Thursday, July 29, 2010

Inception, Part II: The Bad, and then some more Good

In part I below, I set out to discuss the good aspects of Inception, but then realized that I only discussed one good aspect of it and failed to hit on some of the finer points that warrant praise.  So after I discuss what I didn’t like, I’ll compliment sandwich the film, ending on some good notes. 

I’m not sure whether or not this was intentional, but the only character in the film that had more than one dimension was Dom Cobb, the main character (although it’s arguable that Mal, his wife, had more than one dimension, we only really see one side of her since she is a projection of Dom’s subconscious).  All of the other characters seem to fill the screen like some sort of Hollywood paint-by-numbers: the sidekick who questions the main character’s ability to not let his personal life get in the way, the young protégé who asks all the questions, and of course, the token foreigner in charge of the mystic sedatives.  This would have been fine if we actually got to explore their characters a little further, but as it stands they end up being no more than set props to help play out the narrative. 

A lot of reviews are raving about Hanz Zimmer’s score, and yes, it is really good.  However, another problem I have is not with the score itself, but how it is used.  As in The Dark Knight, Nolan doesn’t take a break from the score for the entire third act of the film, slowly building its crescendo throughout, so that by the end all we get are 20 minutes worth of thunderous trombones.  Like I said, the score is good but I’m not really sure why it had to be used in this way. 

As with many movies, there is a personal aspect to the equation, and I will fully admit that 10% of any of my problems with this film can be attributed to that.

See, if I had to come up with a top-5 list for reasons I got into film, Chris Nolan’s Memento would unquestionably be on the list.  I remember thinking the first time I watched that film at age 16 how original and new it seemed to me; and that if movies like that could be made, then the possibilities for artistry in the film medium were endless. 

To me, his success with The Dark Knight and now Inception can be likened to a band that you liked before any of your friends knew about them—maybe their first album was raw, but the music was personal to you because of the band’s relative anonymity.  Once the band got popular, produced a polished-studio album, and had their hits played all over the radio, you still enjoyed the music but it was a totally different experience.  The romance was somehow sucked out of it.  Well, it’s difficult for me to not feel this way about Nolan.  I obviously enjoy his recent films, but part of me wishes that at some point he’d trade in a Hollywood blockbuster in for a scaled back character-driven piece—that he’d summon his inner Hitchcock instead of his inner Spielberg.  Maybe it’s the film-snob in me, but I believe that’s where his A+ talents lie.  Surely he’s got something as good as Memento up his sleeve, right?  I guess the good news is that either way, he’s made seven films now and there’s not a dud in the bunch, so even if he sticks with the Hollywood-esque grandiose films, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to see a great film with him at the helm.

Some more good that I didn’t hit on: the acting is superb (although I wish Ken Wantanabe would learn to speak English a bit better).  I wouldn’t call this a career performance for Leo, but he definitely carries the film effortlessly.  Joseph Gordon Levitt gives us a side that we haven’t seen of him yet in his role, and I’m very excited to see where his career will go after the success of this and 500 Days of Summer.  I also really enjoyed Tom Hardy in his role, as well as Cillian Murphy as the “target” of the Inception.  Given that the characters weren’t extremely well-written, I was impressed.  As I said earlier, the score was great and added the necessary tension.  The aesthetics of the film were obviously amazing: production design, cinematography, costumes and even make-up were all really well-done.  Nolan tends to work with the same people over and over in these areas (including actors) and it is clear that they have become a well-oiled machine. 

Full disclosure: I have no idea how to end this post.  This and my last posts are unequivocally the most difficult and frustrating posts I’ve worked on since starting up this blog.  There are so many elements and angles to explore, and there is simply no coherent way that I can put it together.  I suck.  The magnitude of Inception is almost too much for even a real film critic to get a handle on, much less mainstream audiences and wannabe bloggers. 

And maybe that, above anything, should tell you all you really need to know about 2010’s Inception. 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception, Part I: The Good

A few weeks ago I wrote a (very) tongue-in-cheek post about how I wanted to become the biggest Inception fanboy of all time.  Now, after seeing the zealous response of the critics and masses to the film, spending some time on IMDb forums, and being a firsthand witness to the complete euphoria of every (repeat: every) 19-year old male computer-geek in Cupertino, CA at the midnight IMAX premiere of the film, I realize there is just no humanly way that would have been possible for me, even if I was dead serious in that endeavor.  The hype for this film, both pre and post-release, has to rival just about any original (i.e., not Twilight or Harry Potter) film ever, including last winter’s AVATAR

In that post, I was being serious when I stated that we, as movie-goers, deserve to be wowed every once in a while—that for every 50 Leap Year’s, Sex and the City 2’s, Marmaduke’s, and Saw #7’s that we belabor through, there is at least one Gladiator, The Departed, or The Dark Knight that we can hang our hat on—a blockbuster that entertains, thrills, and invokes a sense of wonder, and (gulp) is  well-made.   And on that note, the summer of 2010 was kind enough to give us Inception, which succeeds mightily on that front. 

In part I here, I’ll discuss the good.  I give the film a solid 8/10, though I’m open to bumping that up on a second watch. The magnitude of the story is too much to digest in the first viewing, even for the smartest people (i.e., not me).  I will not attempt to delineate any of the logistics involved with the film in this post, but for a great analysis of the different layers of the dreams, rules associated with the dream-world and such, check out my buddy Taylor’s IMDb post.  Anyway, Christopher Nolan goes back to an old stand-by theme used in some of his earlier work (Memento & The Prestige (and Following for the most fervent of Nolan snobs)): Reality vs. Perception.  Obviously, Nolan conveys this motif through the various layers of dream scenarios in this film, and plays with the characters and audience in this epic ping-pong match between what is real and what is not, up until the very end.  Dom Cobb’s entire existence revolves around straddling this line, as he manipulates the dreams of others in order to influence their reality.  Unfortunately for him, the ability to do this to others enables him to manipulate himself, and make no mistake: that is what the film is about—to what degree has Dom Cobb manipulated his own reality? 

The fact that a summer movie can give us something that big to chew on gives me hope for mankind.  The fact that it can be done in such an entertaining, cerebral, action-packed, well written, logistically genius and mind-bending film that is 2 ½ hours long is nothing short of spectacular.  Is Christopher Nolan the next Hitchcock or Kubrick?  Maybe not…yet.  But did he give me everything I could possibly want in a summer blockbuster?  Yes, yes, and yes. 

See Part II for the Bad, and then some more Good.  

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Brief, Humorous Word on Art: Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)

“Are we art?  Is art art?”

These are the musing questions of one Lisa Turtle of Saved by the Bell as she tries to woo the new student at school; a young stud who also happens to be quite the brainiac and egotistical art-snob, much to Lisa and the gang’s dismay.   As such, Lisa transforms her Beverly Hills teen-fashionista image into something she believes he would appreciate, and strikes up a phony conversation on these pretenses in order to reel him in.  Her scheme works; but as 90’s-teen sitcoms would have it, she soon realizes how stuck up said young stud is for not liking or appreciating the “real” Lisa. 

As is my pattern, when contemplating life’s greatest mysteries over a cigar at 1:00 in the morning, it always comes back to Saved by the Bell.

Today I caught a magnificent documentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop, at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco while on vacation (yep, had to throw that in there).  It is an original in so many ways that I’m not even sure where to begin.  It is the first documentary-heist I have ever heard of: basically, the film’s subject, Banksy—a famous British street artist (see: graffiti) turns his own documentary back around on the filmmaker—a wannabe street artist with a camera; and the end result is a humorous, satirical contemplation about what art is, how our society interprets art, and what makes one an artist. 

I know many of my readers don’t have many documentaries saved on their netflix queue, or typically seek them out on their Friday-night Redbox visits.  Nor do I.  But let me make myself clear: if you appreciate art, or appreciate making fun of people who take art too seriously, or appreciate irony in general, or would enjoy watching someone make a complete idiot out of themselves for 90 minutes, then you should not miss this film.  I wrote in my earlier post this week (in bragging fashion) that I would not be interested in spending 2+ hours on a post since I am vacationing in California at the moment.   Well, seeing this movie made me reconsider that obtuse statement. 

In today’s web-based society, we are all artists.  We live in a meritocracy.  Post a funny facebook status, you’ll get several “likes” and comments.  Tweet something funny on twitter, you’ll get many followers and retweets that will likely go global.  Post a video of yourself doing something ridiculous on Youtube, and you’re an instant celebrity, and, (looking at myself here) start a movie blog and advertise it to your friends, and you’ll get a few hundred hits.  We are all “artists” and the world is our judge.  But are we really making art?  That is the question that this movie answers, with a resounding “Maybe, maybe not, but it is what it freakin’ is,” as the film’s subject rips off a few ideas, gets the right promotions from the right people, puts on a massive exhibit and sells millions of dollars worth of “art” to the general public that has no idea how badly they just got duped. 

Is art art?  Maybe Saved by the Bell was on to something...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

16 For the Road: The Past Two Weeks in Movies

I don’t usually make lazy posts like this, but a) I’m in friggin’ Half Moon Bay, CA, and it truly does not interest me in the least to spend two hours on a post right now, and b) I’ve seen so many movies over the past two weeks that it would be extremely difficult to whittle it down to one thing to discuss.  But I did want to remind everyone of what a freak I am, knocking out 16 films over 12 days or so while I was a bachelor.  Man I really lived it up, didn’t I?  Here's a general rundown for you:

Becket (1964): 8/10.  Peter O’Toole + Richard Burton = Incredibly well-acted film.

Metropolis (1927)8.5/10.  Heralded as a classic, this silent film by German director Fritz Lang is eerie and beautiful, and is deservedly credited for heavily influencing the sci-fi genre. 

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009): 7.5/10.  This Argentinean crime drama won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this year.  It was a very entertaining movie but Un Prophete (2009) was much better. 

Toy Story 3 (2010): 8.5/10.  I really hope everyone’s seen this by now.  Pixar continues its streak of greatness. 

The Searchers (1956): 6/10.  My mom will kill me for this, but I really didn’t think this movie is all it’s cracked up to be.  In 2007 AFI ranked it as #12 all-time…don’t really see it.  The story is entertaining but John Wayne is playing John Wayne as he always does, and the acting in general is unbelievably wooden. 

Seraphine (2009): 8.5/10.  This French film went completely under the radar for me last year.  It’s the story of the French artist by the same name who was discovered by her master while she was his house-maid in WWI-era France.  The lead performance is spectacular and the direction and photography are mesmerizing. 

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009): 6/10.  Weird as always with director Terry Gilliam.  Heath Ledger gives a worthy last performance. 

Edge of Darkness (2010): 5/10.  Mel Gibson’s latest film had a lot of potential but was forgettable and formulaic. 

Winter’s Bone (2010): 9/10.  I already gave it my glowing review here (post below).  Best movie I have seen so far this year, narrowly edging Toy Story 3. 

Tetro (2009): 5.5/10.  Francis Ford Coppola (director of “The Godfather”, et al.) made his comeback with this film in 2009 about long-lost brothers who reunite in Argentina.  Once again, this film had tons of potential but the acting and script were so awkward and clunky at points that it was almost embarrassing.  Sad to waste what otherwise was a visually beautiful and well-shot film. 

The Piano (1993): 7.5/10.  Really beautiful film that I’ve somehow missed until now.  The musical score is stunning and probably makes my top-5 all time scores.  Didn’t really like Holly Hunter in the lead role, otherwise this would probably be higher than a 7.5/10.

The Damned United (2009): 8/10.  THIS is what sports movies should aspire to be like.  It follows soccer manager Brian Clough of British team Leeds United in the 1970’s-80’s.  Extremely entertaining and Michael Sheen gives a very compelling lead performance. 

Seven Pounds (2008): 7/10.  This seemed to be a love/hate movie for a lot of people.  I didn’t love it or hate it but I think I enjoyed it more than most.  Will Smith is hard to resist. 

Invictus (2009): 6/10.  Juxtaposing The Damned United (above) in the sports-film category is this underwhelming Clint Eastwood-directed film about Nelson Mandella and the South Africa national Rugby team.  Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman give *decent* performances and make it better than it otherwise would have been, but the film is basically just a big pile of mush. 

Michael Clayton (2007): 9/10.  This is my 4th time to watch this…it gets better and better every time.  One of my favorites of 2007 which was a strong year for film. 

Zombieland (2009): 7.5/10.  One of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a while (2nd time to see it for me).  The Bill Murray cameo is just classic.