FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #19: “Titanic” (dir. James Cameron), Avatar, and the State of 3D Cinema

Poster for "Titanic"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel never let go of James Cameron’s 1997 romantic sea epic, Titanic. Can a romance founded on chemistry, infidelity, and bad dialogue possibly stand the test of time? Find out below! Additionally, you’ll hear our windswept heroes expound on Avatar and the lamentable state of 3D cinema (50:19).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10 (Glenn), 9/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode comes from James Horner’s soundtrack sequel Back to Titanic, including the tracks “Titanic Suite” and I Salonisti’s arrangement of “Nearer My God to Thee”, which they play in the film.
  • Daniel called it – the old couple below decks that we see holding each other in bed as the water rises around them are indeed Isidor and Ida Straus (the co-owner of Macy’s Department Stores and his wife). There was a deleted scene in which Ida refuses to board the lifeboat without her husband.
  • Per Daniel’s recommendation, check out Encyclopedia Titanica, a fantastic trove of knowledge for all things Titanic.

Listen above, or download: Titanic (right-click, save as).

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2009 Glennies, Part 5: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2009)

#11: Avatar



(written/directed by James Cameron)

Last year, I cheated my Top 10 list a bit because a numbering error in Word caused me to accidentally type an extra description. This year, I’ve opted to include James Cameron’s Avatar for a wholly different reason. You can read my full review of the film, in which I fully acknowledge a number of serious plot, character, and storytelling problems with this film. By any of these measures, Avatar was not worthy of my Top 10. And yet, I am compelled to include it, because I had an absolutely marvelous time with this film. My first viewing was on a miniscule screen, from a seat crammed into the right front section of the auditorium, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off a single frame. This film is a grand and wondrous spectacle. Even as piracy, obnoxious advertising, and a constant barrage of texting diminish and devalue the theatrical film experience, James Cameron has given us a new reason to adore it. And beyond that, the film has proven provocative enough to spawn some of the most in-depth and fascinating film writing I’ve ever seen in print or online. Avatar absolutely piles on its message, but whether you love it or hate it, you will certainly have something to talk about afterward.

#10: The Boys Are Back



(directed by Scott Hicks, screenplay by Allan Cubitt, novel by Simon Carr)

Scott Hicks’ The Boys Are Back accomplished something remarkable… It managed to take a rather somber premise – a husband and father dealing with his wife’s untimely death – and turn it into a downright cheerful film. The film is shot in Hicks’ native Adelaide, Australia, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography (complimented by Hal Lindes’ delightful score) give this film an absolutely gorgeous backdrop. The film excels in its tone and pacing. It deals with some weighty issues, but the story moves right along when it needs to, and never veers too far into somber territory without coming back to show us something genuinely delightful. This variable emotional curve could easily have come off as jarring, bipolar, and seemingly not serious enough for the film’s subject matter, but it manages to avoid these problems. The result is a joyous portrait of family and fatherhood, featuring a trio of strong performances from Clive Owen and his cinematic sons.

#9: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince



(directed by David Yates, screenplay by Steve Kloves, novel by J.K. Rowling)

When I first read J.K. Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter book, I thought it was a fascinating middle chapter, but easily the least cinematic in the franchise. I held a similar view of the fifth book, so imagine my surprise in 2007 when director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg turned it into one of the best films in the franchise. And with the sixth film, Yates and returning HP screenwriter Steve Kloves have done it again.

I will throw in a caveat… This is definitely not a film for newcomers to the franchise. It’s crammed with back story and setup for the final chapters. It relies on an existing interest in and affection for the characters, their relationships, and a rich and elaborate world that deftly raise the stakes for this entry. And yet, this is one of the film’s most persistent strengths. We’ve watched these kids grow up in the joyous halls of Hogwarts, but this time around, the school feels strangely empty and somber. DP Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography makes the grounds look absolutely gorgeous, and provide a brilliant “underwater” look for the film’s many flashback sequences (I was quite pleased to see the Academy take notice). Nicholas Hooper’s score is hauntingly beautiful at times, but keeps the same cheery flourishes that I so enjoyed from the fifth film (particularly the Weasley twins’ theme).

I already singled out Jim Broadbent’s fantastic supporting role, but there were too many strong performances in this film to even mention. The character work and storytelling were effective, and the adaptation showed remarkable restraint in omitting an entire battle sequence from the end of the film. In print, this sequence always played like a lighter version of the next book’s final battle (minor spoiler – there’s a final battle), and cutting it out of the film was definitely the right choice.

#8: Up



(written/directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

The latest Disney/Pixar film from Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc) definitely fell prey to what I would call “WALL-E syndrome” – the first half hour is absolutely the best part of the film. It tells the poignant love story of childhood sweethearts Carl and Ellie Fredricksen in a matter of minutes, and is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking montages I’ve ever seen put to film. It is also a taut piece of visual storytelling, effectively conveying such weighty adult issues as infertility and broken dreams with only the briefest of glimpses and zero dialogue. By the time we meet Ed Asner’s cantankerous old man, he is thoroughly endearing, and finds an excellent partner in crime in Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer who is just the right blend of cute and annoying. The ensuing adventure film is immensely fun, and features the hilarious motif of a talking dog with the intelligence and personality of…a dog (with a great voice performance by co-writer/director Bob Peterson). Up certainly takes place in a heightened reality, but it tells a very down-to-earth and touching story.

#7: Adventureland



(written/directed by Greg Mottola)

As I said in my original review, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland defied my expectations on every level. I went in expecting a comedy akin to Superbad – and the film’s marketing certainly encouraged this image of the film. Instead, I was presented with a mature, poignant drama that presented a brilliant portrait of the twentysomething post-college experience, and the sudden, reluctant thrust into adulthood.

The film boasts some brilliant performances… Jesse Eisenberg plays a great everyman, and was just shy of my Top 5 for Best Actor. Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart were both surprisingly effective (each of them having lowered my expectations at some point), and Martin Starr – whom I’ve adored since “Freaks and Geeks” – continues to show his prowess here.

Adventureland is both an effective coming-of-age tale and a touching romance, whose conciliatory message (“You can’t just avoid all the people you’ve screwed up with!”) will likely resonate as much with this generation as it did in the 1980s, when a young Greg Mottola was working at the real Adventureland. Whether this indicates the film’s timelessness or simply Mottola’s understanding of modern twentysomethings, the result is well worth seeing.

#6: Coraline



(written for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, novel by Neil Gaiman)

The best use of 3D animation I’ve seen this year was not in James Cameron’s Avatar, but in Henry Selick’s stop-motion adaptation of Coraline, a children’s novel by Neil Gaiman. Equal parts Nightmare Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland, this film is a fantastically creepy exploration of a child’s desire to escape boredom. The voice cast is enjoyable, with effective performances by Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher, and a fantastic use of Keith David as a talking cat. The plot does get a bit too much like a video game in the third act (use your special scope, go here, retrieve one item from each location, BOSS FIGHT!), but it balances this with an absolutely stunning mixture of stop motion and CG animation as the fantasy world starts to crumble – and I’d be hard pressed to tell you where one stops and the other begins. Everyone has a film from their childhood that is as beloved as it is nightmare-inducing. Coraline absolutely deserves the title for today’s kids.

#5: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs



(written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, novel by Judi and Ron Barrett)

Sony Pictures Animation has only made a few films, they got off to a fantastic start with Gil Kenan’s 2006 film Monster House. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs had an atrocious marketing campaign, and hardly looked like it would be a worthy followup. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the best comedy of the year.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor whose latest invention is a machine that can turn water into food. The science in this film is very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic – immensely fun and borderline magical. The character design is deliberately cartoonish, in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film’s North Atlantic island locale feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

This is a screwball comedy driven by a non-stop barrage of surprisingly thoughtful gags. The casting is fantastic, with great performances by Hader, Anna Faris, Andy Samberg, James Caan, and even Mr. freaking T (whose character actually sports an inverse mohawk). This supports some very believable relationships and effective character work. The film even tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but keeps this to a very basic level. It’s one of many ways the film shows respect for its audience, kids and adults alike. The running gags all pay off fantastically, lending the film extremely well to repeat viewings.

This is about as preachy as I’ll get during my top 10… This is a film for everyone. It’s the best character-driven animation since The Incredibles, and one of my all-time favorite comedies. See this movie!

#4: Moon



(directed by Duncan Jones, written by Nathan Parker, story by Duncan Jones)

I’ll keep this one brief, since I’ve already raved about Sam Rockwell’s performance, and this is basically his one-man show (you can check out my full review here). Duncan Jones’ Moon does a lot with very little, creating a compelling moon base environment on a downright meager budget. It’s helped along by an absolutely beautiful score (I have yet to hear a Mansell score I haven’t loved). It’s a fantastic character piece, and a welcome return to true sci-fi. Check it out if you love big ideas.

#3: The Hurt Locker



(directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal)

Kathryn Bigelow’sThe Hurt Locker doesn’t exactly have a conventional plot, but feels rather like a series of carefully constructed action set-pieces. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly effective thriller, owing largely to the action direction – that sense of spatial relationships that is that is absent from so many action films today. From my original review:

Every scene in this film is well established, and the audience always has an excellent sense of what’s going on. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) dons his protective suit (a relative misnomer) and marches through the blazing sun toward his objective. Civilians watch from every surrounding building, and bustle through the adjacent streets and alleys. The soldiers behind him take cover behind a Humvee and survey the crowd. Anyone with a cell phone could be trying to detonate the bomb. And all the while, the audience understands exactly where everything is in relation to everything else. And when all hell breaks loose, they can still understand what’s going on.

The rest of the film’s effectiveness is due to the three leads. Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty are just fantastic, and present a fascinating psychological profile of these characters, even as the film’s plot and dialogue exhibit utter contempt for anyone trying to analyze them. The film’s greatest strength is in crafting a palpable sense of urgency and danger – when it’s over, you’ll have to forcibly pry yourself loose from the edge of your seat.

#2: Up in the Air



(directed by Jason Reitman, screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, novel by Walter Kirn)

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking (including another great soundtrack), but has a much more somber tone. In my original review, I called it a brilliant and timely character piece, and I can’t stress this point enough. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a doubly fascinating character, between his constant air travel and his job as a professional hatchet-man. This may be the best performance of Clooney’s career, amid a trio of fantastic acting. The film takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. What’s more, it contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. And while it may be timely, this does nothing to diminish its rewatch value (three times and counting for me).

#1: Inglourious Basterds



(written/directed by Quentin Tarantino)

This film’s brilliantly deceptive trailer made it look like the Basterds (and their commander’s awful and hilarious scenery-chewing) would be the stars of the show. While I actually ended up liking Brad Pitt’s performance in the end, the Basterds feel more like a backdrop for the main revenge plot, which featured powerhouse performances from costars Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, and Diane Kruger.

In my original review, I noted some minor similarities to Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II film, Valkyrie. In that film’s insistence upon historical accuracy, it demanded a great deal of its audience – namely, to root for a plot whose failure was a matter of historical record. With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino makes no such demands on the audience. He doesn’t strain or even test your historical knowledge. He simply asks you to live in his world for a while.

And what a world it is. A world of fantastic performances and increasingly tense 15-minute dialogue scenes. These scenes stop just short of being self-indulgent, and ultimately, Tarantino earns every moment in this film. It feels like a teaser for a much larger story, and yet we are still privy to enough brilliantly crafted character moments that it simultaneously feels complete.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil (fantastic documentary by Sacha Gervasi – omitted because I only just saw it)
  • In the Loop (directed by Armando Ianucci, written by Jesse Armstrong)
  • Drag Me To Hell (directed by Sam Raimi, written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi)
  • The House of the Devil (written/directed by Ti West)
  • The Brothers Bloom (written/directed by Rian Johnson)
  • Trick ‘r Treat (written/directed by Michael Dougherty)
  • District 9 (directed by Neill Blomkamp, written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell)
  • (500) Days of Summer (directed by Marc Webb, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber)
  • Observe and Report (written/directed by Jody Hill)
  • Star Trek (directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci)

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

James Cameron’s “Avatar” – A savage and gorgeous Eden

Spoiler Warning: This review will include plot details revealed in the theatrical trailer.

Five years and $300 million in the making, James Cameron’s Avatar has finally arrived. The film takes place in 2154, when a completely industrialized Earth has sent a massive and militarized mining party to a lush forest moon called Pandora. The moon is rich with native flora and fauna, but it is also rich with unobtainium – a term originally developed as a humorous stand-in for a valuable and impossible compound, but which is used quite literally here. Unfortunately, there is also a massive indigenous population of intelligent, tree-dwelling, ten-foot-tall humanoids called the Na’vi, a tribe of which lives directly on top of the richest deposit of the precious material.

So naturally, we need them to move. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine who is tapped to join the Avatar program, the brainchild of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). The avatars are Na’vi bodies grown and designed to be piloted by humans via a neural link. Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the abominable head of security, and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the shrewd mining administrator, order Sully to infiltrate the Na’vi village and gain their trust, and find a way to convince or force them off their land. In the course of doing so, he meets Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), a Na’vi princess who agrees to show him the ways of her people.

And that’s where I’ll stop with the plot description… If you’ve seen the theatrical trailer for this film, you already knew all that and more. In fact, there was very little mystery going into this film. Even the technology developed for it was subject to significant hype. A new and proprietary 3D camera system developed by James Cameron and Vince Pace, motion capture like Zemeckis’ Polar Express and Beowulf (minus the creepiness and dead eyes), and an impressive array of creature design.

So did it live up to the hype? By many of my usual standards, no. The plot was indeed quite familiar – “Fern Gully meets Dances With Wolves” is the popular phrase, although I’d include a few shades of Independence Day (we’re the hostile aliens; the White House is a huge freaking tree). Most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and the storytelling bumbles along with some atrociously scripted exposition scenes, in which Sully alternates between voiceover and speaking directly into the camera (under the auspices of recording “video logs”). The nobility of the Na’vi, the superiority of their way of life, the ineffectuality of trying to convince them to move from their home – every plot point of this film is vomited forth in flowery, excruciating detail. Mercifully, these scenes don’t last very long, and they are balanced with some adept performances.

Zoë Saldaña is the standout, giving an absolutely sublime performance as the Na’vi princess Neytiri. Sam Worthington is enjoyable when he’s not delivering plodding exposition, and Sigourney Weaver is fantastic as the inexplicably chain-smoking scientist. Stephen Lang delivers a fun, scenery-chewing performance of the absurdly one-dimensional Colonel, who supervises an invasion between sips of his hot, steaming mug of eeeeeeevil, and Giovanni Ribisi portrays the administrator with such a comical level of callousness that he absolutely steals every scene he’s in.

So only one question remains… Was the visual spectacle of this film enough to make up for its shortcomings? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. In addition to the technical achievements above (on which I could spend several more paragraphs), I could not take my eyes off a single frame of this film, and I spent most of my first viewing completely awestruck with my mouth hanging halfway open. James Horner blankets this film with a fantastic score – easily the most rich and majestic I’ve heard since John Williams did Jurassic Park. And the world is simply stunning. It’s as if Cameron saw the BBC’s Planet Earth and thought to himself… I can do better than that. He clearly adores bioluminescence, as it is featured beautifully (and pervasively) in this film. With Pandora, Cameron has created an absolute Eden – a rich and savage world with a complex ecosystem.

What’s more, he has crafted a fascinating (and literal) representation of Gaia – the notion of an entire planet as a single, complex organism. The Na’vi are a fantastical, idealized version of humanity, acting as symbiotic shepherds rather than masters of their environment. They sport a long braid of hair which conceals a hidden strand of nerves that can spring forth and attach to other life forms. This has allowed them to make use of a variety of creatures, including land-based and flying mounts, which they can control telepathically through the link. Even the trees of Pandora form a vast network of neurons and synapses – even more than exist in the human brain. The Na’vi refer to this network as Eywa, their goddess, and can use their neural links to speak to the planet directly.

And this may be the most fascinating thing about the Na’vi. They worship a god whose existence is absolutely certain – to both human science and Na’vi faith. Even an afterlife is assured, as they can use their neural links to upload their memories to Eywa when they die. And what’s more, the Na’vi are extremely resilient. They can move fast, jump high, and survive every peril this world can offer. And their every need – food, water, a safe place to sleep – is largely tended to by their ecosystem. Disease is conspicuously absent, even in a world of rampant, unprotected, telepathic hanky-panky. The Na’vi exist in an absolute Eden. They want for nothing and have no fear of death.

So what can humanity offer them? We try all the usual trappings of human progress – roads, schools, hospitals… But according to Sully, the Na’vi have no use for these things.

Humanity’s definition of progress has always been a bit muddy, but it seems to entail both exploration and mastery of its domain. To extend its reach – even to the stars – and to increase its population and lifespan. The Na’vi are often casually referred to as savages in this film, and I would argue that this is an apt term for them. They are wild and untamed, and we would probably call them a stagnant society. But in such a pristine environment – with no significant threats to the species or struggles within its society – our definition of progress completely falls apart. This is Avatar’s most fascinating theme, and yet simultaneously its least explored. We must take the film’s word on the superiority of Na’vi culture, since we are not privy to its stability in the long-term. And what’s more, we only gain the slightest idea of what state humanity is in.

But we can infer a great deal. It is implied that Earth is completely industrialized, and humanity is clearly still in the business of invasion, forced relocation, and wanton slaughter. In fact, this may be the most pessimistic sci-fi treatment of mankind ever put to screen. We aren’t wiped out by aliens, robots, nuclear war, or climate change. We live on, and apparently learn nothing.

Spoiler Warning: The following paragraph contains details about the film’s ending.

Colonel Quaritch does have one thing right – Sully does betray humanity in favor of the Na’vi – and yes, “betray” is the correct word. He even abandons his crippled human body in favor of a more powerful (and undamaged) Na’vi body. In the end, he purges every trace of humanity from himself, referring to his former race as “aliens” and supervising their eviction from Pandora to return to their “dying planet”. I’ll grant that with this branch of mankind acting as usurpers and destroyers, it’s hard to argue with Sully’s decision. But in the end, this film relies upon some disturbing implications of the intrinsic cultural supremacy of the Na’vi. And given their blatant allegorical resemblance to Native Americans, this comes dangerously close to relegating the film to the ineffectual, self-hating bin of white guilt.

While Avatar‘s societal allegory has a few problems, it nonetheless boasts some provocative and effective environmental themes. And on a technical and creative level, James Cameron has brought a marvelous vision to life with this film, and it will surely impact cinema for years to come. If it is successful enough that Cameron can finish his planned trilogy, I would certainly hope to see some of the above concerns addressed with additional storytelling. Avatar is an impressive spectacle, but it has merely teased us with the potential of its rich, engrossing world. It could eventually be the stuff of great science fiction.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Additional reading: