Tag Archives: True Lies

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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Lies, True Lies & Action Movies

by Steven Moore

James Cameron has a knack for making his hero’s escape from danger both fantastical and plausible. While Cameron’s True Lies is certainly a cheesy 90′s action movie, the worst decade for action in my opinion, it also has subtle moments of genius buried in the cinematography and choreography. The generic action scene when the hero narrowly escapes the giant fireball rushing mercilessly toward him doesn’t feel clichéd in Cameron’s movie because he fosters a suspension of disbelief (or believable impossibility, if you prefer). You, the viewer, know exactly how the hero got where he is and how he is getting away. There’s a flow to the bangs and booms. Everything about this film feels careful and calculated, a rare thing in the action movie world.

Schwarzenegger & Curtis in "True Lies"

The plot starts with Harry Tasker, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, living a double life as a spy, while his wife, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, lives blissfully unaware of her husband’s daily mortal danger. She believes him to be the boring businessman that he is in their suburban life together. She seeks adventure and excitement, which pushes her to flirt with another man. The flirtations lead to a series of events where, through the separate machinations of both our hero and the bad guys, Harry reveals all his secrets. In the process, Curtis transforms from housewife to co-spy so gradually and meticulously it seems natural for a middle-aged suburban working mom to become an international covert agent. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is silly, but it does silly with a master’s hand.

This is not a perfect movie by any means. The secret agent with an unwitting family is a generic enough theme that’s only been pulverized to death in the years since True Lies‘ release. Harry appears to be the typical homeric action star, but he has no problem blurring ethical boundaries, like hiring his unwitting wife to be his prostitute and making her think she is performing a striptease for a complete stranger. There are serious moral questions here that our hero just skates right past without so much as a “hmm?” I see some marriage counseling in their future. Although this is probably his finest performance, Arnold’s acting still boils down to frequent grunts and shouts punctuated by some painfully enunciated sentences. The plot is standard fare with few surprising reveals and the villains are borderline offensive Arabic stereotypes.

Yet, this movie remains entertaining after all these years. Why? All media critics wrestle with the problem of entertainment versus depth. All critics, and I would hope most moviegoers, need a certain amount of depth from their films, regardless of entertainment value. Entertainment is fleeting without something more that speaks to the human experience, and movies that forget that are often labeled forgettable. Forgettable movies aren’t bad; they just make no impact other than to entertain for a couple hours. You rarely go back and watch them a second time.

However, within the action genre a movie can be pure spectacle and still worth watching again and again for that spectacle alone, which is why I dislike action movies obviously. I might even say I avoid action movies, but only because there’s a part of me that loves action movies so much. That ancient reptilian part of my brain wants nothing more from a film than ‘splosions, big guns, and a pretty girl–preferably, a pretty girl with a big gun causing a ‘splosion. And that’s all I need. No questions about life or human existence or our existential need for connection, just boom, bang, and wow. So, when an action movie does more than spectacle, it becomes something special. It satisfies both sides of my brain, which is what the best movies achieve. Die Hard, El Mariachi, and Casino Royale all transcend the Action genre by delivering characters who struggle with the human experience all while getting pretty girls, firing lots of guns, and making big ‘splosions. Unfortunately, this is so rare in the action genre that I’ve lost faith.

(From left:) Bruce Willis as John McClane in "Die Hard" (1988); Carlos Gallardo as "El Mariachi" (1992); Daniel Craig as James Bond 007 in "Casino Royale" (2006)

True Lies is more than a one night stand with the reptilian brain. It doesn’t quite reach the same level as the previously mentioned films, but it is a fun ride, and it provides a technical insight that’s more than just spectacle. That is to say, it does spectacle in a special way, which placates my snobbier sensibilities. Too bad it’s an action movie.

–Steven Moore

A Year of Movies

1. True Lies (1994)

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Tia Carrere, Eliza Dushku, Grant Heslov, Art Malik, Bill Paxton, Charlton Heston.

Saturday, January 1, 02:00.

Two hours since 2011 rolled over the Atlantic and hit the East Coast, and the party’s over. I’m at Steve’s house. We decide to inaugurate the new year by–what else?–watching a movie. We pick True Lies, a favorite that I’ve seen many times since high school but never in widescreen. Steve hasn’t seen it since it came out in 1994. When it’s over, I ask Steve, “What did you think of it this time?” His response: “It’s definitely a 90s movie.” He’s right: The style, the plot mechanics, the one-liners, Schwarzenegger’s obvious stunt double, the Arab terrorists (no more than caricatures). On top of that, nearly every pop culture reference immediately dates it as a mid-90s flick. And I definitely noticed a lot more flaws this time. Still, Cameron is a master of technical films like this, and his sense of control over action scene is apparent. This viewing moved True Lies down in my estimation, convincing me it is one of Cameron’s weakest films. When you think about it relatively, though, Cameron’s weakest films are still much better than the average science fiction or action film, and True Lies still has some of the most impressive action scenes in the history of action films. I may not watch it in its entirety again for a long time, but True Lies remains a 90s action favorite of mine–a genre and time period that, I must admit, I am a huge sucker for. Netflix rating: 4/5 stars. IMDb rating: 8/10. Flickchart rank: 612/2169 (Top 1000). Learn more about the movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111503/

–Tom Kapr

James Cameron, Part II: A Critique of Avatar

By Nathanael Griffis

I sat down to watch Avatar on DVD with an attitude similar to the one I had opening night in the theater: I really wanted to like it. I wanted it to be the sprawling epic that forever changes the fantasy genre. I wanted to feel the way I felt watching The Lord of the Rings. After it ended, my reaction was similar to my reaction a year ago: I was surprised. The first time, I had been dazzled by the fully realized world but had felt the story fell flat. This time, I still think the visual effects are the best yet, but I also have to give the story more credit. This is a flawed movie, but not in the way it is frequently criticized.

Stephen Lang, going to get some Jujubes during a brief hiatus in shooting.

I have heard complaints about the performances and the lack of depth in the characters. My second viewing provided evidence to the contrary. The performances are staggering, especially Zoe Saldana and Stephen Lang. Everyone in the cast, with the exception of some nameless soldiers or minor Na’vi characters, is at the top of their game. Sam Worthington (as Jake Sully) proves he can hold a movie on his shoulders. The moments when he sits down for his video journal are some of my favorite scenes in the film, because they remind me of the dichotomy of his life. Stephen Lang (as Colonel Quaritch) adds depth to a character that probably does not deserve such consideration. He makes a one-dimensional jingoist into something more and delivers the best line in the movie: “They will eat your eyes for Jujubes.” He oozes determination and sick pleasure in accomplishment and violence. Zoe Saldana (as Naytiri) is reminiscent of Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings–not up to his level, but close. She gives that CGI character a physical emotive presence that makes you believe it’s not fantasy.

Admittedly, they should have brought arrow-proof helicopters.

I’ll cover the visual effects in Part III of this series, so I only want to say here that Avatar does hold up in the home theater. Avatar‘s largest flaw, or at least the most frequently referenced, is that it rips off a lot of other films. The story is derivative to some extent, but derivation of a story is not an issue. It is essential to the Joseph Campbell monomyth which Avatar follows almost to a T (although I will admit that allusions in names like “Pandora” and “banshee” gets distracting.) The issue with Avatar is that it doesn’t have enough substance to match its incredible style. What is particularly egregious about it is that the potential for thematic depth is there. If only Cameron had been more derivative of Dances with Wolves, he might have gleaned that the beauty of that film is in challenging viewers’ ideologies about cultural morality.

Cameron modeling the complex method-acting technique of sitting for Sam Worthington.

Much of Avatar‘s thematic heft rests on Jake’s dilemma in having to choose between the indutrual/capitalist human society and the natural/communal society of the Na’vi. On paper, a paraplegic soldier having to struggle with living a false life inside a virtual body and then slowly converting over to the virtual life as he loses his grip on reality is amazing, because we, as the audience, should struggle along with him. The first half of the film utilizes this struggle excellently. Jake gives schematics of the Na’vi home tree over to the army as he goes native. The scene where Colonel Quaritch rips the real Jake Sully out of his Avatar at the end is a welcome reminder of the struggle. The weakness with the story is that by the end the struggle is only a reminder. I wasn’t as engaged with Jake as I was when he first started exploring the world and the decisions he had to make. Cameron does not challenge us with Jake’s decision to reject humanity; he decides for us. At the end of the film there is no chance that Jake has chosen wrongly. I felt cheated, and perhaps this is why people harp on how derivative it is. Instead of inspiring original conflicts of thought within our own psyches, Jake’s climactic decision merely reminds us of issues we’ve seen raised in previous films. A climax can make or break a film. All the material surrounding Jake’s decision to “go native” is stirring, but his actual decision is made too flippantly, and so the climax is wasted.

On the whole, Avatar is wonderful and deserves a place in film history as a great fantasy film, but in Cameron’s canon it lies on the bottom alongside True Lies, or maybe right above it. The action is great, the acting is better than most think, and the special effects are a historical tentpole. The story does not deserve as much criticism as it receives, but the presentation of the story betrays a glaring lack of trust in the audience.

–Nathanael Griffis