Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Holiday Potpourri: Superman Returns, Elf, Avatar, Hurt Locker

So, I have seen a lot of movies lately, and would like to give some shout outs for work well done. First: Superman Returns. I know, it came out in 2006. I saw it in the theaters then, but that was pre-Frocktalk, and I just saw it again today. Louise Mingenbach – awesome job, dude. The costumes were lovely.

Superman Returns’ costumes are timeless elegance – it’s a modern world, but the characters inhabiting it dress classically. The fabrics (natural fibers), 1940s-inspired silhouettes and earthy color palette contrast nicely with Krypton’s icy, futuristic aesthetic. This is a fully-created world, aesthetically speaking, and it is gorgeous. Observe:

Let’s take a look at the man of steel’s costume – note the muted tones. It fits in well with the overall sepia tone of the film. It’s nostalgic while at the same time a technical marvel. The close-up shots in the film reveal the real texture of the suit. It is fabulous work!

Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and company are simply perfection in their mobster-and-moll garb. Parker Posey is outstanding as Kitty Kowalski. Her hats, pearls, gloves, shoes – all the details – are exquisite!!

I love the choice to use natural fibers for the principal actors’ garb. It gives the costumes a classic, timeless feeling. Look at the costumes for Jimmy Olsen, Richard White, and Clark Kent. Can you tell what year it is? Is it the 1940s? The 1950s? The 1960s? Contemporary? It’s pretty hard to guess, though it looks indisputably twentieth-century.

Look at the beautiful wool fabrics on these coats!! The cut and color of these garments make me want to weep! They are so beautiful!

It was so delightful to revisit this movie today. Louise Mingenbach and her crew did an amazing job creating the mood and look of this film. Bravo, everyone!

Second: Elf. How could I let this pass during the holiday season?! The costumes of Elf are whimsical and beautifully crafted. Laura Jean Shannon knocked herself out. Take a look:

We start with Bob Newhart (inspired casting) as Papa Elf, Buddy’s adoptive father. He wears this beautiful elf costume – it appears to be boiled wool (or some kind of felted wool, perhaps) with embroidery and fur trim. The beautiful belt and upturned elf shoes are the real gems to this costume. The North Pole elf look in this film is brilliant in its simplicity.

Using a tight color palette of solids, the North Pole elf costumes are uniform in their cut and silhouette, even on the children elves. Every garment appears to be manufactured by the same maker, and every costume feels within the same family. Though the colors of the elf costumes may be different, the cut and “look” of them is the same.

The “earth” version of the elf look is slightly more downscale. Zooey Deschanel plays Jovie, a regular girl working the holiday counter at Gimbel’s. Her elf costume contrasts starkly with the North Pole elf costumes. Here, Jovie’s spandex, rick-rack and cheesy nametag set her worlds apart from the “real” elves.

And then, just because I am in a benevolent mood, I must share with you a non sequitur: this beautiful piece of body art related to Elf.

Bottom line – great job, Laura Jean Shannon! Elf is a holiday classic, and the costumes are truly iconic. It is a hilarious film, and I had forgotten how hard I laughed the first time I saw it. Ed Asner as Santa Claus is worth the price of admission. Love those Tyrolean suspenders!

Third: Avatar. I saw it in 3D, and I think that is probably how the film is best seen. I didn’t realize that it was a lengthy film, but looking at it now, 162 minutes works out to be 2 hours and 42 minutes, people! It was a visual spectacle, for sure, and it is worth seeing. The costumes were noteworthy.

There are the “Sky People” – meaning earthlings invading the planet called Pandora – and there are the native Pandorian people, the Na’Vi. The Na’Vi are ten feet tall, blue-skinned, yellow eyed and completely computer generated. They do, however, wear costumes. This is where it gets interesting.

OK, so there is this government program to study Pandora for its biological import. This is one set of humans on Pandora, the scientists. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her team have invented a way to a) grow Na’Vi creatures from cells in an incubation chamber; and b) hook human beings up to a machine that will allow the human to animate the lab-created Na’Vi creature in real life, on Pandora. In this manner, the lab-created Na’Vi creature is the avatar of the human. What’s cool is that, in creating these avatars in the lab, they are able to mimic the human’s facial features and proportions in the Na’Vi avatar. You can see here (below) that Dr. Grace’s avatar kind of, sort of, resembles her.

The humans on Pandora require breathing masks in order to survive the atmosphere. In a contained climate (in their space station, for example), masks are not required because those spaces are vacuum-sealed to prevent the noxious elements of the atmosphere from entering. In any case, the other set of humans on Pandora are up to no good. Motivated primarily by greed, they set out to destroy Pandora’s environment in order to mine for “unobtainium” (facetious giggle).

Most of the humans wear some version of militaria. The colors are drab – olives, blues, greys. Everything looks like it has been worn and washed a million times. (Nice work by ager-dyer Jack Taggart!) Every single background player had unique identifiers, so that in the bigger background scenes, they all looked individuated and completely natural. This is time-consuming and expensive… and it was very, very well done.

Now, when the humans turn into their Na’Vi avatars, they wear actual clothing – like t-shirts, shorts, etc., over their blue zebra-print skin. This wearing of clothing separates them from the natural Na’Vi people, who wear feathers, beads, and grass-like loin-covers.

In fact, it is the choice of materials used in the Na’Vi costumes that is really interesting. There are four costume designers credited on the film (and these are in the actual credits, NOT on imdB): Mayes C. Rubeo, Deborah Scott, Richard Taylor (having designed props, costumes, and the look of the animated Na’Vi), and John Harding (credited as “Costume Designer: New Zealand”). This is really confusing, and I have an email in to Mayes to clarify how that all worked. Right now it’s hard to know who ultimately made the choices for the Na’Vi – the beads used for their hair and necklaces, the fiber(?) fabric(?) hide(?) used for their headbands, the feathers used for their necklaces… it all requires thought and back-story! There is also a great deal of individuating within the Na’Vi people – and especially when those characters are completely computer-generated, this requires extensive, exhausting work.

There is a clear Native American/Polynesian vibe to the Na’Vi costumes. The correlation in the film (thematically) to Colonial European history and to the dubious birth of America is unmistakable. We are a greedy bunch of pigs who will destroy everything in front of us for material gain. When someone “goes Native” it is because s/he has lost her/his mind, not because the Native culture has merit. An imperialist, greedy, thoughtless lot we all are, yes? I think Avatar is trying to serve as a cautionary tale (particularly to youth) about greed and the environment, but it’s pretty heavy-handed for those of us with half a finger on the pulse of humankind and a clear disdain for mindless conquering.

Without a doubt, this film is a technical landmark in movie making. The use of motion capture and CGI reaches new heights here, and it is such a joy to see. Is it long? Yes, maybe a bit. Is it appropriate for kids? I think kids under 12 would not really understand it, and there are some scary, loud bits – lots of violence. But check it out- the costumes are beautiful… and stand by for more information from Mayes about the “making of”…

Finally, I would like to talk about one of the best films of the year, in my opinion: The Hurt Locker. I have seen it twice now, and it just gets better with every viewing. The costumes are US Army, 2004, Iraq. Everything about it looks real – it looks like CNN footage (from a costume standpoint), and that’s what makes it brilliant. Good job, George Little and company!!

The boys of the bomb squad all wear their standard issue BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms). It gets interesting, however, when they have to don “the suit”.

The suit, a Med-Eng EOD 9, is a massive explosive defense garment, weighing in at 85 – 100 pounds. There are some REALLY NICE PICTURES HERE from a display at the Arclight. While it serves as good protection for someone face-to-face with a bomb, its armor is not infallible. If you are too close to an exploding bomb, you will be obliterated, one way or another. Not giving anything away, just saying. The suit may look impressive, but faced with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) now so commonplace in war zones, “the suit” is just a first-defense against an ever escalating physical threat.

The suit becomes a metaphor for emotional protection as well. SSgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner) has successfully defused over 850 bombs in his career. He wears “the suit” to protect him from danger; it puts a physical distance and barrier between him and the treacherous object. He keeps a box of salvaged bomb parts under his bed, along with his wedding ring (“things that almost killed me”). The box is a metaphor for his personal “hurt locker”, this painful time and space in his life where “the suit” is the only way he knows to deal with the horror he has encountered.

This is a very powerful film. I can’t recommend it enough. Living in the insular, comfortable world of the big city, we can’t imagine what our men and women in uniform experience while engaged in war. We can’t possibly. The Hurt Locker puts a human face on the war – granted, these are people working in a very dramatic, stressful job sector, but nothing about serving your country in wartime is casual or nonchalant. After watching this film, I want to become pen pals with a soldier, or find some way to support our troops on an individual and personal level. If any of you have ideas about how this might be achieved, please leave a comment – I would love to help spread the word.

Another thing – the sound editing was fabulous. Weird, I know. But totally true. Here is a very nice article about the editing of the film (which was also brilliant). I honestly think that this film could easily, handily pick up technical awards for sound editing. I seldom notice good sound editing, but in this film, it was crucial. They did a fantastic job. Also notable – the soundtrack, especially the use of some of Ministry’s songs. Fabulous.

And finally – let’s just give a big shout out to Kathryn Bigelow (yes, a woman!) for directing this compelling film. These characters are so sensitively drawn within their macho, testosterone-fueled world. This film is a staggering achievement, and I think it will serve as a landmark piece about the Iraq war. The fact that it was made by a woman is a great point of pride for all of us women who work in the film industry. It was an immensely satisfying movie in terms of its narrative (story), filmmaking style (especially the cinematography), and its thematic import. Well done, and good on you!

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season. Please drive safely and try to enjoy some relaxing moments in front of the big silver screen. I have a special new year’s treat for you – Chris from Clothes on Film and I will be doing another “dueling banjos” review of an all-tome classic! Stand by for more, kids!

Happy Holidays!!


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