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Are family dramas and special effects incompatible?

Are family dramas and special effects incompatible? (photo)

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At the Guardian, David Thomson pits “Avatar” against Ozu, or at least the ghost of Ozu as manifested in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Still Walking,” which just hit UK theaters:

You might expect he’s gauging the gap between overwhelming spectacle and the gold standard for Profound Understatement, but — oddly — what he’s mostly concerned with is that “Avatar” promotes spectacle at the expense of “the human face” (guess he’s not a motion-capture kind of guy — suck it Cameron!) and, uh, because the Na’vi’s familial structure does “not have a sensibility that recognises family kinship and the issues of family experience.”

Avatar is garbage, too, and that can only be pinpointed by stressing its abject subject matter and its inability to see that the most spectacular thing the movies ever had to offer (see Renoir, Ophüls, Ozu, Bresson … well, just keep seeing) is the human face as its mind alters or saddens.

Arguing with Thomson is like screaming at quicksand, so I’m not even going to bother — the dichotomy’s false, having “Avatar” around doesn’t mean “Still Walking” can’t also be there, and I’ll leave it at that. But I am interested in the idea that family dramas in general default to that mode of quiet understatement and honing in on “human,” non-FX based stories, and that the two modes are incompatible.

01192010_closeencounters.jpgI suspect, with some unease, that may be right Thomson’s about that. It’s one thing to make a movie that’s visually unusual, as long as the effects are more punctuation than the main substance — take Katsuhito Ishii’s little-seen 2004 “The Taste of Tea,” which combines — yes! — lots of family dinners and tea-drinking with, say, random gigantic girls over the horizon, Ozu via Miike.

But shock and awe’s a whole other deal. Only one blockbuster really comes to mind as balancing the two sides of the scale — “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” one of the more incisive movies about familial abrasion and disconnect. “Close Encounters” actually dramatizes the very dilemma in question, going from the mundane hell of Richard Dreyfuss’ family life to the soothing comforts of UFOs and creamy lights from afar.

In general — spectacle and the family aren’t reconcilable, Mr. Thomson: point conceded. But Ozu-ites are always the minority — “Avatar” won’t change anything about that.

[Photos: “Still Walking,” IFC Films, 2008; “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; Columbia Pictures, 1977]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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