimming with excitement at the prospect of war. There’s this build-up of heroic deeds that are peppered with small troubling images. At one point the boys finish off a race and are joking as they come upon an arm sticking out of a trench. Soldiers are shaking the dead rotted hand in jest as they walk by, but there’s something off-putting about the whole scene. A picturesque moment with the soldiers diving underwater initially seems complimented by shrapenel that floats down around them. The soldiers reach out in wonder as streaming metal shards rain down, until in the chaos a man’s hand is torn open and blood fills the screen. The soldiers, though, react to this like it’s something worth praising, but the viewer is left unsure.

The glory of war is utterly destroyed in the final scenes as men leave their trench and are gunned down.  It’s hard to watch as all the characters you’ve grown to love run to their deaths. Wave after wave of Australians are cut down by Turkish machine guns. The bodies stack up and yet they keep sending the men over. It’s a tragic waste of life that Peter Weir seems incapable of making sense of, because there’s no sense to be made of it. War is not glorious, and it doesn’t make heroes, it kills them. As the final frame, showing Archie rushing across a dry no man’s land only to have his chest burst open from machine gun fire, tells us. The film lingers on a grizzly frozen frame of his outstretched chest, which parallels the runners’ final stretch to the finish line, with blood spewing forth and a look of wrenching pain across his face.

Sure, it might all end in tragedy, but at least they got to see the pyramids.

By the end you’re left questioning the purpose of war for glory’s sake. It truly leaves you haunted, because the bad guys win. Which is an issue in war: the other side may win, and what then? The Gallipoli campaign was an utter failure for the allies and yet the sacrifice of those brave soldiers who died is still celebrated in Australia and New Zealand to this day. It’s been compared to the Alamo, for its galvanizing effect upon the countries despite the defeat. Certainly it’s worth remembering the lives that were lost, but I’m left wondering if the cost had to be paid with so much blood.

So despite the poorly aged music, Gallipoli is an excellent war film. It takes classic themes and reworks them so that they’re more affecting to the viewer than is normal in film. It fills you with a strong sense of loss and tragedy in war. It’s not Peter Weir’s best film, but it is one fans his films, or war films, or movies in general should check out.

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