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Inception: A Matter Of Perception?
I feel that this was a film filled with big smart ideas that could have easily confused (and subsequently bored) audiences, but Nolan found a way to present visual interpretations of those ideas, as action set pieces using common film language, so that without dumbing it down, I don't think anyone who paid attention left the theater saying, "I just didn't get it". There is actually fairly little ambiguity, except for a "did it or didn't it" ending that is endlessly debatable but ultimately unknowable. While it's true that the beginning of the film is a bit clunky and free-form, once the ticking clock devices are put into play, it settles down into a can't-look-away pace. I felt that they blew certain chances for "wow" reveal moments right at the beginning, and then blew certain chances for emotional pathos at the end, but overall it was thoroughly entertaining and engrossing. I wasn't wowed, but I can see how the mass audience who probably has never read any Philip K Dick or Joseph Heller would be wowed by something so surreal that they actually GET!
There are a few set pieces that steal the show, most notably a zero-g sequence that showcases Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the most calm, collected, talented and professional of the bunch. In many ways, DiCaprio is actually the least interesting and most predictable character in the film, and certain interpretations of the ending may lead you to believe that he's not even the protagonist. But Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy all turn in roles that deftly defy expected clichés. In fact, the ensemble as a whole works well, as at heart, the most charming thing about the film is that it is basically a caper film. Take away the never-explained macguffin fantasy tech, and it's "The Brinks Job" or "Sneakers". It's not as smart, but it hides that deficiency well behind dreamscapes the likes of which have not been seen since the nightmare worlds of "What Dreams May Come". To say much more would spoil an experience I hope you approach with an open mind, enjoy the mini-Bond-film third act, and let the film have the effect it intends.
For a Nolan project, I don't think this is as clever as "Following", as ambitious as "Memento", as character-driven as "Insomnia", as plot-driven as "The Prestige", nor as overall satisfying as "The Dark Knight". But it's a film that I enjoyed more after it was done and I thought it over. For any film that immediately establishes "do not trust what you are seeing is reality" leaves me always suspicious of that one last head-screw, that final Twilight Zone twist. If you don't expect that, and just see it as a caper film that happens to be set in a dreamworld with very specifically laid out rules and boundaries, it's a good film. But I think people are just going nuts over it because after half an hour they thought they were too dumb for it, and then at the end they patted themselves on the back saying, "hey I actually understood all that!" It's not groundbreaking screen writing, but it is very entertaining screen writing, and I for one was entertained.
But unfortunately at no point did I think to myself, "wow, I never saw that coming!" And it's the type of film that should really be full of those moments, the subject matter is just ripe for it. But as I said before, Nolan keeps the ideas in check, set to a clock and set to specific and over-explained rules, so the outcome is never really in doubt. UNLESS you interpret the ending as something that changes at least one big aspect of what they're all up to. Now that, if made an explicit revelation rather than only an implicit possibility, would have been a wow moment - but again, COMPLETELY predictable.
I really do think people are raving over this because it seems like the kind of thing their film-snob friends are always trying to get them to watch ("Dark City", "Brazil", "Solaris"), but they can't get through the first half-hour. This, they easily understand, and feel all the smarter for it. I'm glad for them, and again, I don't think it was dumbed down, I think it was skillfully crafted to not alienate the masses, and I for one was thoroughly entertained. But really, as far as caper films go, there's me being simply entertained by something like "The Italian Job", and then there's me being both entertained AND feeling my brain being better off for having watched something like "The Sting". This was far more the former than the latter. As far as psychological studies in repression, denial and transference, there's the entertaining "Fisher King" and then there's the shattering and haunting "Jacob's Ladder". This was far more the former than the latter. And finally, as far as fantasy sci-fi brain-blowing films, there's the thoroughly entertaining "Matrix", and then there's the thoroughly entertaining AND brain-shattering "Primer". This was FAR more the former than the latter.
I wouldn't go so far as to say it's the dumb person's smart movie, but I might go as far as to say it's the regular person's genius movie.
"Spider-Man" and "Kill Bill" had a baby and its head popped off!
Last night my combined love of films and comic books finally paid dividends, as I was invited (along with every other comic manager in the Boston area) to attend a press screening of Marv films' "Kick-Ass" (based on Mark Millar & John Romita Jr's Marvel Comics series of the same name), which opens in theaters April 16th. A bold move on the part of Marv, considering they were risking a month of "WERST MOVIE EVERRR!" badmouthing across the entire state. I assure you that will not be a problem.
So first off, should you see this? Definitely. As I told everyone when "Watchmen" was out, if you are a fan of comic books, just go see the movie - if only to add yourself to the communal experience, to join the debate. Everyone's going to be talking about it anyway, don't get left behind. And in this case, I think it will be more universally enjoyed than "Watchmen". Not that it is a "better" film, just a lot more entertaining - it tries for far less, succeeds at what it attempts, and therefore hasn't left itself open to as much scrutiny. Bottom line, this is just a fun romp with clever bits and reassuringly satisfying plot points, that had a bunch of jaded comic geeks roaring with laughter and delight, rooting for the good guys, culminating with applause at the end. Granted, we were seeing it for free, and had nothing invested besides a night we could have otherwise been sitting at home playing Arkham Asylum. But even if discussion later turned to this-or-that subtle difference from the comic, I don't think many were picking apart plot holes or questionable directorial decisions.
Overall, the impression I was left with was that it was a kind of hybrid descendant of "Spider-Man" and "Kill Bill". It has its mundane real-world-kid-deals-with-real-life-situations side, as Peter-Parkerish "nobody" Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) dreams of something more than his boring humdrum teen life. Eventually, like most kids his age, he decides to make an impact on the world by... well, y'know, donning a super-suit and heading out to thwart evil-doers. Just as we're getting used to the idea that of course this won't work and that he'll get his ass kicked every time, he starts learning how to improve his chances, and also that he's not alone in his quest.
Which then brings us to the film's outrageous, over-the-top side, best exemplified by everyone's newest favorite comic book character, "Hit-Girl". Her operatic, homicidal spaghetti-western character is delivered with so much infectious glee that you could feel the entire theater perk up whenever she appeared. The fact that she is played by Chloe Moretz, an actress no older than the "Planetary" comic series, only adds to the overall delightfully ludicrous nature of her character. I'm sure there will be the inevitable stink raised by parental or religious groups, not so much at the well-deserved "R" rating, but at this particular character, a pre-teen Beatrix Kiddo and GoGo Yubari rolled into one.
To wrap up: I think the pacing is exemplary, there really weren't any dead spots for the audience to shift in their seats. Matthew Vaughn's direction neither dazzles nor bores, there is much that is derivative of previous films, but he knows how to build up and pay off an action scene, and there were moments I was sure how a scene was being set up to end, only to be pleasantly surprised at the result. I think my favorite aspect of the film was the use of music, from the use of John Murphy's building epic "Sunshine" and "28 Days Later" themes, to a hilarious "that's just wrong" use of the "Banana Splits" theme. It's possible that with a month to street date, we may have seen some temp music, but I hope not, everything fit perfectly - even Elvis Presley's "America The Beautiful"! The casting works, from the relatively unknown Johnson (whose screen presence in this film is definitely enhanced by how much he looks like Tobey Maguire once he puts the ski mask on), to the quirky haunted Nicolas Cage (who for once forgoes his normal Presley-channeling in favor of some Pure West), to the mostly-British supporting players, made up of bits of cast from Vaughn's previous producing / directing gigs. And for the most part, the teens actually look like teens, not like the 25-year-olds that usually portray teens in film and TV. Christopher Mintz-Plasse (a.k.a. "McLovin'") especially stands out, in a role that sneakily grows into one of the most important and poignant of the film.
I had a blast, I think you will too. I know they've got a month to tinker around with the film, but I for one hope they don't change a frame. I think casual "what's playing tonight" audiences will enjoy an irreverent violent funny action flick, and comic fans will get an extra treat picking out all the comic book references in the background. I really can't imagine anyone anywhere watching "Avatar" had as much fun as we all had last night. I for one will be back, this time with money and peanut M&Ms in hand.
hmmm... I really wanted to like this but it just never really gets off the ground. It really feels like the producers went to the studio with this cool idea and said, "In order to do this right, we'll need 200 million dollars and location shoots all around the world!" To which the studio responded, "Um yeah here's 15 million and you can use this abandoned construction site in Hong Kong." Everyone tries their best, the direction and pacing are entertaining, the acting sound, and I especially enjoyed the use of music in the film - so much that I went looking for a soundtrack only to find none exists. But unfortunately it just doesn't really DO much. For a story featuring integral story elements such as precognition and false memory implants, it really just doesn't deliver on the clever or mind-warping potential therein. Kind of like writing an X-Men story where Professor X and Dark Phoenix have their final showdown... and it's a fistfight in a dark alley.
It stays very small in scope, never getting around to sewing up a lot of fun and thought-provoking story threads, ending up feeling a bit like that "Lord Of The Flies" episode of "The Simpsons" where they don't bother to wrap up the end any better than a voice-over saying "everyone was eventually rescued by, oh let's say Moe". It feels a bit half-baked, as if they ran out of money and time and just couldn't complete the film they set out to do, as with "Lost In Space" or "League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen". Yet no such explanations are to be found on the commentary track, in fact it's a fun, joke-filled audio track with a bunch of people talking about how much fun they had making what is apparently exactly what they intended.
"Jumper" (a film to which this will obviously and inevitably be compared) may have felt like a half-assed TV pilot undeservedly blown up onto the big screen, but unfortunately we now have a FULLY-assed version in "Push". There are of course worse movies out there, but this comes across as something that's in many ways more sinful: the latest in a long line of well-made, well-cast, well-intentioned complete wastes of time.
The Load Of Expository Gibberish, or Lots Of Explosions Guaranteed
For simplicity's sake (and to keep this under 1,000 words) I shall not delve into much comparison to the comic book (go buy it and read it!) - but I must admit that the best moment for me was when the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the opening credit for Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill. Of course, if I had to find a bookending moment, a nadir for that zenith, I'd have to say the worst moment was the audience breaking into a spontaneous groan when they saw the end credit for "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure", from which footage was apparently purchased for use in this film. It's not as depressingly obvious as the borrowed footage in "Impostor", but is there any better evidence that the filmmakers ran out of money and time, and that what we are left with was not what they started out to make?
I often find myself wondering (especially since "Episode One") what the definition of a "film" has become in these days of one-month shooting and one-year post-production. If more time, effort and skill is going into the effects and editing than ever went into the actual filming on sets with actors, where is the creativity taking place? With about 20 seconds of cast credits and 10 minutes of effects crew credits, this film definitely feels like one of the new crop, created wholly in the editing room, utilizing whatever scraps of film they had lying around from this admittedly troubled shoot to fill in the gaps between the effects shots they could easily create in a computer, safe from any meddlesome actors or weather-related Acts Of God. Now, this approach can, in capable hands, lead to some quality films (see "Lord Of The Rings"), but "LXG" more resembled "Lost In Space", "Supernova" and "The Avengers"; films that seemed to be going in an interesting direction until the filmmakers ran out of time and money, ran into studio politics, and had to make do with what they had by the release-date deadline.
There is just far too much expository dialogue, explaining things that they apparently never got around to filming. Picture this: "Star Wars" opens with Threepio and Artoo walking down that corridor, being thrashed about by... well, by the camera shaking... and Threepio is shouting about being attacked and being latched onto by a tractor beam, and etc. etc. etc. Picture only that being the opening to "Star Wars". Only the description, not the amazing opening shot of the star destroyer, nor the cutaway shots of the massive docking bay swallowing up the smaller ship. That's kinda how "LXG" feels at times, that people are sitting around describing stuff that you as a movie-goer would really rather see happen. The middle of the film is especially guilty of this, as we get one long scene where the bad guy explains why he did what he did (via a brilliantly madcap conceit of the director, showing us the villain talking to the camera instead of just a bunch of people sitting around listening to his recorded voice), followed by a big action explosion scene, followed by another long scene in which a League member provides copious (and convenient) amounts of plot-hole-filling. It's not that the ideas presented aren't interesting, it's just that the presentation is very non-cinematic, feeling more like narration or quick summing-up for those who may have missed last week's episode. Of course the problem is that there is often only summing-up, because they are summarizing scenes that were never shot in the first place.
The editing is jumpy as well, often dramatically leading up to something and then cutting away to something else before we get there. As I said, it sometimes feels like these shots with human beings in them are just randomly scattered in as if to justify that it really is a film ("Look! We did shoot film of actors acting!") and not a video game cinematic ("Look! It's yet another beauty shot of the Nautilus swooping by! And another! And another! This time it's from the left! ...Okay look, we're just really proud of this CGI model and we're going to show it off as much as we can, okay?") And the editing during the fight or chase scenes is pure "Daredevil": too fast, too blurry, too much. Michael Bay may have taken the worst bits of John McTiernan and Tony Scott and turned them into entire films, but now it seems as if people like Norrington are taking the worst bits of Michael Bay and turning them into entire (unwatchable) films... The very idea of a "League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen" almost writes itself, and it's a bit depressing to be walking out of the theater realizing that someone took this great idea and buried it under a bunch of explosions and fight scenes.
Despite these faults, I did actually enjoy the film. The characters are inherently interesting (Nemo in particular is a delight to watch), and the actors don't get in the way of that enjoyment. Both Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray are worthy additions to the cast of characters, and each brings something interesting to the story that did not exist in the comic book. Speaking of which, there are a couple of nudge-nudge in-jokes for fans of the comic book, including a poster on a wall that reads, "Mountains On Mars May Be Volcanos". The effects for Skinner (The Invisible Man) work fine, though the best "effect" for the character is actor Tony Curran's great voice. The effects for Hyde vary from passable to excellent, which is thrown into sharp focus by how bad his evil Hulk-ing counterpart looks during their climactic confrontation. Norrington did this crap before - ending the otherwise good "Blade" by having the hero do physical battle with... a CGI blob... but at least here it makes good story sense. The villain's motivation for taking on the League is actually more direct and dramatic than in the comic, though the film doesn't really give this revelation the attention it deserves; one of many very interesting story developments that are skimmed over and not developed. A shame, since many of these appealing teasers had the audience applauding with glee at what they thought might happen next... and then didn't. But though the film does feel like a Cliffs-Notes version of the great film it could have been if money and time weren't factors (and hell, they always are), a passable job was done to pull together a coherent film out of whatever was in the can when the money ran out. At least the key scenes involving the father / son relationship between Quartermain and Sawyer were filmed. It's nice to see some humanity going on amidst all the explosions.
One last note: at the screening I attended, the film got stuck in the projector right after the end credits completed, and melted away up on screen for all to see. This may turn out to be a metaphor for the film itself - a blindingly bright explosion of color that is something you've never seen before... followed by the whole thing dissolving in memory, like whisps of smoke that look like something interesting for a second if you apply your own imagination, but turn out to be just plain old smoke, dissipating quickly in the night air...
Early front-runner for "Best of 2003"
If you are at all curious about seeing this film, I implore you to try and seek it out in a theater (if you can find one that's still playing it). For this is an overwhelmingly "cinematic" experience that will be largely lost if watched at home on a comfy couch with munchies and a remote. The film experiments with time, with putting the viewer into the experiences, emotions and thoughts of the characters by using long, long, LOOOONG shots that just leave you stuck there with them, essentially as an unseen third character (the "Cambot" of the piece), reluctantly documenting everything with a video camera when you'd really just rather not be there at all. The theme is of hubris, of Man casually striking out from the path laid out before him, and getting lost (literally and figuratively) in the wilderness of the unknown. Van Sant has said that he wanted to make a film like those of Bela Tarr, who is known for using long unbroken takes for emotional effect. But Gus' pacing keeps things from being just an obscure art experiment. Those inexorable interminable shots are spaced out well with beautiful nature shots and amusing non-sequiter humor full of the kind of "screw you, kid" humor that seems integral to male Boston friendships.
About the long shots: They drag the audience, kicking and screaming, through at least four states of awareness: 1) Hmm, this is a pretty shot. 2) Ah okay I get it, we haven't cut for a while and this is a really cool long shot. 3) Oh... my... friggin'... God... Please please please just END this shot before I claw my eyes out and throw them at the screen in an attempt to get something to happen... 4) ...hmm... Wow, I'm right there with them, going through this too, thinking for them, feeling for them, projecting how I would feel in that situation up onto the screen and into the empty unknown of their uncommunicated unconscious. Good job, Gus. Damn you for putting me though this, but good job.
It is an interactive experience, meant to occur in a darkened theater, complete with the bizarre feeling of relief that washes over you once that cigarette burn flickers by in the top right corner and you let out that breath you've been holding and sigh, knowing you only have eight more seconds to endure. On top of all this are a few haunting music themes and an almost nonstop symphony of natural sounds harmonizing with some unidentifiable electronic wows and flutters. Unsettling, to say the least. On the lighter side, Affleck has a simply hilarious monologue, made all the more ridiculous by its incongruity with their surroundings, yet utterly believable as the kind of non-sequiter shorthand communication that all old friends share. This is bookended later by a completely silent and gripping performance in which he seems to be praying, or despairing, or trying to work out a solution in his head, or wondering how the hell this happened, or waiting to wake up from this bad dream... Basically everything the audience may be feeling by then. That the film itself is bookended by a simple blank blue screen just reinforces the impression that this is some home vacation video gone horribly wrong, perhaps found in the desert down the street from Burkittsville...
I was left a bit disappointed by the ending, not that anything was wrong per se, just that certain things I was personally hoping for did not occur or happened slightly differently than I'd hoped. Y'know, the stuff that makes you say, "Well, if I had made this movie..." (Of course I did not and could not, so I'll be happy with the fact that the film was made at all) In order not to spoil it for anyone, I'll just say that I would have liked a certain line to be "I'd like to leave now", rather than "I'm leaving now". That would remove some ambiguity and harshness, and inject some tenderness and mercy. Also, since the film had previously established the theme of mirages and illusions, I was waiting for the actual ending to the film to turn out to be a lot less "actual" than it appears. Hopefully you'll know what I mean if you see the film. And I hope you do. It's still early in the year but I may have already seen what will turn out to be my favorite film of 2003.
What Dreams May Come (1998)
Visually dazzling, emotionally empty - both are surprising
This film was visually amazing. The levels of hell were the most disturbing things I've seen since Jacob's Ladder (keep an eye out for a certain legendary director in a cameo as a lost soul). And even better, it's not all just the deservedly-Oscar-winning computer graphics - the scenes of physical sets and extras are simply stunning in their scope. But as I exited the theater after the close of the film, I found myself wishing I could see the same creative team's work on another film with a better story. Or at least a story that is better communicated to the audience. I felt that What Dreams May Come told the story of this particular family a little too well, a little too personally - that in order to feel their emotions, I would actually have to be part of that family in the first place. The end result is sort of like watching a couple having a picnic, happy and in love - you don't really care because you don't know them and you're not one of them. I was left feeling unconnected and even a bit resentful towards these people living their lives out of my reach. I had faith during the film that they would eventually deliver on the emotional whammy that always seemed lurking behind the surface, an effect that seemed inevitable considering the storyline. A truly moving experience always seemed to be inevitably around the corner, until it got lost in a lot of psychobabble. It just bothered me that while the filmmakers accomplished the fantastical very well, they didn't nail the simple human emotions that have elicited tears from audiences in so many other, inferior films. With this story of life and death, sorrow and joy, tragedy and redemption, the first aim should have been to establish empathy between audience and characters, rather than concentrating on "wow"ing everyone but leaving them emotionally cold and distant in the end.
Joan of Arc (1999)
...as the audience members check their watches yet again...
This film was torture. As the film was wrapping up, I was still waiting for it to begin, hoping against hope that the creator of Nikita, Leon, and The Fifth Element would finally show his face. But this must have just been simply a paint-by-numbers job for Besson. There was no inspiration, no magic. My disappointment was only aggravated by the fact that I'd been eagerly anticipating this next pairing of Besson & Jovovich, who had created some memorable (if at times a bit too silly) moments in The Fifth Element. The film starts with a bad sign - a long rolling expositional text, apparently filling in with words what Besson (the creator of some of my recent favorite film visuals) could not express in pictures. And when we first see Milla's Joan (in an understated and confusingly out-of sequence introduction), she is utterly overwhelmed, teary-eyed and whispery as she meets her Dauphin. She then goes on to remain utterly overwhelmed, teary-eyed and whispery for the rest of the film. It's as if she followed some bad advice and took her finest moment in The Fifth Element (when she breaks down while learning about "War"), and turned it into an entire movie's worth of acting. There are no valleys to her performance, by which we can clearly notice any sudden emotional peaks. She's just always completely intense and on edge, and it makes for a tiresome viewing experience. The only parts of the film that I found in any way entertaining were after Tcheky Karyo showed up, and the film could engage in that playful male / female / soldier camaraderie previously shown in G.I. Jane (which coincidentally featured a prominent Joan Of Arc comparison in its trailers). Then Karyo suddenly disappears from the film without a word, and with him went any caring I had for any of the characters. I can't say it was a badly-made film, just a horrid waste of time if you are anticipating a return to the past magic of Besson.