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Christopher Nolan Scores Again
Going into a movie with high expectations can set the viewer up for disappointment (I know because I've been let down many times.) Christopher Nolan—the master responsible for such greats as Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight—has been the most reliably excellent filmmaker of the past decade; he has never failed to deliver. He continues his winning streak with the remarkable Inception. The movie is so packed with detail and has so many layers that upon the audience's first viewing, they just go along for the ride and try to keep up with it. The story follows Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an extractor who tries to steal information from other people's dreams. There to assist him in his escapades is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) They are hired by an influential businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to infiltrate a rival's (Cillian Murphy) dreams not to steal an idea, but rather to plant one. This is called inception. Stealing information from dreams is difficult; planting an idea is even more so. Cobb and Arthur are hesitant to accept the job. However, Cobb wants to do it so that he can quit the business for good and get back home and see his kids, whom he hasn't seen for a long time. He assembles a team to help him. They include an architect (Ellen Page), who creates the dreamscapes; a forger (Tom Hardy), who can imitate other people within the dreams; and a chemist (Dileep Rao), who concocts the complex chemical cocktails used to induce the necessary states of dreaming. To fool the dreamer, sometimes Cobb and his team construct dreams within dreams. To accomplish inception, they need to create a dream within a dream within a dream. If that sounds complicated, there is one more layer still: limbo. This is a dangerous world of raw subconsciousness from which it is very difficult to return. There are other difficulties to overcome besides navigating dreamers' minds. If projections of the dreamer's subconscious start to detect an intrusion, they attack like white blood cells. The probability of this goes up if the dreamer has been trained to guard themselves by an extractor. In addition, Dom's efforts are sometimes foiled by projections of his wife (Marion Cotillard.) He and his team also have to use "kicks," which are prompts to wake them up at just the right moment. In the waking world, he and his team are on the run from both the law and former marks and clients. As expected, much of the movie takes place in dreams. Inception's visual style matches its lofty creative ambitions. The marriage of art direction and special effects is seamless; it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. This sometimes makes it difficult to discern dreams from reality, and this is almost certainly done by design. In the dream sequences, there are some extraordinary images, such as entire cities folding over on themselves, zero-gravity scenes in a hotel hallway, and paradoxical shapes, like infinite staircases. In a season of light-hearted popcorn flicks that are forgotten shortly after one has left the theater, Inception is a rare treat indeed—a brain-teaser that demands the audience rise to its level, rather than insulting the viewer's intelligence by stooping too low. The dreams Christopher Nolan creates and puts up on screen are worlds of pure imagination where anything seems possible, yet they have their own sense of order; they have limits and laws of existence. This film sets viewers' minds in motion like spinning tops, sending them out of the theater reeling and ready to come back again for a repeat viewing.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Tune out the noise and judge the film for yourself
When a film like "The Passion of the Christ" comes along, amid a storm of controversy, it is virtually impossible to view it without being predisposed about it one way or another and that is a shame. What should be an act of intellectual curiosity and/or looking at one's faith is now an act of maturity and judgment to try and be willing to experience it without an unbiased opinion.
The greatest gift I can give to the reader, which is one that will undoubtedly be compromised by other comments that give things away, is merely to say that I was deeply moved by it and that I believe that it will change the world. That is all I will say. I encourage you to view it with an open mind and an open heart and be prepared for a truly remarkable viewing experience.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
A classic mismatch of style and content
It hurts to give this movie such a low rating (5 out of 10) in some ways because it does have some things going for it--the performances of Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Joel Grey, Peter Stormare, and some lovely songs, as well. Most of all, Bjork is enchanting. She has an undeniably powerful screen presence and her participation in the proceedings tempts one to overlook the movies manifold problems... ...but not so fast. I must say that writer/director Lars von Trier's choice to shoot a musical in his grainy, home-video-like style (which worked well in "Breaking The Waves", it actually deepened that viewing experience) simply doesn't work. It's a cinematic contradiction: a documentary feel for something that is staged and choreographed. Watching it, both sides of your brain never come together for a viewing experience that lets you suspend disbelief for very long.
Furthermore, why aren't women a little outraged at this filmmaker? I'm a guy, and watching this and "Breaking The Waves", I want to say to everyone who proclaims his brilliance, "Wake up! He's hiding chauvinism behind art." Case in point: the main characters of both those films are innocents who are helpless and childlike. Both Bjork and Emily Watson redeem his decision somewhat, but his intentions seem too fuzzy. It isn't that every female character has to be like Queen Elizabeth I or Oprah Winfrey, but must you keep on focusing on ones who are so weak and zero in on them with such strange fascination?
I might not even gripe so much, but in addition to its other sins, this movie's way too long. It drags. And drags. And drags. I could feel my impatience with its arty pretentiousness compounding with every unnecessary minute (they number way into double digits). Call it a classic or a brilliant work of art if you must, I just call it a movie that tries too hard and lands smack on its face.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
A fascinating, but flawed work
I can't wait until P. T. Anderson finally makes the great movie he has locked away inside. You get to see glimpses of it here, just as you did in "Boogie Nights" (his best film), the overstuffed mess "Magnolia", and even "Hard Eight", his maiden voyage.
I won't belabor the points already made by others about Adam Sandler's performance--this is an admirable leap for him and he handles it nicely. Anderson does well by tightening the focus of this film: it is as narrow as "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" are broad. We get a closer look into the strange and wonderful world of his main character, Barry Egan, and even though he could use some extensive therapy, your heart goes out to him.
There are times when you feel that Anderson has zoomed in too far because Emily Watson's character ends up being too much of a mystery, as do his cartoonishly mean-spirited sisters. The shortcuts he takes to explain their roles in Barry's life, while intriguingly off-center, come at too high of a cost to the narrative.
All of Anderson's films have a feel of self-importance that he would do well to shed. When he does that, and learns how to balance storytelling and characterization, he will join an elite class of directors. Until then, he's still very good, but frustrating because you know he's capable of more.
Watching "The Two Towers" is like watching the acts of three or four Shakespearean plays (the trippy ones like "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream", as well as the histories, come easily to mind) collide in astonishing and unexpected ways. The film begins with a powerfully audacious image: Gandalf tumbling into the void to vanquish a demon after boldly telling him, "You shall not pass!" As quickly as you are in awe over the fantastical beauty of that image, you are drawn into the commitment that director Peter Jackson makes to make it real for you. Because of his technical wizardry, you do accept it.
This happens over and over in "The Two Towers", regardless of what we're watching with childlike fascination: the all-CGI character Gollum (who takes more definite shape and three-dimensionality than many of his human cohorts); a tree that lives, breathes, walks, talks, and transports two wayward hobbits; dream sequences that, unlike most in film, actually fit believably into the narrative and move the story forward in a useful way; the acrobatic derring-do of Legolas (my favorite character in the series); and an army of 10,000 menacing, single-minded meanies who are out to destr oy mankind in one fell swoop.
Like its successful predecessor, this film nicely balances grand scenes with quiet, up-close moments. We are drawn into a struggle between good and evil on both an emotional and visceral level. This is superb, classic cinematic artistry that will stand the test of time. Only 364 days until the final chapter, "The Return of the King", hits theaters!
Vanilla Sky (2001)
A brave and noble failure
Here we have a mismatch of director and genre. Cameron Crowe's warm, offbeat, and well-observed comedies put some pretty interesting characters onscreen who ring true in all sorts of little ways that make us love them or at least sympathize with them (if they are supposed to be badguys, but no one is truly bad in a Cameron Crowe movie). He has a gift for capturing the innocence of awkwardness and a keen ear for dialogue. He uses music to rhapsodize his scenes in memorable ways (e.g., "In Your Eyes" from "Say Anything", "Tiny Dancer" from "Almost Famous", that lovely Bruce Springsteen song in "Jerry Maguire", and the entire "Singles" soundtrack).
All that said, watching "Vanilla Sky" is an uncomfortable experience, and in all the wrong ways. Crowe proves clumsy when trying to weave an engaging mystery while doing the things he has always done to make a good movie. It's hard to have the warm fuzzies about characters when they're trapped in a trippy world that's hard to understand. Crowe never seems to get the tone right, although Tom Cruise does all he can to do that tightrope walk between agony and ecstasy and cockiness and vulnerability that he has practically copyrighted. Jason Lee only adds to the movie's awkwardness by stretching far beyond his range (he really needs to stick to comedy--as a dramatic actor he has two modes: wise-cracking acerbic smart ass and yelling acerbic smart ass). Penelope Cruz is just kinda there as the woman Cruise loves, but Cameron Diaz does some fine work in a thankless role of the jilted lover who bobs back and forth between flirtation, sadness, loneliness, desperation, jealousy, and finally rage.
"Vanilla Sky" is the kind of movie that you want to like because of how well it might have worked in different hands (and conversely, for the hands that dared to take it on in a bold step in a new direction career-wise). In the end, though, it just leaves you feeling cold and like you've gotten nowhere.
Razor Sharpe (2001)
A chore to sit through
I only watched this film from beginning to end because I promised a friend I would. It lacks even unintentional entertainment value that many bad films have. It may be the worst film I have ever seen. I'm surprised a distributor put their name on it.
Troll 2 (1990)
Redefining Bad Cinema
Got a camcorder and a few friends? Chances are, you could do something better than this. Skip this one and find something to do with an hour and a half of your life that you will never get back otherwise. That is, unless you like watching bad movies and picking on them a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. In that case, there's plenty of fodder for ridicule.
Bang Bang You're Dead (2002)
A gritty meditation on teen violence that pulls no punches
This movie feels like an after school special with teeth. While that may not sound like a compliment, it's good to see a film that has both its heart and its head in the right place: the message of the movie is worthwhile and the delivery of that message doesn't downplay the complexity of all the issues at hand. Doing both of those things and making the film watchable is a rare feat; doing both of those things and making it compelling is a small miracle.
The threat of violence hangs over every scene like a storm cloud. As we watch Trevor (Ben Foster in an amazing standout performance), an "at risk" kid, do what he has to to survive the rigors of daily life as an outsider, we are pulled into the pain of knowing that you don't belong. Several films (the entire John Hughes teen catalog comes to mind) turn outsiders into wretchedly noble characters and their popular and good-looking enemies into wicked brats with inferiority complexes. This one doesn't. It goes right to the root of Trevor's anger and shows how indignation and observation turn into a very rational and almost justifiable form of evil.
Can art redeem him? His do-gooder teacher Val Duncan (Tom Cavanagh, earning his acting chops here after showing his charm in "Ed") certainly hopes so. He casts Trevor for the lead part in the school play he is producing because he is perfect for it. This causes a stir among the student body, the faculty, Trevor's parents, and even within Trevor himself. You get the feeling that he is more concerned with the integrity of his production than potential controversy or consequences. There are even times when you feel like it is his strange, tough-love way of getting Trevor to face his demons head-on.
This is a film that adolescents, teens, parents, teachers, and principals need to see. In its own way, it moves you to hushed, contemplative silence, much the way "Saving Private Ryan" did. At the end of both, you know you have seen something that cuts to the bone, and you have to respect their power and vision.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
A misguided attempt at capturing the hardships of adolesence
Despite some good performances and flashes of promise, Sofia Coppola's maiden voyage as a director unfolds like a wicked daydream that only serves to put you in a bad mood. The story follows the short of lives five teenage daughters of strict, religious parents. The world that Coppola paints of the mid- to late-seventies, the time during which the story takes place, is one in decline. Coming of age in this world proves to be hard for the girls, and their lives at home only add to the hardship.
Discovering themselves and boys is challenging, given their confining existence, and the one thing Coppola does achieve is capture the sexual tension that goes with being young, beautiful and untouchable. When boys finally do enter the picture, first there is glorious escape, then the inevitable disaster that only tightens the restrictions placed on their lives. This is the point when the movie goes exactly where you expect it to, but it takes its time getting there and the only ones who don't seem to know what's going to happen next are the people onscreen.
For a better meditation on life in the seventies, watch the jubilant "Dazed and Confused" or Ang Lee's quietly melancholy "The Ice Storm."
A mystery of rare quality that actually holds some surprises
"Memento" featuring Guy Pearce ("L.A. Confidential", "Ravenous"), Carrie-Anne Moss ("The Matrix"), and Joe Pantoliano ("The Matrix", "The Sopranos", "Midnight Run") is a superb murder mystery told in reverse. The main character (Pearce), whose wife was killed, investigates the evidence while handicapped with a condition that cripples his ability to make new memories. As a result, he is living in a continuous flow of short-term memory that barely connects moments to each other. To connect the evidence he collects and to trust it, he must make continuous notes which bear increasingly paranoid messages like "DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE." Since we're connecting the dots backwards, we don't know any more about what's going on than he does. This is the gambit on which the mystery hinges and it actually works beautifully. The result is a film with continuous twists and surprises which allows you the joy and the puzzle of putting the entire story into context in your own mind. Like "The Usual Suspects" and "The Sixth Sense", it makes you want to see it again for clues you missed the first time around.
Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)
The most emotionally and spiritually moving film of all time
A note to those of you who have only seen the bland, woefully wrong-hearted and half-assed "City of Angels", an unnecessary Americanization of this modern classic: this film leaves Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan in the dust. Co-writer/director Wim Wenders spins a visually stunning tale of angels living in Berlin before the wall came down. As they float through the lives of all they encounter, one of them falls in love with a beautiful and lonely trapeze artist. He soon must choose whether or not it is worth sacrificing the endless grace of being an earth-bound angel to know what it is like to be human, to "see at eye level."
After having seen this film eight times or so, I can safely say that it is my favorite movie of all time. I have to watch it at least once a year and every time I do, I discover a new detail, while still being enchanted by the things that made me love this film in the first place. Although leisurely paced, every scene makes a valuable point about how our lives are touched by divinity every day.
Nóz w wodzie (1962)
A compelling psychological drama
This film puts you in close quarters with a married couple on a boating trip and the young hitchhiker whom they pick up on the way. As the three of them go out to sea, their characters are revealed layer by layer and it soon becomes evident that all may not be well within the marriage. All three characters communicate differently, and a strangely open relationship grows between the wife and the hitchhiker. Director Roman Polanski does the best work of his distinguished career here--he lets the drama unfold realistically and although much appears to be the same at the end of the movie as it was in the beginning, as a viewer you get the unmistakable feeling that each character will carry the experience around with them for the rest of their lives.