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Titanic (#110 of 16)

Summer of ‘89: The Abyss

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Summer of ’89: The Abyss
Summer of ’89: The Abyss

James Cameron was on Charlie Rose recently to talk about his journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Rose asked him about The Abyss, and about the short story he wrote in high school that would later become the basis for the movie. Cameron described it:

It was about scientists who are leaving a submerged base, kind of similar to what I eventually made into the movie. And they’re going down a wall on a dive, deeper and deeper into blackness, and they don’t come back. And the ones that are left behind wonder what happened and go after them. And one after another they keep going into the darkness, and they don’t return. And the last man goes, the last diver goes down to find out what happened to his buddies. And he gets to the point of no return, and his curiosity overwhelms his caution and he keeps going. And that’s how the story ends.

If only the movie could’ve been that simple. Instead, The Abyss is a big-budget, 1980s blockbuster, the plot of which was contorted in order to allow for elaborate set pieces and expensive, state-of-the-art special effects. The story goes: Amid Cold War tensions, an American nuclear submarine crosses paths with a mysterious, underwater, alien spacecraft (which looks a lot like the aboveground alien spacecrafts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Its radar system deactivated due to the UFO’s aura, the sub strikes a reef and crashes to the bottom of the sea, at precisely the same time that a hurricane begins swirling overhead.

Poster Lab: Diana, with Naomi Watts Set Adrift Yet Again

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Poster Lab: <em>Diana</em>, with Naomi Watts Set Adrift Yet Again
Poster Lab: <em>Diana</em>, with Naomi Watts Set Adrift Yet Again

Poor Naomi Watts just can’t escape the big blue. Everywhere we see the Aussie actress these days, it seems she’s accompanied by a literal ocean, its waters deep and vast, and ripe for the application of metaphor. First, Watts fought against a tsunami in The Impossible, an act many would say paid off since it landed her an Oscar nod. Then, Watts cheated on bestie Nicole Kidman with Robin Wright, her Adore co-star with whom she did a son-as-sex-partner swap, and floated on an anchored dock just off the Australian coast. Now, Watts is gazing off into the ripply horizon again on this one-sheet for Diana, a once-baity biopic that casts the actress as the ill-fated “people’s princess.”

Bearing the tagline, “The only thing more incredible than the life she led was the secret she kept,” the poster, in all its open space, points to the missed opportunities of a life cut short, and calls to mind one of the worst lines in Titanic: “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” Presumably, this scene shows Watt’s Diana on the luxury yacht of Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar), where a few of the film’s key scenes reportedly take place. Where it positions Watts herself is where she’s unfortunately been for too long now: caught drifting in limbo between her considerable talent and the quality of work to which she’s attached.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions Original Score

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Original Score
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Original Score

Typically, there’s at least one Oscar-nominated score that stands out as unique, with memorable flourishes that push it ahead as the frontrunner (think Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s tech-heavy Social Network compositions, and Dario Marianelli’s typewriter-clicky work for Atonement—two scores that sent their makers home with naked gold men). This year, though, there’s no real shortlisted soundtrack that lingers firmly in the ear, give or take the occasional segment that bolsters a pivotal scene. Marianelli is back in the ring for his score for Anna Karenina, another Joe Wright confection that employs the composer’s baroque talents. Matching Wright’s stagey conceit with an almost circus-like aural melodrama, Marianelli is responsible for a good chunk of the film’s intoxicating powers. But far more noteworthy are the lush costumes, sets, and lensing—arenas in which this remix of the Tolstoy classic are bound to fare better.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Cloud Atlas

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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>Cloud Atlas</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>Cloud Atlas</em>

Phoned-in portent and feigned profundity form the basis of each of the seven interlocking narratives that comprise Cloud Atlas, and while they appear superficially distinct (a bit of creaky 1930s manor drama cast against garish near-future sci-fi, etc.), they share the fully consistent qualities of flat acting, shabby editing, and surprisingly uninspired design. That not one of these seven pieces feels like a coherently developed story of its own is perhaps unsurprising (even unfurling over an interminably dull 163 minutes, we simply don’t spend enough time with any particular set of characters for a single emotional arc to properly register), but what’s remarkable is how poorly they fit together as an ostensibly unified whole. The rhythm of this thing—and when you’re composing something this dense, rhythm is everything—just feels entirely wrong, reducing what crumbs of dramatic or kinetic interest are scattered across its running time to dust. This isn’t simply a case of elements of the film working or not working; the entire array of ideas (both aesthetic and thematic) which make up the film are so badly integrated that even the smallest traces and flickers of light are snuffed out altogether. Nothing works because, almost by the very nature of its design, nothing can: It collapses so intensely under the weight of its own inanity and pretension that nothing at all is left standing.

Understanding Screenwriting #94: American Reunion, Mirror, Mirror, Damsels in Distress, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #94: <em>American Reunion</em>, <em>Mirror, Mirror</em>, <em>Damsels in Distress</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #94: <em>American Reunion</em>, <em>Mirror, Mirror</em>, <em>Damsels in Distress</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: American Reunion; Salmon Fishing in the Yemen; Mirror, Mirror; Damsels in Distress; Act of Valor; Titanic; A Bad Spring for American Television 2012, but first…

Fan Mail: A short note before we get into the mail. A day or so after I sent US#93 off to Keith, I read in the paper that Ernest Callenbach, whom I mentioned in the review of the Pauline Kael biography, had passed away. He was the long-time editor of Film Quarterly, starting in the early days when there were not a thousand film journals around. He ran my first published piece, a 1977 book review of two biographies of screenwriters. He was supportive of many young critics, including the redoubtable Stephan Farber.

David Ehrenstein has his usual entertaining comments, especially about Pauline Kael. He thought her essay on Kane made it sound as though Welles had “scarcely anything to do with it at all” with Kane. Like David, I had read her earlier reviews, especially of Chimes at Midnight (1966), and I thought in “Kane” she was not trying to tear Welles down, just promoting what Mank had done.

“IA” took me to task for thinking Kael was a coward for not writing more on screenwriters. He may be right, but given the dealings Howard Suber and I had with her, I’ll stick to my opinion. IA did point out that Kael never wrote anything, about screenwriters or otherwise, on the scale of “Raising Kane” again, which is what I tried to suggest in my comments about her not have the capabilities to do a much longer piece. As to how serious Kael was on doing a Johnson biography, I would assume that if she and her agent were trying to get my research and spreading the word that she was doing a bio of him, then she was pretty serious, at least for a time. Kellow’s book is already long, and I am sure that if he came across the Johnson business he probably felt it was not that important in the full scope of her life. As to her writing about screenwriters in her later reviews, she may well have, but not with the enthusiasm she showed earlier.

American Reunion (2012. Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, based on characters created by Adam Herz. 113 minutes.)

Not as good as #1, better than #2, and way better than #3: In my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays, I had a chapter on the first three American Pie movies, since I wanted to discuss writing raunchy comedies. I put the chapter in the Not-Quite-So-Good section of the book, since that would have been my average grade for the three. The first was a very good script, the second not-quite-so good, and the third one was truly awful, with only one laugh in the entire film. I have not seen the four direct-to-DVD sequels and even a gun to my head would not make me. But since I had invested so much time in thinking and writing about the first three, I thought I would give the new theatrical film a shot. It turns out to be pretty good, and corrects several of the mistakes #2 and #3 made.