Love: INCEPTION

July 17, 2010

First a non spoiler review:

INCEPTION may be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Now, this is just a first reaction mind you, but I saw the midnight show last night and I felt this way the second I walked out of the theater.  I was on an emotional and intellectual high… It has continued all day long.

Important things to know:  I am not a “Nolan Guy.” I very much like THE DARK KNIGHT and found it to be entertaining and interesting. I only like a few parts of BATMAN BEGINS. I thought MEMENTO was rather clever, but not too much else. I thought INSOMNIA was a step backward from there. My favorite Nolan film is actually THE PRESTIGE because it’s a straightforward puzzle that relied on laying actually clues in the groundwork rather than being an nonsensical stupid “twist movie.” I hate the nonsensical twist (unlike the logical twist, which is a wonderful thing when done right) and thankfully Nolan seems to hate the nonsensical twist as well. For this alone I will always appreciate Nolan in some way. But while I embrace the intellectual puzzle-building nature of his work I think he too often slides into unemotional arcs and formalism over content.

So please understand, this is the opinion of someone who is not predisposed to gush.

INCEPTION satisfies on all levels.

First off, it is an enthralling heist film. I honestly cannot remember a movie where I was on the edge of my seat so long let alone the entire last hour and 45 minutes. The tension is immense and every time you think it has to let up, it manages to go deeper down the rabbit hole.  One of the things I loved about the film is that it’s actually pretty straight forward. Everything is perfectly explained so you’re rarely wondering “what’s going on.” (The key is just not to miss anything. If you don’t know what’s going on, you missed something and it’s your fault. I realize this sounds really esoteric, but the entire film takes its time to set up it’s layers and be deliberate… so really there’s no excuse). In this regard, from pure entertainment standpoint, it is one of the best popcorn movies I’ve ever seen.

But it’s not just a popcorn movie is it? Secondly, INCEPTION is incredibly satisfying on an intellectual level and not just in the typical Nolan puzzle sense. There’s honest to god thematics going on here. Ones that aren’t hammered over and over again like THE PRESTIGE and its issues of control, but ones that run the gamut: love, marriage, death, father issues, propagation, and the nature of reality. The film is about the rich textures psychoanalysis. These themes are not window dressing either but somehow the driving force of the film.

You see, INCEPTION manages to use psychoanalysis as actual plot points. How a character feels, their catharsis, their arcs, their emotional states… these are god damn macguffins folks. It’s sounds like it would be obtuse, but it’s so seemless and not clunky. It’s dramatic, emotional, real, and damn suspenseful. I honestly cannot believe that a movie managed to achieve all this.

In a way, Nolan has finally managed to “go emotional.” He has turned the soft-hearted and tender emotions of repression into the engine for one of his brilliant narratives. I said that he always has problems with formalism over content, but what if the formalism is the content? The action of  INCEPTION not only reinforces the arc, it is an arc.

The performances are stellar across the board. Dicaprio delivers his best work to date. I very much like his performance in THE DEPARTED, but that role is mostly a sort of one-dimensional projection of paranoia, angst, and affectation. His role in INCEPTION, meanwhile, is the most rounded and interesting one we’ve gotten from Nolan yet. His character motives are so emotional and what at first seems slightly one note, is revealed to be so textured and beautiful. I couldn’t believe it. Much of this is due to the enchanting and haunting work of Marion Cotiallard who provides such weight and organic tone. She is the absolute crux of his arc. But against her, Dicaprio toes the line between focused and unhinged so beautifully. He really the perfect carrion for the film’s lead character.

The rest of the cast isn’t given the same showcase, but Nolan does a wonderful job of giving them little moments, glimpses even to reveal their characters and motivations.  Joseph Gordon Levitt is fantastic; one of the smoothest badasses we’ve seen on screen in a while. Have we forgotten about making characters like this? Badasses that aren’t “bad” in any sense, but smooth operators who astound us. I’m hoping this film elevates his profile out of the indie scene because he has the potential to be amazing. Especially, because he easily delivers in one of the most thrilling scenes I have ever seen. Ellen Page provides a real emotional anchor for the film by grounding Dicaprio’s character and operating as the audience surrogate in the film’s first half.  Tom Hardy, fresh of his tour de force in BRONSON, gets to shine as the most vivacious and theatrical character of the group (but of course, this is Nolan so never, ever does it even approach anything camp or unrealistic feeling). At this point it seems like I’m just trying to name everyone in the film, but I have to mention Cillian Murphy who does a somewhat thankless job so beautifully. Really, his emotional work and inner turmoil is the engine of the entire film; meaning without his performance, the film doesn’t work. And of course Michael Caine lends his perfect skills of being fatherly Michael Caine.

There have been three times where I have sat down and watched something and realized “In my entire life, I will never ever be able to do something anywhere near as good as this.” It’s depressing in a small way, but largely you’re awed by the work you’ve witnessed.

The first time for me was ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. In someways it feels like the off-beat comedic version of this same film and that Gondry-Kauffman cinematic marriage was the best film of that decade.  The second time for me was THE WIRE, whose depth and novelistic tapestry was the perfect amalgamation of profoundity, characterization, and plotting.

The third time was INCEPTION. The film is a big budget brilliant idea, perfectly executed. I am literally in awe of it.

INCEPTION is a flat out masterpiece.

And now….

Point by Point Spoiler Review:

-The hotel hallway fight scene…. Unreal. My biggest bone to pick with Nolan is he often films his action poorly (his best being the joker’s chase of the armored car). But this was absolutely hands down one of the best filmed action scenes I have ever seen. Nevermind the fact that he has merely pulled back the camera, but the movement is fluid and well-defined, not to mention that the action itself completely totally jaw dropping.

-How badass was Joseph Gordon Levitt in that hotel scene? Just unreal. So freaking good. I can’t stop gushing about it.

-Cillian Murphy’s arc and the moment of “inception” was so spectacularly well done. They way they built the layers falls exactly in line with what we know about psychoanalysis. And it managed to be emotional in a way that I never thought Nolan could be (he certainly had to dress it up though didn’t he?) Brilliant. Goddamn brilliant.

-The entire Marion Cotillard relationship was haunting and the end reveal was so surprisingly cathartic. It’s the kind of reveal that doesn’t make you go “huh!? What!?” but instead makes you go “YES! THAT MAKES PERFECT SENSE!” and helps explain the motivations of the movie. Just brilliant.

-Some people see the ending moment as a mind-fuck and tease. I strongly do not agree. On one hand the fact that the fact that the spinning wheel even falters a bit is indication that it is very much real so we can give up on feeling like “none of it mattered it was all fake!” And more importantly it doesn’t matter, Nolan’s deliberate choice to cut is not a tease or a forced withholding, but a brilliant way of telling us to embrace the ambiguity (and not in that shitty didactic LOST way either). And what’s more it’s a brilliant little wink. Want to know why that last layer is “not” real?

Nolan’s acknowledging that INCEPTION isn’t really because it’s a damn movie.

A little meta, but how is that not perfect?

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Like & Don’t Like: AVATAR and Mr. Cameron

December 18, 2009

What makes a movie a good?  It’s a straightforward question with a surprisingly straightforward answer: whatever you think makes it good.

Over the last few years I’ve come to the full realization that my extensive film school background has amounted to little when it comes to deciphering what makes something “good” on the popular level. We like to think that the opinion of someone who has seen thousands of different kinds of movies somehow accounts for a more qualified opinion, but this is truly not the case. Sure, it may provide someone with the ability to articulate their opinions and provide a historical or cultural context for their statements…  but really it makes no difference, as the court of public opinion always wins in the end. Thus there is a kind of acceptance needed when making a statement that you believe to be true, but fully recognizing that it’s nothing more than like, your opinion man. So here’s an opinion:

I don’t think James Cameron makes good movies. So there.

Oh don’t get me wrong, he’s a hell of a technical filmmaker. I’m not just regurgitating the popular rhetoric you see everywhere. This is going off all that “trained opinion” nonsense mentioned above. The guy simply “gets” cinematography. He knows how to line up the camera subject with enough spacing for the eye to process the movement. And he’s THE great editor of big budget action films (1, this is a really good footnote). With those two abilities he stages some of the best action I’ve ever seen on screen. Not in WHAT necessarily happens, but instead HOW it happens. I also greatly admire his commitment to creating full, tangible worlds and staying true to his vision. He is never half assing it and you can always be assured that movie goers get their money’s worth. This is to be admired. But as I have just lauded him with superlatives, we must always consider the whole filmmaker if we are going to speak to his merits. These are just aspects of his proverbial “game” and can in no way assure a singular, fully-formed piece of goodness from anything he does.

For example, he cannot write a screenplay. This is fine. A lot of great directors can’t do it. Spielberg never could and the dude is considered the best. Tim Burton famously insists that he has no idea what makes a good script. The problem is that Cameron thinks that he can write a screenplay. And proceeds to do so stubbornly.

It really is a shame that Cameron seems to have the brain of 12 year old. Sure, he’s a really smart 12 year old who is super-duper into perfectionism and computers and stuff, but all his films operate on in extremely juvenile plane of interest. And if you’ve ever heard anything about him as a person he’s operating on a 12 year old social level too.

So let’s actually get into AVATAR in relation to this topic. Having just seen the movie earlier yesterday, the thing that sticks out most in my head is how all the characters often swear in the silliest, 5-th grader like mentality. Really. The swears are the absolutely point of each line when they are uttered. They’re the joke. For example say there’s a big reveal and a pause: “Oh SHIT” or during a fight scene our witty dialogue is “take this BITCH!” The words are capatilized cause ever actor is so emphasizing these swear words that’s it’s like they’re delighted by their guts to swear. That’s because that’s exactly what Cameron is doing. It’s a PG13 movie and he’s using these swears in such a juvenile and silly manner that the entire theater was eye rolling  and groaning. I also fully recognize that these moments are completely harmless, but it’s just so prevalent and on the nose that you can’t help but get the full window into Cameron’s mind… the guy has a 12 year old ‘s sensibility to swearing.
He also has a 12 year old sensibility when it comes to military ideology, politics, ecology, and socialization. Sure that super advanced 12 year old brain converts these things into logical setups complete with a fully realized set proper nouns for his movie, but that doesn’t change that this is the most obtuse kind of rhetoric and analysis. The entire construct of the plot is the most in-your-face allegory of American imperialism I have ever seen. The details are hilarious: a precious resource, “unobtainium.” A earth goddess who you can actually hear through trees. References to modern warfare tactics that are literally thrown in to hammer home the Imperialism comparison (but in hilarious fashion, are the complete wrong use of those words). And make no mistake about this “original” story, it’s just Dances with Wolves in space. I’m talking beat for beat the same movie with 3rd act battle thrown in. Hell, throw in some Star Wars, Dune, and vast array of other films to be grossly aped and you have AVATAR. And let us not forget the short story he absolutely and totally ripped off :

Seriously, you got to see this cover:

http://www.chud.com/articles/articles/21297/1/WHAT039S-THE-LATEST-CLASSIC-SCIFI-CAMERON-RIPPED-OFF/Page1.html

Beyond that there is the fact that every single character in the film is the most broad and ridiculous stereotype possible. And no, not in a scenery-chewing, fun and self aware meta way that guys like Cronenberg and the Coens are absolute masters of. This is Cameron. And his characters will be willfully fucking obtuse. The general is absolutely insane, invasion-happy beefcake. The head scientist is stuck-up, military-hating, granola tree hugger. The guy in charge of it all is an aspergian dickhead who only wants his profits and to get at the precious resource beneath the Na’Vi’s home (not to mention work on his putting game… ugh). The girl Na’Vi who connects with the earth is nothing more than the infamous Noble Savage stereotype. And our main character, the jarhead marine, is nothing but the uneducated white man, who must learn the ways of the lesser people and connect back with the world. Now, all these stereotypes could be just fine for the movie. Actually, you use those five stereotypes and you’ve got all your angles, themes, and conflicts covered so that might not be a problem at all. You got your base. You just have to find away to make it organic.

Cameron don’t do organic. Nope. This is balls out broad. The idea of badassery. It’s all posing and posturing. Like 12 year old suburban kids starting “gangs” or that weird thing Japanese teens do where they literally pose to look cool. This is the cinematic equivalent of whatever the hell that is. And it’s laid on thick. This is cartoon villainy and college freshman idealism. And it kills the movie. (2)

So okay, we have some broad 12 year old dumbness. So what? Lots of films do that and are embraced by millions.

True. I’ll take Cameron’s logical filmmaking and epic scope any day over the parade of nonsensical trash and litany of directors who simply seem to have no interest in making good movies… but not by all that much.

The central problem is that Cameron makes these big action movies as if they’re actually prestige pictures. As if he’s making the singular profound statements for all man kind. Really, it’s just soaking in that kind of hubris. Once again, coupled with his real life obnoxious persona you start to get the idea of just what Cameron is all about. It’s all up there on screen, readily apparent. This is the stuff of the inane.

So obviously, I didn’t like AVATAR, right?

Actually, I kind of enjoyed it.

Devin Faraci over at CHUD, who evaluated the movie in far better terms than I have, made the excellent point that your ability to enjoy AVATAR fully depends on you ability to get into the designs. It sounds like a strange comment but it’s wholly accurate. The film takes a turn after the first act and essentially becomes a world viewing sequence where the viewer is brought along on a 40-60 minute tour of Pandora.  And unlike Devin, who was not able to get into the design of the creatures, I eventually went along with it. And when this all happens, the film soars.

I should note that this is largely due to the 3-D, which works amazingly well. It gives Pandora a real sense of depth and texture. You not really emoting FOR the actors or anything, but you’re emoting with them as they emote with Pandora too (you can surmise this works best because Cameron is in love with the world he created as well, and it shows). In particular, the first flying sequence with those pterodactyl thingies I found to be the most exhilarating part of the movie. This whole chunk of the film is enough of a cinematic experience for me to recommend it to anyone.  It just works.

But eventually this too must pass and the film heads into heartbreak mode/final battle sequence. Of course that’s when the wheels fall off. Not for any good reason either. This was always what was going to happen and you knew it was coming. Hell you can predict every single moment of this movie beat for beat, but that’s okay.  The real reason the wheels fall off is you realize you just spent the last hour on the cinematic equivalent of a nature walk and there was no actual story to begin with. Thus the climactic battle is taking place and I’m sitting there not caring if anyone lives or dies. This is not my usual modus operandi either. I’m an empathetic motherfucker when it comes to my movie protagonists. I actually found it a little distressing: “I was just enjoying these two and now I don’t care?”  Really, there was just nothing there to begin with.

Just hollowed out tropes and clichés desperately hanging onto the sublime skill of action filmmaking on display. It all looks fantastic. I just didn’t care.

To wit, if there was one word I would use to sum up this “game-changing” “action epic” called AVATAR, the word would be… pretty.

It is a very pretty movie. Which might be considered highly insulting to a movie that is trying desperately to be so much more. But it doesn’t have a single idea of how to transcend its base qualities or indulge in nuance.

And no, I’m NOT saying I need my big action movies to have Merchant Ivory level subtext or anything. I’m just saying they need something that transcends the basic archetypes into something resembling good movie entertainment. Like Ironman’s delightful sense of humor and organic characters. Like The Dark Knight’s moral complexity and stunning performances. Like The Lord of the Rings sense of balance and scope. Even Star Wars works because Harrison ford just kills it as Han Solo. These were all popular, epic-feeling movies that used certain strong qualities to move past the archetype and become a good movie for the popular consensus.

And with AVATAR, the prettiness, world-building, and actioneering almost get it there. But Cameron just relishes too much in the Archetype.

Almost.

Footnotes

(1) Let us speak for a moment about what editing truly is: there’s a popular notion that good editing is when you notice really good cuts and stylizations and juxtapositions. This notion fully feeds into that awards season it’s not “Best picture” or “Best acting” or “Best editing”, but instead “Most picture” “Most acting” and “MOST editing”. That’s why the Bourne films always win. Because it’s the only tangible thing an untrained eye can gravitate toward. And that’s totally understandable. The paradox is that great editing is truly invisible. Cuts in action that blend so seamlessly it feels like a perfect flow.  This is especially significant in action films. And Cameron and his rotating cast of editors are masters of the invisible cut (the rotating cast means that’s it’s really just Cameron doing most of this stuff).

(2) I should at least point out that I thought Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana did their fricken damndest to make it all work. In fact I thought they were both rather good in their roles (extensive mo-cap and animation to boot). But there’s just no saving the inanity of it all.

ADDENDUM

A) I always argue that the reason Titanic was so beloved was because (obviously) it was the perfect storm for girls and (not so obviously) because the music of that film is so amazingly beautiful that you simply had to swoon with it. The music was what transcended that movie from being a horribly forced allegory of class struggle and tragic romance into a movie that actually had some legs to stand on. There is a reason that soundtrack went on to become more iconic and referenced than that actual film, which was sort of just a moment in time.

B)Mr. Beaks over at AICN made an interesting note that even with all the problems with the movie, the cinematic world still needs Cameron.  And they need him to be successful. The need guys like him and Spielberg to go huge, push technical boundaries, and stretch budgets. And I think I agree, but it is an uneasy bargain for me.

C) Reader Kevin linked a positively great article in the comments section below about Cameron written by David Foster Wallace. Everything he says about T2 and the approaching Titanic, can completely be said for AVATAR. http://www.theknowe.net/dfwfiles/pdfs/Wallace-FX_Porn.pdf


Like: District 9

August 24, 2009

So I’ve missed the last few weekends of movies and am going back to furiously catch up.

Starting with District 9, which is astoundingly good.

I’m not sure I can add anything to discussion, people seem to love the serious sci-fi angle on this this (relatively) low budget and rather unlikely blockbuster.

But I just found it to be doing so many interesting things so let’s go to bullet form:

-This is the best CGI I’ve ever seen. Hands down. The close ups of the bugs are photoreal. You’d swear they were prosthetic or practical effects, but nope. CGI. James Cameron should be ashamed of himself, spending 450 million to make “photoreal” cgi and instead his Na’vi from Avatar look like damn cartoons. He was utterly bested by a south african filmmaker with 30 millions dollars and hell of a lot more smarts. So how did this guy do it? Care, mostly. Rely on less CGI shots, spend more time on them, opt for a non-glamorous shooting style, go for an alien design that caters much better to CGI (ie bugs), and it helps to have WETA on your side, who in my mind is easily the best effects studio working today.

-Lots of great tone jumping. You don’t really notice it like you would in other films, but by keeping the docu-like form and cinematography the filmmakers afford themselves the ability to jump tones, and even narrative to a degree, all while keeping a cohesive singular movie. It’s just so exceptionally well done and I don’t really think people realize how vibrant and stark the sense of humor is in some of the scenes (the prawns living habits, the main prawn father/son interactions). Like I said the whole docu vibe affords them a lot of leeway. Just a brilliant move.

-Speaking of the “Shaky” cinematography, THIS is how you do it (Booooo Cloverfield). They know just exactly how to hold the camera with a slightly wider shot and focus in when focusing is important (it only gets real shaky with intentional bumps). Just lights out work, and believe me they worked on this over and over again until they got it right. Loved it.

-Lots of great violence. I’m not some guy who just sees movies like this for it’s action, but boy oh boy can a appreciate a film when it does it well. Blowing people up doesn’t have to be some mindless actioneering, but instead can be a cinematic, visceral and even cathartic film experience.  Like a pro, Blomkamp holds off most of this til the end and unleashes such a great last few acts.

-This movie has a lot in common with Starship Troopers (also just a great movie. I’m not kidding, the cartoony stuff just plays perfectly in that film. Verhoeven’s no dummy). D-9’s not going for the same satire angle, but there’s a lot of the same kinds of things being said about war mentalities, the “other”, etc.

-The movie somehow has just the right amount of sweetness too.

-Particularly loved the opening detail on their malnourishment as explanation, does so much explaining in a simple detail.

-Having Sharlto Copely, who plays the main guy Wikus, just absolutely NAIL the role has to help you out. It seriously wasn’t until this exact moment that I realized he was acting against nothing and completely sold his relationship with the main bug. It blows my mind. I seriously didn’t even think about it til right now… whoa… I had been thinking about his character arc and how he sold his development. Which is what you really should be thinking about and not the CGI. Just brilliant.

-As a historical lover of first person shooters, I could appreciate all the great inventive weapons in this. Fun stuff.

-That’s good for now I think. I really liked this well executed, and thoughtful movie. Sure the concepts at play aren’t exactly rocket science, but they sure aren’t banal and they used a valid sense of maturity and tact in dealing with them. Which is a HELL of a lot more you can say than most summer movies.

-Peter Jackson found a winner.

PS – A basterds blurb coming soon


Don’t Understand: That somehow STAR TREK is now cooler than STAR WARS

May 8, 2009

If you told that to me in pre-may 1999, I would have laughed in your face. Star Wars was awesome. I was playing top of the line lucas arts video games. The first prequel was coming out. There was nothing shameful about being supportive fan of the series, mostly because it was/is an absolute giant fan base. All was good. Meanwhile, Star Trek had, and prior to this year, been languishing in the murks of boredom. The movies flamed out. Everything post Original Series was overtly serious and amazingly dull. The casual fans had been sidled off because of grave disinterest. Being a big “trekkie” was not exactly a badge of honor.

Then The Phantom Menace Came out. The rest of the prequels. You could convince yourself they were entertaining, but the truth is they were mostly shite. And having some sort of allegiance and love of those prequels was asinine. The non-rational part of me believes that George Lucas was really trying to make a generation get over their Star Wars hangups. The rational part, of course dismisses that. Star Wars is a relative joke now. I still have some affinity for the original triology of course, but the whole universe is no longer sacred stuff.

So I saw Star Trek (2009) last night. It was a long gestating reboot and supposed to be something that was alluring to mass audiences and still satifactory to the fan base who remained loyal through over a decade of crap. And truth be told, the film is great. Tons of fun. Big. Bombastic. The cast was fantastic. JJ Abrams directs the hell out of this thing. The script is trash, but might be the real first ever case of successfully polishing a turd to the point of alchemy.

By the time the credits roll I couldn’t help but be anxious, as I wanted to see their next adventure.

There is no better compliment.


Like: This Awesome Sleeping Bag

April 3, 2009

In the interest of stealing a joke, “I want to go to there”

Via Me-Fi.

http://www.thinkgeek.com/stuff/41/tauntaun.html