Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.8: David Lynch's Twin Peaks- Fire Walk with Me

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Grade: 22 (D+)

Imagine being a Twin Peaks fan, or even a David Lynch fan in general. Lynch’s unique show Twin Peaks was canceled just as it started to get good again at the end of season 2, Now, a year after the series’ end, Lynch has decided to continue the story of Twin Peaks…only instead of doing a sequel to wrap up some of the series’ biggest mysteries, Lynch decided to do a prequel about the last days of Laura Palmer…which we already knew about. Then again, it’s not what the film’s about, it’s how it’s about it. With that in mind, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me shouldn’t be criticized for being a story we already knew. It should be criticized for being a pointless, dull wallow in human misery coupled with self-indulgence that Quentin Tarantino aptly described as a sign that “David Lynch had disappeared…up his own ass…”.

NOTE: You should probably watch and read about season 1 and season 2 before this, as there is no way to avoid spoilers.

After a lengthy prologue detailing the investigation of the murder of Theresa Banks, the disappearance of FBI Agent Chester Diamond (Chris Isaak), and Special Agent Dale Cooper’s strange encounter with missing agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie), the film follows the final days of troubled homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Laura isn’t the girl-next-door she seems to be, but a drug-addicted young woman whose drug abuse and sexual exploits are a warped therapy for her torment at the hands of Bob (Frank Silva), described as a “friend of her father”. Laura eventually realizes that Bob is a spirit controlling her father, Leland (Ray Wise).

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me makes Laura the center of attention rather than the town of Twin Peaks itself. On one hand, this makes sense: you only have so much time in a film, and you have to tell a streamlined story. The fact that a number of cast members either chose not to return (Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey, Richard Beymer as Ben, Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna) or requested smaller parts (MacLachlan) makes it a practical concern as well. The problem is that the town now seems underpopulated- few of the best characters on the show come back, and those who do have reduced roles (a number of scenes involving other major characters were cut for time concerns). It doesn’t help that likable girl-next-door Donna still needed to be in the film, and the capable Boyle was replaced by a blank slate like Moira Kelly. Donna was once one of the most relatable characters on the show; in the film, she mostly looks confused by her surroundings.

Perhaps Lynch could have expanded the stories of the town had he excised the prologue. It isn’t that Isaak, Bowie, and Kiefer Sutherland don’t do a good job with the material- they’re all just fine, and Harry Dean Stanton’s appearance as a cranky trailer park owner is a welcome diversion as well. But the investigation into the Theresa Banks murder isn’t really an intriguing thread, and it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know or wanted to know. It’s all a bit arbitrary, filled with Lynch adding in weirdness for weirdness’ sake (a dancing girl named Lil giving Chester Desmond clues, a schoolbus seemingly filled with prostitutes, flashes of the weird kid from season 2 wearing a weird mask).

By the time Lynch returns to Twin Peaks, though, it’s hard not to wish for a feature-length film about Lil giving unnecessarily obscure clues to Desmond. Part of the strength of Twin Peaks was the fact that it gave Lynch restrictions to work inside, which usually make him both more judicious and more creative (see: Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr.). Without those restrictions, he gets a bit unhinged and self-indulgent, as he did with the weaker bits of Wild at Heart. There’s a lot of that here: without TV ratings to reign him in, Lynch goes over-the-top in the more violent scenes to the point of full-on grotesquerie. The relationship between Laura and James goes from the sweet-natured relationship implied in the series to something that wouldn’t seem out of place in a softcore porno. The debauchery hinted at so effectively in the series? Let’s rub our noses in it.

But where Wild at Heart at least had a loose road movie structure, Fire Walk With Me is mostly just a shapeless, unpleasant slog. It’s one scene after another of Laura being abused, Laura debasing herself, and Laura wanting to die. Sheryl Lee is fiercely committed to the role, but she’s asked far too much. Laura was a jumping off point for a story, not the story itself. Lynch deals with emotion best when he filters it through genres (noir, thriller, biopic) or abstract creations (Eraserhead). Given the chance to present a broken human being in all of her non-glory, he mostly makes Laura’s final days overwrought and exploitative. It doesn’t help that Lynch peppers it with some of his least restrained surrealist tendencies, like making creamed corn a symbol called “garmonbozia” that stands for human pain and suffering. That sounds like an exaggerated parody of Lynch’s work (take something normal and add in weird, nonsensical meaning). It’s all too real.

The film isn’t a complete turd- Angelo Badalamenti provides some strong new music, there’s a handful of effective emotional scenes (Leland bursting into tears after mistreating Laura, Dana Ashbrook’s Bobby realizing Laura uses him to get drugs), and there’s one spectacular set-piece halfway though the film as Laura, Donna, and Ronette Pulaski go to a hellish party that makes great use of Lynch’s gifts for dark atmosphere and unsettling strobe effects. Laura’s death, meanwhile, fits into Lynch’s frequent portrayals of death as a sweet escape. But mostly, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a lousy end to a great story, and the worst film of Lynch’s career. Lynch had hoped to do a couple of sequels had the film been a success. What I’m saying is that he didn’t think this one through.

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Director Spotlight #8.7: David Lynch's Twin Peaks (season 2)

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

“May the Giant Be With You/Coma” Grades: A-
Early Season 2 Grade: B+
“Lonely Souls” Grade: A
Mid season 2 Grade: C-
Final Episode “Beyond Life and Death” Grade: A
Season 2 overall Grade: 86 (A-)

NOTE: I'd highly recommend you read about season 1 before this.

Twin Peaks was a runaway hit in its first season, but as America tuned in week-after-week to find out who killed Laura Palmer, many viewers lost patience with the show. Some were put off by its surrealistic rhythms. Some cited a decline in quality in season 2. Some were just sick and tired of waiting to find out just who the hell killed Laura Palmer. That ABC changed the show’s timeslot certainly didn’t help matters. Twin Peaks’ second season turned out to be its last, as ABC canceled it shortly after its finale aired. But as up and down as the season was, its best moments rank among the finest in Lynch’s work.

The two opening episodes, “May the Giant Be With You” and “Coma”, pick up where the numerous cliffhangers of the first season’s finale left off. Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re) was shot after attempting to kill both his wife Shelly (Madchen Amick) and her lover Bobby (Dana Ashbrook). Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) is playing amateur sleuth, and her antics have gotten her stuck at brothel One-Eyed Jacks, where the owner, her father Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) wants to sleep with the new girl…Audrey (yech). James Hurley’s own amateur detective work has sent him to jail and Dr. Jacobi (Russ Beymer) to the hospital. Thinking him responsible for his daughter’s death, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) has murdered Jacques Renaut, and his hair turned white overnight. The mill burned down: Shelly and Pete (Jack Nance) survived, but Catharine (Piper Laurie) is missing. And our hero Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was shot, and as he lays wounded on his hotel room floor, he receives a strange visitor known only as the Giant (Carl Struycken).

There’s a slight difference in the opening credits of Twin Peaks’ season 2 premiere- the final moments go on a bit longer as Angelo Badalamenti’s gorgeous theme is overcome by more disturbing tones. It’s a sign of things to come, as season 2 is less about the police procedural and noir elements that dominated the first season and more about absolute horror and inexplicable weirdness. This is going to be a creepy season, and premiere kicks things into high gear with the famous Giant introduction. Lynch drags out the tension to unbearable lengths as Cooper lies helplessly on the floor. Help arrives in the oldest waiter in the world, who’s cheeriness is bested only by his seeming obliviousness to Cooper’s condition (“How ya doin’ down there? I heard about you!”). It’s the classic example of a long joke that’s at first funny, then not funny, and then funny again as the old man keeps coming back to give Coop thumbs up, wink, and generally be old and doddering. And then the Giant appears in the room. We don’t yet know where he’s from or what his connection is to the other supernatural elements of Twin Peaks, but his warm (if creepy) disposition and cryptic clues are in keeping with the stranger moments of season 1. This isn’t out of left field weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and the show isn’t unmoored yet- Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost were still guiding the show along quite nicely.

Lynch directed the first two episodes of season 2, and it shows. The extended bits of comedy (Andy hitting himself in the head with a board, Cooper having trouble adjusting a chair, the return of Miguel Ferrer as Albert Rosenfield) and suspense wouldn’t have worked as well or have been as memorable with another director. There’s plenty of Lynchian tropes still at work here- Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) is still playing amateur detective in her investigation of Harold Smith (Lenny von Dohlen); Audrey is in way over her head at One-Eyed Jacks, where illicit sexuality gets more disturbing as she’s almost forced to sleep with her father; and the love triangle between Donna, James (James Marshall), and Maddy (Sheryl Lee) is a portrait of idealized, naïve teen love that’s about to come crashing down. And of course, it’s still a pleasure to see Kyle MacLachlan as the perfect Lynch surrogate Dale Cooper as he investigates clues, tries to explain the Giant (“any relation to the dwarf?”, Albert quips), and remains fascinated by small town life.

That said, not all of Lynch’s decisions work this time around. Donna turns into a bad girl for absolutely no reason whatsoever for the season premiere, with Boyle acting like an unpleasant bitch towards everyone for no reason (her later career more or less reflected this, unfortunately). The “Audrey stuck at One-Eyed Jacks” plot remains unresolved for several episodes, a big mistake that makes one of the show’s characters less active and more of a damsel in distress; she really should have returned home so we could see more scenes of smoldering flirtation between her and Cooper. And then there’s a scene that really is just Lynch being weird for the sake of being weird- “Coma” features a moment where Boyle visits and old woman (the great character actress Frances Bay) and her odd grandson (Lynch’s son), who magically removes the creamed corn from his grandmother’s plate. Lynch directs the scene about as well as anyone could, but it feels like a time waster, considering it’s complete lack of purpose for the rest of the season (the characters, and the creamed corn, would make an unwelcome appearance in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me).

But for the most part, the season starts off well, particularly when Lynch’s surrealistic instincts gravitate towards mystery (the Giant’s clues), a mixture of comedy and tragedy (Leland’s white hair, uncontrollable dancing/singing), and all-out horror (Maddy’s visions of Bob). Best of all is the dream sequence that ends the season premiere, a Hitchcockian nightmare that makes great use of Lynch’s fascination with strobe lights, dark shadows, and distorted sound. We’re not in Kansas anymore, and the ugliest side of Twin Peaks has begun to rear its head.

The next four episodes of season 2 are a bit more mixed in quality. There’s a number of strong new plotlines introduced: creepy but sweet shut-in Harold Smith turns out to be the keeper of Laura’s greatest secrets as Donna and Maddy get mixed up with more dangerous amateur sleuthing. Leland’s murder of Jacques Renaut almost unmoors the lives of his remaining family, Sarah and Maddy. Best of all is the stuff dealing with Cooper and company as they realize that Bob’s origins are supernatural- he’s an “inhabiting spirit” who has taken over a major pillar of the Twin Peaks community.

There’s plenty of great character moments as well: Maddy deals with being Laura’s double despite being nothing like Laura- a sweet girl-next-door who needs to be everything to everybody. Cooper’s deaf, constantly shouting superior officer Gordon Cole (Lynch himself) shows up to deliver bizarre lines of praise (“You remind me today of a small Mexican Chihuahua!”). We learn of Ben’s relationship with Laura, and there’s a great moment of deep shame on his face as he realizes that unknowingly lusted after his own daughter. And of course, there’s the ever-cynical Albert, who we learn isn’t such a jerk deep down inside (“the foundation is love…I love you, sheriff Truman”).

But starting in early season 2, a number of idiotic plotlines show up. Nadine comes back from a coma with super strength and under the impression that she’s a teenager. Everyone starts obsessing over M.T. Wentz, the anonymous food/hotel critic that’s apparently supposed to fascinate everyone. We learn more about the dark past of Josie Packard (Joan Chen), but it’s not terribly interesting. Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) aren’t sure whether the pregnant Lucy’s baby is Andy’s or Dick Tremayne’s (Ian Buchanan). The comedy grows uneven, new characters are either wasted (an effectively sinister Michael Parks as Jean Renaut) or feel dropped in from another show (Buchanan’s Tremayne, not a bad character by himself).  There’s a lot of wheel-spinning as episodes seem padded just so the information related to Laura Palmer’s murder can be dealt out sparingly. It’s easy to see why people were growing impatient, and so ABC gave Lynch and Frost an ultimatum to reveal Laura’s killer. Reluctantly, they agreed.

Lynch and Frost have gone on the record that revealing Laura’s killer was a mistake, and that the mystery should have lasted as long as the show. They’re not entirely wrong: “Lonely Souls”, which finally tells us whodunit, is possibly the finest episode of the series. Lynch is back as a director with Frost as the primary writer, and they craft what stands as the single most haunting moment in Lynch’s body of work.

Harold Smith is dead- having committed suicide after Donna betrayed him. He leaves a suicide note reading “I am a lonely soul”, a phrase that could easily apply to Laura as well. Bobby and Shelly are dealing with taking care of a catatonic Leo, and the costs are piling up. Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) has to deal with Nadine (Wendy Robie), whose attachment to Ed keeps him from pursuing a meaningful relationship with his true love Norma (Peggy Lipton).  Maddy is going back to her hometown, and her absence will leave a big hole in Leland and Sarah Palmer’s lives. The one-armed man Philip Gerard (Al Strobel) is possessed by Mike, a spirit that can point Cooper and Truman (Michael Ontkean) towards Bob and his human host. But the truth is far too shocking for anyone to believe.

“Lonely Souls” is perhaps the most aptly titled episode of the series, as every single character turns out to be a lonely soul by the end of the episode. Norma’s maternal sweetness towards Shelly as she reluctantly quits her job can’t mask the fact that Shelly knows she’ll be living a lonely life having to deal with Leo. Norma and Ed can’t be together because of the Nadine situation. Bobby finds a cassette that will ostensibly save him and Shelly, but deep down he knows his life is about to get complicated. Maddy leaves James and Donna to be together, but their relationship is visibly strained.

The episode doesn’t feature as much off-the-wall weirdness as the first two episodes of the season, but Lynch throws in plenty of surreal situations to great effect, both comedic (Tojamura isn’t revealed to be Catharine until after he/she kisses Pete) and creepy (Mike flipping out when Ben walks near). Cooper and company confidently arrest Ben Horne for Laura’s murder, but there’s still a strong sense of uneasiness in the air. It’s particularly strange whenever Lynch cuts back to the Palmer’s home. Maddy informs her aunt and uncle that she’s leaving as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” plays. The ideal home has been perverted somehow, as the uneasy look on Sarah’s face shows us, and Lynch’s slow pan across the room makes us pay attention. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but something important is coming later in the episode. Sarah sees a vision of a white horse before passing out, Leland obliviously adjusts his tie in the mirror with a big smile on his face, and the unnerving sound of a record skipping clues us into the fact that something isn’t right. “It is happening again”, as the Giant tells Coop. Cut to Leland smiling in the mirror…and Bob is the reflection. Holy Christ.

Leland, a portrait of all-American goodness, has been taken over by absolute evil. We know he raped and murdered his own daughter, and Lynch’s obsession with doubles in his film brings Laura’s own double Maddy into the scene. Her violent murder at the hands of her uncle is perhaps the most disturbing scene in Lynch’s work, not to mention the most disturbing thing ever aired on network television (I’m genuinely shocked this passed the censors, because it’s fucking brutal). Ben’s not the killer, and the look on Cooper’s face shows that he somehow knows it. But it’s too late. Lynch’s films all feature the death of innocence, but here it’s literally the death of an innocent young woman. Donna and James know their relationship is doomed, Bobby is alone in the world, and the old waiter is sorry. Julee Cruise returns to perform another song, the haunting “The World Spins”, and the episode ends with a sense of deep sadness that, for better or worse, the rest of season 2 could never quite top.

That’s not to say that the show went straight to hell right away. The next two episodes close the Laura Palmer chapter of the series rather well- Leland grows increasingly unhinged until he’s finally unmasked. It’s a development that highlights Ray Wise’s talent as an actor (seriously, this guy needs more work), both when he’s trying (and mostly failing) to keep his sinister instincts at bay and when Bob finally takes over his body after he’s caught. Bob’s supernatural origins are at their creepiest with a handful of disturbing comments (including a reference to Cooper being knifed in Pittsburg). Bob abandons Leland and leaves him for dead, and Leland gets a final moment of redemption before the sweet release of death (another Lynch trope).

After that, though, it’s seven episodes of no man’s land as the show almost instantly goes from brilliance to complete garbage. Lynch and Frost focused on a number of other projects while the show languished without direction. Twin Peaks was about more than just a murder mystery, but without the mystery it lost a sense of purpose. As such, the show struggled to find a hook for several episodes. Cooper needs to stay or there’s no show, but the “Cooper is framed for drug trafficking” plotline is idiotic, and Jean Renaut is further wasted as an antagonist before being mercifully killed off. The teenage characters lose their sense of purpose as Donna has nothing to do and James goes off to the series’ much-hated “James gets stuck in a shitty noir” subplot. Josie Packard is killed off in the most idiotic fashion imaginable (think of the dumbest thing ever and you’re still not even close).

MacLachlan flinched at the idea of Cooper consummating his relationship with Audrey, so the writers more or less killed it, and with it any purpose Audrey had. Instead, the two get a pair of uninteresting new love interests played by Billy Zane and Heather Graham, two likable actors given bland characters. New characters like Josie’s not-really-dead husband Andrew Packard (Robocop’s Dan O’Herlihy) and benefactor Thomas Eckhardt (always welcome character actor David Warner) are given nothing to do. The Lucy-Andy-Dick love triangle and the Super Nadine plotlines lurch into painfully broad comedy. For a while, it looks like a show that’s outlived its usefulness and was rightfully canceled.

But then, in the final few episodes, the show found its hook. New antagonist Window Earle (Kenneth Welsh), the crazy former partner of Cooper, is established as a sinister Professor Moriarty to Cooper’s Sherlock Holmes. Earle takes a while to establish himself as a worthy villain, but as soon as we learn that he seeks the Black Lodge (home to Bob, Mike, the Giant, and The Man from Another Place), the show reestablishes its interest. It all leads up to the terrific season finale “Beyond Life and Death”. The final episode can be seen either as a strong season finale for a pair of creators hopeful for a third season or as a “fuck you” to anyone who sought a sense of closure at the end of the series. No matter what, however, it ranks as one of the most memorable hours the show ever had.

Frost packs in as many cliffhangers as possible into the final episode- we get closure as Andy and Lucy end up together, but everyone else’s fate is up in the air. Ben Horne is likely Donna’s real father, and when Doc Hayward loses control and attacks him, he smashes his head, leaving Ben either seriously injured or dead. Leo is stranded in the woods, with Windom Earle’s trap hovering above him. An explosion in the Twin Peaks bank leaves the fates of Andrew Packard, Pete, and Audrey unknown (although it’s safe to guess that Audrey would survive). The last bit is a particularly effective piece of directing as Lynch drags out the tension as long as possible with an agonizing long take, gets us to sit up and pay attention, and then throws us a curveball at us.

And then there’s Cooper’s journey into the Black Lodge, one of Lynch’s strongest and strangest set-pieces. Up to this point in his filmography, Lynch had often depicted polarized worlds (Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet), but the Black Lodge’s twisted alternate reality paves the way for Lynch’s later work in films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Angelo Badalamenti’s spare music and Lynch’s surreal touches (strobe, coffee turning into sludge, more backwards talk/action) come together in what’s well-described by Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club as “an impressionistic depiction of the struggle between good and evil”, with Cooper as our hero in a strange land. We see many of the strange Black Lodge inhabitants (The Giant, the Man from Another Place) and subverted versions of Leland, Maddy, and Laura, whose creepy backwards wink and severe screaming is the stuff of nightmares. Cooper can’t quite understand or top the bizarre dream logic of the Black Lodge. He saves the day, but he also pays an enormous price as he’s trapped in the lodge and an evil doppelganger possessed by Bob escapes and takes his place.

The final image of the series- evil Dale smashing his head on a mirror and revealing that he’s possessed by Bob- gives a good idea of where the show would have gone had it been renewed for a third season, with Cooper’s friends trying to get him out of the Black Lodge, but on its own it’s a memorably surreal and offbeat ending for a memorably surreal and offbeat series. What’s that you say? He made a movie? Oh, great, we might find out just what happened after…oh, it’s a prequel? Well…ok…how bad could it be?

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Monday, July 30, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #9: Avatar

Individual reviews are useful, but film criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I'm Max O'Connell of The Film Temple, he's Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt's Dreams, and we've got some things to say in the James Cameron Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 45 (C)
Loren’s Grade: C

Max O’Connell: Before we start on Avatar, do we want to talk a little bit about what James Cameron was doing between Titanic and Avatar?

Loren Greenblatt: He took a bit of an absence, you might say: twelve years. That’s a long time for any filmmaker. He wasn’t sitting in his cave counting money, though. He was doing stuff. Right after Titanic he worked on a Spider-Man movie, which he never made because he wasn’t happy with the technology available.

MO: It sounded interesting in theory, at least. He wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus…I’d watch that.

LG: I love Molina in Spider-Man 2…but that would have been interesting. We never got that, but in the meantime Cameron was doing a few other things.

MO: Right before Titanic’s release, he was developing a potential third film in the Terminator franchise. What we got was his supposed warm-up, T2: Battle Across Time, an attraction at Universal Studios Florida that’s basically a Terminator 2 reunion and his first extensive use of 3-D. It’s not as sophisticated as Avatar, obviously. There’s a lot of sequences of stuff poking out at you. But his use of the environment is still great, and we get to see everyone come back, so it’s fun.

LG: And it’s notable for what he did technically. He used 3-D and 70mm cameras, and he used higher frame rates for the first time, which he says he’ll do with Avatar 2 (and 3 and 4, if we’re to believe it).

MO: He also co-created the show Dark Angel.

LG: Another strong female sci-fi thing which we didn’t have time to get into. He only directed the finale, and we’re not watching that without having watched the show. He was also working on a remake of Fantastic Voyage which he may still produce for Real Steel director Shawn Levy.

MO: Cameron also went on an underwater documentary kick with three films: Bismarck, his exploration of the Bismarck wreckage; Ghosts of the Abyss, which is basically Titanic bonus footage and Aliens of the Deep.

LG: The latter two are both early explorations with 3-D technology for Cameron. The last one is more deep water bioluminescent stuff. I understand that they’re all fairly anonymous. They show his interests, but not his personality.

MO: It shows his ability to turn his personal pet projects into things people want to see. It’s almost like a precursor to Avatar 2, which should explore the oceans of the fictional planet Pandora. Cameron played around with 3-D technology and developed two projects: Battle Angel, a return to hard-edged sci-fi that would use the same technology as Avatar…

LG: It’s based on a manga, and I understand it features a strong female protagonist, so there’s a return to his 80s work.

MO: It’s a film that’s ostensibly still on his agenda, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because he’s so preoccupied with Avatar…which we love, right?

LG: (long pause)…well, I don’t hate it. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s the best Star Wars prequel ever made.

MO: In that it’s not terrible.

LG: Though come to think it, it’s the second best now that John Carter came out. Avatar made $2 billion, so everyone’s probably seen it. Just in case, though, here’s the basics: Jake Sully is a paraplegic marine in the distant future who goes to the planet Pandora to assist with the native culture, the Na’Vi. His twin brother was a scientist helping out, but he’s been killed, and they need someone with the same genetic code for his brother’s avatar. Avatars are genetically engineered Na’Vi bodies with wi-fi brain link-ups.

MO: And basically, the military comes into conflict with the Na’Vi and the scientists.

LG: Now, Cameron loves building sci-fi universes, and this is his most intricate one. It’s not as intricate when it comes to the storyline, unfortunately. This is his environmental movie. It’s not the first message movie he’s done, but here it’s the most overt. We have problems with the last ten minutes of The Abyss. Imagine that scene dragged out to three hours, and you’ve got Avatar. A lot of my problems begin with the casting of Sam Worthington as the hero.

MO: He is the least charismatic actor who has ever lived, I swear.

LG: I worry about Sam Worthington. He looks sleepy or hungover or something. He never looks awake. He’s not engaging at all. He’s a total lump.

MO: His Australian accent is always coming through, too, but it’s a secondary problem compared to his lack of screen presence.

LG: I’ve seen other actors that are not charismatic. He is the first actor who has negative charisma.

MO: He is a black hole for charisma.

LG: He drains charisma away from any actor he’s standing next to, aside from Zoe Saldana, who’s very charming as the native princess.

MO: He’s perfectly OK when the dialogue is minimal in the early going or when he’s the avatar. But whenever we see his face or hear him give a speech, he’s boring. He’s essentially in a sci-fi coma throughout the film, since the avatars…it’s sort of a biometric wi-fi he goes through that leaves his human body asleep.  That’s almost symbolic for his performance.

LG: It’s interesting, though, that we learn late in the film that the whole planet is a biometric network, because it’s not built up at all. It’s a great idea, but we need more of it. My other big problem with the film is the Na’Vi. Their culture is very generic. There’s so much amazing production design in this film. It’s gorgeous. Cameron spent years making it…

MO: He waited until the technology was advanced enough to make it.

LG: And you can tell. He’s thought up the whole ecosystem of this planet…but when you get to the culture of the natives, it’s a generic mix of native cultures. It’s a pastiche of natives.

MO: It’s hokey and it’s nonspecific. They believe in nature, and that’s all I know. It’s this hokey New Age crap that I neither understand nor am I interested in. We don’t get to know any of them other than Neytiri, the princess, and even then, I’m uninterested.

LG: It helps that Zoe Saldana is very charming in the role. She’s the shining light of the film.

MO: She’s a presence. She’s got some chops.

LG: Based on this and her work in Star Trek, she’s got a lot of potential, and I want to see her in more stuff. Worthington, meanwhile, keeps getting cast in stuff…

MO: I don’t get it. He’s been cast as the hero so many times in so many movies, but he’s a complete non-presence.

LG: This, Terminator Salvation

MO: The two Clash of the Titans movies and Man on the Ledge, which has the worst title of any movie ever. It’s like they gave up. “There’s this guy on a ledge, what do we want to call the movie?” “Well, shit, how about Man on a Ledge?” “Good enough.”

LG: It’s as forgettable and generic as he is.

MO: Hey-o! But as for Avatar…it’s kind of a mix and match of sci-fi films. The big intricate world feels like it’s inspired by Star Wars, the biometric network is like something out of The Matrix, there’s some technology that reminds me of what Spielberg did in Minority Report (the touch-screens the scientists used, specifically), and there’s plenty of stuff from Cameron’s own films. People made comparisons between John Carter and Avatar, and they’re both inspired, to varying degrees, by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels, as are Star Wars and Superman (John Carter is a direct adaptation of Burroughs’ works).

LG: John Carter does it a lot better.

MO: I have a lot of similar problems, but yes. It’s actually goddamned fun.

LG: It’s not three hours long, it doesn’t have an environmental message to beat you over the head with, and it’s funny. There’s a great gag where Carter and his friends run across the planet to fight the bad guys only to find that they’re at the wrong camp, and they needed to go the other way. As disappointing as Taylor Kitsch is in that role, he’s not boring like Sam Worthington.

MO: There’s some problems with exposition in John Carter, but there’s a sense of fun and discovery throughout. Avatar has that for a little while: the first fifty minutes are pretty engaging. It turns into a coma when it gets to the Na’Vi stuff.

LG: My reaction to it when I saw it on IMAX 3-D was that I didn’t have to see it ever again. It was gorgeous, and the CGI and 3-D is at a level that it’ll take years to top, but the story is so draining and boring. We watched it for the first time since it came out, and for the first forty minutes I forgot about my criticisms. And then I remembered…

MO: Here’s how it works for me: I saw it in 2D. I was excited for it, but I grew bored quickly. When we saw it together in 3D, my opinion didn’t change. It’s great looking, he’s worked out most of the world and technology (although we have complaints), but I don’t care about anything.

LG: He has created a great platform to tell interesting stories, he just hasn’t managed to tell a good story himself. When Avatar 2 comes out, he needs to tell a more engaging story and get more specific about the Na’Vi culture. It’s in him, but he’s been out of the director’s chair for so long that it hurt him.

MO: But we’ve seen so many of these things done better. Like I said, I saw a lot of the human technology in Minority Report. The avatar-human connections is like The Matrix, only without the stakes. The motion capture is impressive, but we saw great motion capture with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and King Kong, which are better movies. It’s better than what Zemeckis has been doing with it, but that’s not saying much.

LG: We watched the extended edition, which we hoped would add some more specificity and stakes to it. For the first few minutes, we were really hopeful. There’s a new opening on earth that establishes the Blade Runner-like corporate-owned world. That’s pretty good. We get to learn more about who Jake Sully is. That’s pretty good. Sam Worthington isn’t so bad, we see that earth has been destroyed. We see Worthington, in a wheelchair, take on a big guy in a bar after the guy starts beating on a girl. The way he compensates for his disability while picking that bar fight is resourceful and endearing. I learned more about Jake Sully in those opening minutes than I did for any of the rest of the movie. There’s one other addition I like that shows the tensions between the scientists, the corporate world, and the Na’Vi, where we learn that the military shot up a school Sigourney Weaver was using to teach the Na’Vi English and stuff. It helps my understanding of the world. But not much else is added that’s very useful. There’s no specificity to the characters after that.

MO: We started speculating on whether or not it’d be more engaging with a better actor at the center, since Cameron usually has a charismatic center to his movies. We threw out a few names: a younger Guy Pearce, Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal, James Franco, Chris Pine…but honestly, probably not. We know nothing about this character.

LG: He’s driven to the point of being self-destructive, but that’s not explored enough.

MO: Saldana is better, but what I know about her is basically that she’s the love interest.

LG: Who’s kind of domineering at first in a cute way. Saldana is so good that you can overlook the blandness of her character.

MO: That worked better for you than it did for me.

LG: It did, but my point is that good actors can rescue dire material. Sam Worthington needs the light-up-in-the-eyes smile, which he just doesn’t have.

MO: Cameron has been good at casting people in his films until now.

LG: I don’t know where he found this guy. It’s not like he was a rising star at the time. Terminator Salvation was filmed after Avatar (though it was released before), and up to this point he was most famous for an Australian version of Macbeth, which is weird. I want to see a good performance from this guy.

MO: We really don’t want to beat up on him. Acting is hard, it honestly is, and I hate beating up on actors over and over again.

LG: We want to see him be funny and likable, but he’s just not. Three years later we’re losing hope.

MO: The supporting cast isn’t much better. Michelle Rodriguez is brought in as a tough-girl marine with a conscience, almost like Vasquez, but she has no character.

LG: She is literally “Not Vasquez”.

MO: I don’t know anything about her other than the fact that she disobeyed orders.

LG: She disappears for about an hour of the film. There’s a few people who do that: they’re established only so they can disappear for a long time and come back when at the end.

MO: Sigourney Weaver plays…Sigourney Weaver, basically. She’s good, but she disappears for a long time, and her character is basically “I am a scientist”.

LG: She’s basically her character in Gorillas in the Mist. She hates the military, loves science, and that’s that. She’s charming enough to make it work for a little while. I also like Stephen Lang as the G.I. Joe villain. He’s a Space Racist who wants to kill the “blue monkeys”, and you know he’s a villain because he has a big scar on his face and he works out a lot. He has fun in the role, though we don’t see enough of him. Though, much as I like him, I would have loved to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in that role. How much fun would that have been?

MO: He was too busy being the Governator. And we don’t want to begrudge Lang the thing people will remember him for. Here’s my problem: Michael Biehn played the same reactionary jarhead in The Abyss, and that character was more interesting. He had a reason he was evil. He’s not the only recycled villain: Giovanni Ribisi basically plays Paul Reiser in Aliens. He’s the corporate lackey who’s evil…except Ribisi is terrible in this film. He’s terrible. Ribisi overplays every bit of this, though it doesn’t help that the script is awful.

LG: Paul Reiser had a character arc in Aliens. He’s not so bad at first, until we find out what he’s really like. Ribisi is there to do bad things from the get-go. He doesn’t care about the Na’Vi, he has kill trophies from before the events of the film. He has bows and arrows and dreamcatchers (yes, they’re that generically Native American). He’s there for unobtanium…now, we don’t know what unobtanium does, we just know it’s valuable and hard to get. It’s a technical term used in mining, but to actually call a metal that…

MO: It’s lazy. It’s like saying…”OK, we have this thing that can solve everything. It’s a widget!” “What does it do?” “IT’S A WIDGET!”. That’s all the explanation we get, basically.

LG: That could work if you committed to being silly, but it’s all done with a straight face.

MO: And there’s no struggle over it, sense of what it does, or what the Na’Vi feel about it.

LG: We could have one line! “This metal can save the earth by doing this”, and that’d be at least something. Now, I understand Cameron using shorthand for the sci-fi stuff going on in the movie to give the audience something familiar to hold onto. But to go so far and make them so recognizable is lazy. They’re an alien culture! Make them a little alien!

MO: They’re called “Na’Vi”! Like Native, or naïve. It’s so bad. It doesn’t help that the planet, meanwhile, feels totally underpopulated until we find out that there’s actually several other tribes (though they seem exactly the same as the one we saw) that haven’t been referenced before. There’s no dynamic we know about. Oh, and “Pandora” is the planet name.

LG: Nothing bad will happen at a place called “Pandora!”

MO: We’re not the first people to point out that this is basically Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai all over again. It’s another painfully reductive noble savage myth.

LG: Sorry about imperialism, but the one good white man will lead the natives to victory by being superior to them!

MO: And there’s none of the complexity we need.

LG: It’s condescending and annoying, though less so than The Last Samurai, where there’s a real culture you’re reducing.

MO: Well, yes, it’s not a terrible movie, just not very good. Another complaint: the dialogue is terrible and uninteresting. Cameron is known for his one-liners. I can’t name on. Not a one.

LG: Um…”I see you”?

MO: Yeah, and that’s awful…and reused from Titanic. And the narration is clunky and overly expository, there’s no forward momentum…even Titanic and The Abyss, which are slower than most Cameron films, have forward momentum and characters we care about.

LG: Now, Cameron’s films are usually well-structured. Cameron doesn’t do a lot of lulls. His films usually have some sort of a timetable in the story to keep them going but Avatar stops cold a lot. The film needs momentum especially near the end cause the climax of the film takes forever. Cameron’s ticking clocks usually get us going (“the ship is sinking”, “T-1000 is after us,” “the planet is going to blow up”). That’s a very good screenwriting move, but it’s nowhere here. Stephen Lang says “we should go in now, because it’ll be harder to do later”, or something like that, and it’s vague and not as effective. It’s not a very hard to invent a “we need to do this in three hours or we’re all dead” scenario. Instead, Cameron allows the characters way too much time to do other things, like recruit other tribes from the other side of the planet that we didn’t know about…we didn’t know there were more Na’Vi characters until the end of the movie, by the way…

MO: I was complaining that the planet was so underpopulated, and then there’s more? Why haven’t we seen them? Why don’t we know anything about them? What’s their stake in that magic tree I don’t care about?

LG: That tree…look, we’re environmentalists, but part of me clapped when the tree got blown up.

MO: Because something fucking happened. Here’s the thing: I agree with everything he’s saying about the Native Americans, the Iraq War, and the environment, but it’s all painfully simplistic.

LG: His stylistic tropes also get really silly in places. He does the blue smoke and water like he always does, but he has this new trick here where he desaturates almost to black and white. It’s so obvious and cheesy. It’s something you’d see in a bad videogame.

MO: That can be done well, obviously. I think of Saving Private Ryan.

LG: But that’s made by a director who had been making films consistently rather than taking time out.

MO: That’s my point. He seems to have lost touch with everything that made him great. There’s no kineticism, there’s no momentum, there’s no great characters or memorable one-liners, there’s no sense of humor, and there’s no fun. There’s nothing to hang your hat on other than the world of the film and visuals, which doesn’t interest me that much here.

LG: The eye-candy kept me going a little longer than it did for you, but after a while the problems with the film pile up. By the time he becomes a man in the Na’Vi society, I had pretty much checked out.

MO: There are so many plot holes in this thing that I was having trouble listing them all (and I can forgive plot holes). The scientists go off to avoid military interference…they can just leave? With a corporation and the military having such high stakes in this, they just let them go? Lang doesn’t do anything about it? Then there’s the bit where they bring up all the women in the Na’Vi tribe. But we don’t know any of them! We never see them, other than Neytiri and…Neytiri’s mother whose name I can’t remember. Who? We haven’t seen anyone.

LG: There aren’t too many we can remember…

MO: Jesus, Dances with Wolves had more Native American characters I knew.

LG: We don’t really get to know any of the other characters. It’s the world through two characters’ eyes, which can work, but you need to be a lot more specific.

MO: Why don’t we just start with the Na’Vi? We’ll learn a little bit about them, maybe. I don’t particularly care about them, but there’s something to work with there. Then there’s the Na’Vi spiritual network that isn’t explored at all. There’s Michelle Rodriguez abandoning the military and getting zero punishment for it.

LG: I assumed they arrested her too and she broke out, and they didn’t show it because she’s not a main character.

MO: We don’t get that. There’s the fact that the equipment for the avatar hookup is still there after they shut it down. They didn’t destroy it? Is their arrogance so great that they don’t consider Jake and his friends a threat?

LG: Here’s a problem I have with the technology. Cameron is usually great with showing how technology in his films works, but there are big questions I have regarding this avatar wi-fi thing. They go to a place where none where non of the other tech uplinks work, but their Na’Vi equipment still works. One sentence could explain it, but we get nothing. Bigger, though, is that they don’t explain the consequences if your avatar body dies. Basically, we know it was expensive. We don’t know what, if anything, happens to the person driving the body. Do they die, or have a schizoid embolism, or go into a coma?

MO: Again, one line would explain it.

LG: In The Matrix, it’s simple. You die in the Matrix, you die in real life. With those 10 words we know what’s at stake, and we care about Neo getting shot at in the computer world.

MO: Hell, a year after this, Inception explains what happens if you die in a dream, and there are more complications later on. Here? What happens? It’s so vague, there are no stakes, and when we finally get some explanation it’s late in the film and we don’t understand.

LG: There’s a sequence where Jake has to claim his flying bird thing, and they’re wrestling on the edge of the giant cliff. If I knew that if the avatar body died something would happen to Jake, I might have been a little more invested. It also would have helped if Sam Worthington was a good actor, but that’s beside the point. You need to set up the stakes of what happens if your body dies out there. For most of the film, as far as I knew, it’s “your body dies and you’re out of the game but otherwise unharmed.” That’s it.

MO: How about Jake’s arc? I don’t believe in any of the changes he goes through. He’s gung ho and doesn’t care about the Na’Vi until he does. Sam Worthington can’t project anything anyway, but the script just isn’t there. I’m not invested in his arc, his conversion is bullshit (it’s via narration), and it doesn’t work.

LG: He changes because the screenplay gods demand it.

MO: How about when he’s sent in to learn about the Na’Vi for the colonel? What is he doing for them? What is he learning that they don’t already know?

LG: They’ve been out there for at least twenty years. Probably more. Do they not have any other sort of intelligence? It’s very vague. I’d be more willing to buy it if it were done well, but it isn’t. His conversion you expect because it’s that kind of movie, but that’s the only reason it happens: it’s that kind of movie.

MO: By the end I was drained and disengaged, and I’ve been beaten over the head with this heavy-handed allegory. The death scenes for characters I don’t care about (who were barely introduced) go on forever…

LG: The horse has a death scene! The horse! I half expected Jake to have a flashback to all those great times he had riding that horse!

MO: It looks great, but I don’t care, and by the end I’m ready to leave. And the song doesn’t help. You commented that you’ve never seen a theatre clear out as fast as during the “I See You” song. People think “My Heart Will Go On” is bad? This thing is just…the corniest...

LG: We got about four seconds into it this time. When we walked out of the theatre, I said that it was losing half-a-star for this.

MO: It’s just so bland. It doesn’t help that the melody provided by the score isn’t good. This is James Horner’s weakest score for Cameron. I couldn’t hum this if I tried.

LG: Well there’s bum-bubububum…no, you really can’t. It’s very generic. Horner has a lot of detractors, but he’s done some great work. And it’s not age. Howard Shore still does excellent work.

MO: As does John Williams, whenever Spielberg has something for him to do.

LG: I don’t think he was passionate about this.

MO: If he was, it didn’t come through.

LG: Now, we don’t hate this film. It’s still better than the Star Wars prequels.

MO: The storytelling is lazy, but the creation of the world and integration of the actors and characters in it isn’t. Whereas the Star Wars prequels are lazy all around, except for some of the creations, which feel like they were made to be toys.

LG: I really don’t need to see this again. I’m giving it a C.

MO: I’m giving it a C as well. This is easily Cameron’s weakest film, since Piranha II doesn’t count, nor do the underwater documentaries.

LG: I’m going to get on my John Carter soapbox because that film was a huge flop. It’s way better than Avatar. Whatever problems it had, I had fun, and I walked out with a huge smile on my face. I gave it an A- when I reviewed it because despite all it’s flaws, I still had fun.

MO: I gave it a B. I found it more problematic than you did in the storytelling, there were things in the world I didn’t understand, and I didn’t remember very many of the characters. But there’s a sense of discovery and fun to it that’s missing from Avatar. This thing just clatters and clangs. I compared Ridley Scott’s Legend to being the Avatar of the day: looks fantastic, well-realized world, but it’s hokey and clunky, and it moves at a snail’s pace. But even Legend was more engaging than this.

LG: I’m also worried. This film has suffered a huge backlash after being such a monster hit. I think a lot of the goodwill towards it was due to the novelty of the 3-D, which has worn off now. If Cameron wants Avatar 2 to be a hit, he’s going to have to either come back with a better, more involving story, or come up with an even more audacious world, which I’m not sure is possible.

MO: If he promises to kill off Sam Worthington’s character he’ll clinch a C+ from me.

LG: Or at least recast him. It’s sad that we have to end this on a down note, but the last twelve years has not been kind to his talent. One interesting anecdote I read is that he showed the film to a Native tribe in South America, who hated the film because they felt the answer of fighting these people with violence was wrong. Cameron said that this was interesting, and that maybe he’d incorporate that into the next film.

MO: Well it’s also the noble savage fallacy, where they’re all pure.

LG: They’re pure, the military is evil, and the scientists are science-y. There’s no shades of grey. You look at the history of Native American culture, they’re not all peaceful. There’s a lot of grey in there, and I would have loved to have had that, minus the condescending “white man has to save everything” plotline we see too often. It’s very lazy and played out and outdated.

MO: I would love to have seen more investment in the spirituality beyond the generic Native beliefs. Cameron is an atheist, but there’s some sort of New Age-y connection there, maybe. But it needs to be more specific.

LG: That’s the end of the James Cameron Roundtable. Hope you enjoyed our collaboration. I’m Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams.

MO: I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple.

LG: And to borrow from Arnold, “WE’LL BE BACK!”

MO: We certainly shall.


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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.6: David Lynch's Wild at Heart

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Grade: 70 (B)

David Lynch had hit the big time. Blue Velvet was an instant art house classic, and Twin Peaks was on its way to being a major hit on ABC. After filming the series pilot, Lynch tried to rescue his long gestating project Ronnie Rocket, as well as his surreal comedy One Saliva Bubble, to no avail. Lynch instead went on to adapt Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart into a dark, surreal road movie that won him the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But Wild at Heart is not regarded as one of Lynch’s finest films. When it was announced as the Palme D’Or winner, the cheers were rivaled by boos. When it was released stateside, it received mixed reviews. Even certain Lynch fans speak of the film as being one of Lynch’s weakest releases. Wild at Heart has much to recommend it, but it’s also a blueprint of how a David Lynch movie can go wrong.

Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) are a pair of southern lovers separated after Sailor is jailed for brutally killing a man in self-defense. Pursued by Lula’s spiteful mother Marietta (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real mother), the two decide to break Sailor’s parole and run away to California. Marietta sends her suitor, private investigator Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), after the two, but when he refuses to kill Sailor, she appeals to her gangster suitor Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman) and his boss, Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard). As they run, Sailor and Lula come across a series of strange characters, from crazy rocket scientist Spool (Jack Nance) to Sailor’s old friend Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini) to creepy criminal Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), and learn that the world is “wild at heart and crazy all over”.

Wild at Heart starts out very well, with Lynch echoing his earlier film Blue Velvet with the way he juxtaposes horrifying violence (Sailor smashing a man’s head open) to campy humor (following that act by staring into the camera and pointing at it). He also continues his interest in explicitly sexual material, with a series of sex scenes between Cage and Dern that could make anyone forget that Dern was the innocent girl-next-door type in her last collaboration with Lynch. What makes pushes the often ridiculously over-the-top sex scenes to even funnier territory is the genuine sweetness in the central relationship. Yeah, they fuck like rabbits, but they’re a couple of good kids deep down.

Wild at Heart is more in-your-face than Blue Velvet (already a shocking film), often to great effect. It has a similar preoccupation with 50s décor, but it bears more comparisons to down-and-dirty biker and road movies than squeaky-clean melodramas. His use of sound is as striking as ever, but where Lynch really kicks into overdrive is in his use of aggressive, often shocking imagery. The film is filled with bright, hot tones (red, yellow, orange, and pink), often accompanied by explicit sex scenes. Lynch often cuts a scene, without a moment’s notice, into another, more shocking moment (see: Ladd covering her entire face with lipstick). His close-ups of fire, matches, and the highway brings elements of danger into play. Even better, though, is when he switches from something aggressive (Sailor and Lula dancing in a heavy-metal club) to Cage crooning Elvis Presley’s “Love Me” to Dern as the heavy metal band backs him up and the moshers turn into squealing, screaming girls. No, really.

For Lynch takes his love for the 1950s to the extreme in Wild at Heart- he’s making an art house version of an Elvis Presley road movie. That provides the structure, whereas Lynch’s more esoteric influences provide the meat. He’s still got Hitchcock’s flair for suspense and the surreal touches of Luis Bunuel or Alejandro Jodorowsky, but the strange comedy goes into overdrive with help from Jacques Tati and particularly the grotesques of Federico Fellini. The overpowering madness of Diane Ladd’s character falls in line with Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth as a Herzog style madman (or madwoman, in this case), and the intense emotional material recalls Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause.

There’s a number of terrific supporting turns in Wild at Heart, from Ladd’s madwoman to Stanton’s quirky private eye to an extra-creepy turn from Willem Dafoe, but the film doesn’t work without the charms of Cage and Dern. Lynch envisioned the film as a romance between Elvis Presley (Cage) and Marilyn Monroe (Dern), and the two fill the roles perfectly. Dern is every bit the comfortably sexy but sweet heroine Monroe was, with the same tinge of sadness. Cage is even better as a memorably nutty version of Elvis whose snakeskin jacket is “a symbol of my individuality and belief in personal freedom”. Whenever the film centers on the swooning (and, it must be said, horny) romance between the two characters and the dangers they face, it shines.

The problem with Wild at Heart is that it frequently loses its way from the main storyline. The secret to Lynch’s films is that, with few exceptions, Lynch’s features are at their best when given a genre structure to play off of. The Elephant Man allows him to bring his unique sensibility to the biopic. Blue Velvet is a rather tight noir/thriller (plus it has two hours of more indulgent material trimmed from the original four hour cut). Twin Peaks plays off of a noir/police procedural structure. Even something as puzzling as Mulholland Dr. fits well into the noir genre. The most notable exception to the rule is Eraserhead, but that’s a case where the whole film operates on a consistent nightmare logic that makes each segment feel like it’s part of the same piece.

Wild at Heart doesn’t follow either rule. It’s a road movie, and road movies tend to be wilder and less rigorously constructed than, say, a noir, a thriller, or a horror movie. Rather, it gives Lynch an excuse to unload whatever weird idea he has into the film as another strange encounter for Cage and Dern to encounter, and thirty-five minutes in, the film starts to go off the rails. Some of it is fascinating (Rossellini and Grace Zabriskie as the shady Durango sisters, Dafoe as Bobby Peru), but the better stuff seems to be more connected to the plot (and likely from Barry Gifford’s novel). On the other hand, there’s the following:

-the eccentric gangster Mr. Reindeer constantly being surrounded by topless women, whether he’s eating or he’s on the toilet
-Ladd impulsively covering her own face with lipstick
-an encounter with a  squawking man in a bar
-a story of Dern’s cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), a sandwich obsessed man who puts cockroaches into his own underwear
-Jack Nance talking about his little dog
-Pornographic filmmaking, “Texas style”- topless obese women

Lynch goes way over the top on the Fellini-esque grotesques, and his obsession with the creepier sides of sex and violence ranges from powerful (Ladd openly lusting for Cage) to overplayed (Dafoe’s threatened rape of Dern, though it’s well acted). When Lynch does a close-up of flies on vomit at one point, it’s hard not to think that he’s lost track of what separates the disturbing from the merely unpleasant.

More notably, Lynch uses the road movie structure to create a retelling of one of his favorite films, The Wizard of Oz. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea- Lynch has used Oz’ dream logic and tales of a polarized world as an influence on Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Dr., among other films. But the film pushes it by throwing in obvious, on-the-nose references:

-Shots of Ladd in Wicked Witch of the West garb (no, we get it, she’s bad)
- seemingly random shots of a witch’s crystal ball
-Dern tapping her red shoes together (no, we get it, she wants to go home)
-Jack Nance referencing Toto
-Dern telling Sailor to take her “over that rainbow” during sex
-a final bit where Glinda the Good appears to Cage to convince him to go back to Dern

It’s all a bit much. But not all of the diversions are bad- one sequence in which the two heroes find a horrible car accident with a dying Sherilyn Fenn is a particularly haunting scene that shows how death and destruction follows the two, no matter where they go. Set to “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak, it’s a reminder that anything tethered to the central love story and its complications works rather well. The film ultimately works because we give a damn about what happens to these two- we want to see them end up together, and when Sailor races through traffic to sing “Love Me Tender” to the love of his life, it’s a satisfying end to an often frustrating film.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #8: Titanic

Individual reviews are useful, but film criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams, and we’ve got some things to say in the James Cameron Roundtable.
Max’s Grade: 87 (A-)

Loren’s Grade: A-

Max O’Connell: Titanic. The film that made all of the money.


Loren Greenblatt: Which is a good thing, because it cost all of the money.

MO: At this point, it’s the third time Cameron made the most expensive film ever made (Avatar almost made it the fourth, but the record holder is, for some reason, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Everyone knows about Titanic, but here’s some background. Cameron wasn’t that interested in making a film about the sinking of the Titanic at first. He wanted to make an underwater documentary about the ship, which he eventually did with Ghosts of the Abyss. He funded his journey by calling it “research” for a dramatic film. Now if there’s one thing you have to respect about Cameron is his ability to make his pet interests into films. The way he took his fascination with underwater stuff and made The Abyss, the way he took his fascination with shipwrecks and made Titanic, his desire to push the boundaries of technology and make Avatar…

LG: It can’t have been an easy film for him to pitch. I imagine it going something like this: “It’s a period piece, it costs $200 million, it’s 3 hours long, there’s no laser explosions, and there’s no sequel.”

MO: It was a gutsy move, and everyone thought it was going to fail. Had it not been the smashing success it was, it would have ruined his career and probably taken down a studio.

LG: $200 million is a lot of money for a movie now, and this is 15 years ago. And it wasn’t the original budget. This thing went over budget and over schedule.

MO: This was a hard shoot. Kate Winslet almost quit after she got pneumonia from shooting in the water. She chipped her elbow and later said that while Cameron is a nice man in the day-to-day
life, he’s a monster on set and he’ll never work with him again. Leonardo DiCaprio threw out his shoulder. There were a number of injuries.

LG: We joked that Ed Harris got a call from Cameron and hung up immediately, considering that he nearly drowned on The Abyss.

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MO: You can see the influence Cameron had in making this film: earlier in the decade, Spielberg made a full shift into “serious” filmmaker with Schindler’s List: everyone thought the film would fail and that the E.T. guy wouldn’t be able to make a serious film about the Holocaust, and he proved them all wrong. He finally got the Oscar, but not for one of his blockbusters. Then Robert Zemeckis followed him with Forrest Gump, which he won the Oscar for rather than for something like Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (for the record: I love Schindler’s List, hate Forrest Gump). Cameron should have won the Oscar for directing Terminator 2, but they don’t give Oscars for directing Terminator 2. He instead got it for Titanic. In terms of craftsmanship, though, this is about as stunning as movies get in the 90s. It is also a melodrama in the classic sense: you can see the influences of a romantic melodrama like Gone with the Wind, or something D.W. Griffith might have done.

LG: Basically, the story of the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic is filtered through the romantic story of two passengers: Rose (Kate Winslet), an upper-class woman about to be married to an evil Billy Zane, who basically plays Snidely Whiplash (they call him “Cal” for some reason)…

MO: And they have the great British character-actor David Warner as his own Muttley, no less.

LG: Rose is very sad because she doesn’t want to marry this bastard, and she’s about to kill herself, but she’s saved by Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dreamy, dirt-poor artist (though the fantastic drawings were actually sketched by Cameron) who won a ticket on the Titanic.

MO: Plus there’s a framing device in modern day with Bill Paxton basically as a James Cameron surrogate searching for a blue diamond called “The Heart of the Ocean”  (no coincidence!) in the sunken Titanic, and an elderly Rose (Gloria Stuart) might have information because the naked woman in the drawing they find is a younger version of her, and she narrates the movie.

LG: It’s a flashback told from her point of view, even the scenes she wasn’t there for. Eh, it’s a movie. Go with it.

MO: I’ll get ahead of myself, though...Kate Winslet’s Best Actress nomination at the Oscars? Deserved. Stuart’s Supporting Actress nomination? A bit absurd. She’s fine…it’s a tiny role.

LG: She’s a little flat sometimes.

MO: It’s a little maudlin, and she got nominated because she’s an 86-year-old or whatever she was (she lived to be 100 before she died) and she finally got noticed. That DiCaprio didn’t get nominated and she did is ridiculous.

LG: We won’t begrudge her, though. But the two fall in love, it’s a star-crossed romance…it plays out about as you’d expect. I always had a theory that once you passed a certain minute-mark in your running time, you really had to earn that length was narrative density. I forged this theory while watching Goodfellas and Casino over and over again, and you can see someone like Paul Thomas Anderson learning from Scorsese with his movies Boogie Nights and Magnolia. This doesn’t hold up to that theory, but if everyone here was a three-dimensional character it’d be eight hours long.

MO: To be fair, it’s a melodrama. It’s following melodrama conventions with the two great-looking leads from opposite sides of the tracks, the comically evil villain, the rich people who don’t care about the poor, the poor people are…stereotypes, though they’re not as bad as they could be.

LG: DiCaprio has a sidekick we’re told is named Fabrizio, but with his stereotypical Italian-ness we called him, at alternate points, “Meatball”, “Spaghetti”, “Pepé”, and “Chef Boyardee”. “Oh, we’re on the ship-a!. I-a hope it’s okay!”

MO: To Cameron’s credit, it’s not mean-spirited. It’s not a Lucas stereotype.

LG: It’s silly, but not offensive. He basically talks like Mario from Super Mario Bros. I kept waiting for him to step on a goomba. The rich folk aren’t too much better: they wear monocles and eat caviar and drink brandy with their cigars. They talk about the poor and Rockefeller and their tax investments and OH MY!

MO: They’re effective melodrama villains. Billy Zane is pretty fun as Cal/Snidely Whiplash. Rose’s nasty mother isn’t a terribly complicated character, but she does her part just fine. The likable rich people are all played by great character actors (Victor Garber as the architect, the captain, Kathy Bates as Molly Brown).

LG: It’s effective enough. DiCaprio and Winslet are the hook of the film. They have all the chemistry in the world together. They could have been dull stereotypes who are totally vapid and empty.

MO: But the appeal of two great actors doing an old story very well is fantastic. It doesn’t hurt that DiCaprio is incredibly charismatic and charming as Jack and Winslet looks like an Old Hollywood beauty and has that kind of gravity.

LG: They are gorgeous together. One of the things I found curious, though, is Cameron’s dialogue. Because it’s a period piece so he can’t have the ultra-modern one liners…though I noticed Jack has a weird tendency to quote Bob Dylan songs well before they were written.

MO: It’s a bit much. That and the rich not knowing who Freud is or thinking Picasso won’t amount to anything is a bit much.

LG: It’s that scene in Blazing Saddles where the guy goes on about Marie Curie to comically establish period.

MO: But there are some good lines. Bill Paxton and Gloria Stuart’s “I’ll be goddamned” bit is fun. “I’m the king of the world” is rightfully iconic. The romance dialogue is pretty banal, but it’s effective enough, and it’s an old-fashioned melodrama anyway. Go with it, it works. “I’ll never let go” is pretty great as well.

LG: There’s some bad ones as well. “A woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets” is terrible.

MO: Cameron can be awful. But he has some great presences to sell a lot of lines. Now, this film doesn’t have the thematic depth of Cameron’s earlier films.

LG: Nor is the world as deeply thought out. He did a lot of research, and the sinking of the ship in the second half of the film is amazing and filled with some real incidents we know from the survivors. Thematically, it has an interesting pattern. Cameron’s early films have strong women that break through the roles that male-dominated society has picked for them. True Lies and Titanic have women who are forced to navigate male dominated society’s expectations of them. It’s a huge shift in how Cameron depicts women. It’s for worse in True Lies, it works fine in Titanic, but it’s a shift.

MO: Here’s where we’re going to disagree.  I’d argue Titanic is a feminist movie.

LG: I’m not saying it isn’t.

MO: It’s a shift in the pattern, but it’s effective at showing a woman forced to navigate society in a similar way to how Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver were marginalized in the worlds of Aliens and Terminator 2. She does find her independence (through love, but whatever), and she breaks free of societal expectations. It’s similar to the old women’s pictures of Old Hollywood like Gone with the Wind or Stella Dallas. The use of class struggle in this, meanwhile, isn’t terribly deep. It isn’t a Leoné or Coppola movie.

LG: It’s basic movie stuff where the mother forbids the daughter from seeing the cute poor boy, which never works ever. It’s an incentive.

MO: It’s corny, but kind of endearing.

LG: It’s rarely groan-inducing.

MO: What the film lacks in depth, it makes up for in craftsmanship. All of the money is on the screen. He manages to show how technology is both spectacular and limited, and we see how that shows up here. We have a great sense of how the Titanic works, and how it moves, and how its limitations will lead to its undoing. When everything goes to hell, we’ve been given a fair chance to see what’s going to happen.

LG: He does a good job of walking us through how it’s going to go down early in the film with a simulation on a computer graphics walkthrough in the framing device. We know what’s happening, so it’s not just a bunch of stuff that happens when the ship starts sinking. It’s all very well thought out, and Cameron’s a master at set-pieces. The special effects are extraordinary: it feels as if he actually rebuilt and re-sank the Titanic.

MO: And the design is fantastic. It feels like they got the dishes and cabinets and staircases just right on the ship. The details on the actor’s bodies are honestly pretty great as well, like when they sweat during the sex scene or turn pale when they’re in the freezing water. It’s meticulous in a classic Cameron sense.

LG: When you’re given all the money in the world, you better pay attention to what you’re doing. There are some harrowing sequences when the lifeboats go back for bodies. There’s a woman and her infant who are frozen together. It reminded me of how the three-hour-long blockbuster thing has been continued by Peter Jackson. Cameron was absent from films for a long time after this movie, and Jackson’s attention to detail and ability to work on a large scale is similar to Cameron’s. The Lord of the Rings takes a lot of cues from Titanic in pacing out three hours.

MO: Without a doubt. And Cameron’s slow-motion, while sparingly used, is very effective.

LG: He uses it a little differently, though. The slow-motion pans are very effective in the “rich people acting rich while Kate Winslet is disaffected” scenes.

MO: And, as always, his use of contrasting shadows with shafts of light is fantastic. The film has that hard-edged blue is still here. His use of blue-collar characters never feels pandering the way Michael Bay’s films always feel. Bay’s Pearl Harbor (Bay’s worst film) is the film Titanic was attacked for being. It’s pandering where Cameron’s populist instincts are completely in earnest.

LG: Well that film is basically trying to be Titanic.

MO: Titanic’s backlash has been mostly unfair. Some of it is understandable: it was inescapable, and the Celine Dion song is intolerable.

LG: We turned off “My Heart Will Go On”. We weren’t having that.

MO: It’s easy to see why there was a backlash, but the criticisms for it being melodramatic and being about star-crossed lovers rather than the big tragedy kind of shows them missing the point. Cameron earns what Bay does not.

LG: It’s a marvelously made film. I can understand some of the “made up love story against a real tragedy” criticism, but there’s not a cynical bone in this film, which is part of why all the cheesy stuff works. Cameron means every sentence of it.

MO: When the craftsmanship is this good (the sinking ship puts The Abyss to shame), and the sinking of the ship is another one of his great timetables.

LG: Cameron’s use of ticking time-bombs in his third acts of his films are always great. It’s a very effective screenwriting move that makes almost any film more involving.

MO: There are just so many great sequences here. I love the montage with the classical violin piece that everyone seems to remember. The string quartet plays a mournful piece together as we see everyone on the ship realize that they’re going to die. It’s heartbreaking.

LG: It got a little dusty. And then Pepe came back…

MO: But I felt bad for Fabrizio! I really did!

LG: He’ll never get to invent Chef Boyardee.

MO: People complain about that Celine Dion song all the time, and with reason. It’s maudlin and corny. Cameron was opposed to it until James Horner and Celine Dion recorded it anyway, and he ended up liking it.

LG: Why is unclear. Though the song incorporates the melody from the score very well.

MO: The score itself is phenomenal.

LG: Horner did an excellent job, though it does have the unfortunate effect of making you think that song is going to start every five minutes.

MO: I don’t hate “My Heart Will Go On” the same way I hate the Avatar song, though.

LG: When we saw Avatar at the IMAX and the song started, I swear I’ve never seen a room clear that fast.

MO: This song at least has that melody. I think it’s inevitable that we talk about the film’s Oscar success. It had 14 nominations (tying the record held by All About Eve) and 11 wins (tying the record held by Ben-Hur, later equaled by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Most of the nominations were deserved: I hate the song, Stuart for Supporting Actress was undeserved, DiCaprio got snubbed for actor. But all of the technical awards were deserved, the score is great, Winslet is great, and honestly, I wouldn’t begrudge the film Best Picture, even if it did beat L.A. Confidential. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge Cameron Best Director, this is astounding moviemaking through and through.

LG: What else was nominated?

MO: L.A. Confidential was the best of the bunch, followed probably by Titanic. Good Will Hunting most people like a lot more than I do. As Good As It Gets goes back and forth between being enjoyable, sickly sweet, and unbearably smug. The Full Monty I haven’t seen…

LG: It’s a sweet film, you should check it out.

MO: There were better films that should have been nominated: Boogie Nights, The Sweet Hereafter, The Ice Storm, Jackie Brown. But Titanic’s win isn’t the catastrophe people make it out to be.

LG: No, there’s been much worse…

MO: Forrest Gump, Dances with Wolves, Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, Crash…but the Oscars don’t matter. No matter the film’s flaws (and it certainly has some), it’s a very affecting film and a very strong piece of craftsmanship, and it’s about as good as modern melodramas get.

LG: I really like this film. Much more than I thought I was going to. I give it an A-.

MO: Same here. It’s his best film outside the big three (The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2).

LG: You forgot about Piranha II, Max.

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