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Big Top Pee-wee (1988)
Big Top Pee Wee
In this sequel to the classic Big Adventure film Pee Wee (for some reason) decides to move to a dusty old town that looks like a 1947 time-capsule and is inhabited by hateful, old farts. After a violent storm one night the circus (for some reason) washes up on his farm and from there the film just kind of shifts into idle and coasts blandly until the end, in a series of generic circus hi-jinks and weird romantic encounters. Frankly the films' problems exist at the script level. The whole concept was poorly thought out and executed. In Big Adventure Pee Wee's motivation was simple but effective; to get back his bike. The straight-forward premise then allowed the character to be taken from one place to another in fairly rapid succession, all the while letting each unique situation show a different side of him. The road story was also perfect for quickly establishing what Pee Wee is all about; a grown man who cherishes a bicycle more than anything else in his life. It's sweet, it's something we can relate to in one way or another, but it's also very bizarre. Pee Wee is all of those things. Big Top doesn't take him anywhere, it only thrusts him awkwardly into a love story that is completely unwarranted given his emphatic rejections of Dottie in the first movie. "I like you, Dottie, LIKE!... I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel." So whoever decided it would be a brilliant idea to build an entire narrative around Pee Wee Herman having a love-life was totally missing the point of the character.
Nolan delivers a memorable sci-fi thriller
Inception is certainly ambitious. And once again Nolan succeeds at doing exactly what you would expect him to do; delivering sleek, thought provoking entertainment. At it's core, however, this film is missing a few vital pieces that leave a certain something to be desired. The emotional crux of Inception is clear; It's about Leonardo DiCaprio's character and his ultimate reconciliation with the regrets he has regarding his wife. That element of the film is spelled out crystal clear and is effective. The problem comes in that there's a great deal of other subject matter that seems to exist only as thin props in Leo's quest.
After a relatively pointless setup in which the two main characters garner his wrath, Ken Watanabe's character offers them an incredibly simplistic and convenient ultimatum, and from then on out the rest of Leo's merry band seems to jump on board with the operation for no discernible reasons. Ellen Page? Seeking college credit, apparently. Tom Hardy? Well, his character has nothing better to do. JG Levitt? He's Leo's buddy, you'll have to take our word for it. Oh, and Michael Caine...he's about as useful as John Voight in National Treasure. The trouble with this, then, is that the action-based objective has no real power and urgency other than the promise of seeing Leo hug his kids... and seeing the incredibly sketchy Cillian Murphy character hug his dying, old, tycoon father. Neither of which are sufficient emotional investments. A lot of this can be attributed to the simple fact that there is NO antagonist in the movie. None. No one is evil, not even Leo's subconscious. Nothing is pushing back other than a vague threat of "projections" and the main character accidentally sabotaging the mission. In summary...where's Agent Smith? It's basic rules of drama and storytelling that have been around since Aristotle; tension is created through opposition. Sure, there's a time limit to the group's escape from the various dream states, but no one is trying to stop them. Therefore, why should I really care what happens?
The supporting characters in this group live and die for a man they hardly know, for a goal that isn't even (at the very least) of monetary consequence. Yet, instead of defining these elements that matter more, the film instead spends a gratuitous amount time explaining arbitrary "rules" of the dreamworld, even though it simply glosses over the basics. If we can completely take for granted that these people are able to somehow connect their minds through their bloodstreams, then I'm sure we can suspend our disbelief for a great many other details. And my final gripe; the dream world is surprisingly tame. I usually dream about throwing eggs from hot-air balloons, and showing up naked to classes I forgot I was supposed to be in. The people in inception seem to dream only about swanky, north side cityscapes, posh hotels and ski lodges. So...they're dreaming previous Nolan films?
Alright, *breathes deep*. And now for the good things... honestly, there are a lot of spectacular moments in this film, more than enough to warrant a recommendation. The fluidity of many of the action sequences are truly remarkable in their own right and the actors do a fine job in selling the atmosphere...so, go see it. Just take note of the fact that Inception ultimately lacks a great, suspenseful, emotional hook. The concept is rich and sexy, but not exceptionally unheralded. We've had our minds "bended" before, now show us why we should be invested in this particular iteration. In the end, for as complexly orchestrated as the plot of Inception is there are, unfortunately, a great deal of dull edges that result in hindsight being less than 20/20.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Films like this are always more difficult to critique, it seems. Because it is low budget and features a small production is it given a freer pass than in other circumstances? Is this what's happened here? I'm not sure. But what I think has occurred with Paranormal Activity is a somewhat unique film which thrives (stylistically) on the same elements used in previous intimate/imagination based horrors (and often imitated to poor result)...thus requiring comparison. The primary question is does this movie work? Sure, the apparent reason being simplicity, something severely lacking in modern day horror. The second question is whether or not this measures up to Blair Witch, in terms of building on or showing audiences anything new in the minimalistic style...Not really. In discussing the film's shortcomings I think it is necessary to point out certain stylistic choices which are this film's double edged sword. The major tension builder in Paranormal is the fact that they live in a common looking house. It could be anyone's home, basically. It's pristine suburbia...almost to a fault. What's wrong with this choice though is that nothing changes. As with the characters themselves there is no visual representation of evil; whether it be distortion or ugliness or age there's nothing in their house but Pier One furniture. By the fourth or fifth night the repetitive nature of; upstairs, downstairs and bedroom becomes tedious and the very simplicity that they're trying to scare us with becomes laborious. A similar problem exists with the characters. I love the fact that they were down to earth, natural, fleshed out people, but for the most part there is no transformation. What little there might be is limited by the actor's abilities and all we get is a lovable pair who's fear develops even more slowly than the spirit's attacks until the narrative just ends without much buildup. I don't mean to disparage this too much, I enjoyed it well enough, but for me there were too many missed opportunities and the overwhelming sense was that this was a polar opposite reaction to overblown violence in popular films such as Hostel and Saw...(as well as the result of some tricksey marketing via studio exec super-geniuses). I hate to incorporate the hype factor but I really don't understand the love this has gotten from most critics. I have sympathy for the filmmakers but if I'm going to be paying the same ten bucks for any given film then I don't think it's fair to put on the kid gloves just because it was low budget and cheap to make...it is was it is, and this is undeniably amateur. I found this film to be very similar to "Death of a Ghost Hunter" which was made in the same year. Yes, the acting was worse in that film but at least the story actually had depth, and for the most part the only major difference (I think) was the marketing machine behind it. This is just one of those "right place at the right time" sort of films.