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Inception (2010)
The form is the content...
16 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
...and capitalism will continue to generate both form and content for as long as we can manage to keep it from collapsing under the weight of its own metastasizing "progress".

I'll warn you right up front that what I'm about to write will undoubtedly contain all kinds of spoilers. I'll also warn you that the stuff I'm going to write probably won't click for you unless you see the movie first anyway.

Inception is a product of the late-capitalist Hollywood film industry in its every frame. Yet somehow instead of having been focus-grouped and studio-noted into a meaningless "product", its every detail meticulously drives it forward in the production of meaning.

At its core it is attempting its own titular project.

Implanting the seeds of revolutionary and /or world-changing ideas in viewers has long been a goal of filmmakers from DW Griffith's "Intolerance" to Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" to Getino and Solanas' "Hour of the Furnaces" to everything Godard has made right through to "The Matrix". "Inception" makes this idea both its premise and its project.

The "dreams within dreams in the service of corporate espionage" story – for all its apparent complexity – is really a fairly simple framework upon which Nolan hangs some much deeper, though in a way no less simple, themes. Ideas about the importance of living in the real present, connecting with other humans, and choosing one's own path instead of slavishly (not to mention self- and other- destructively) adhering to the (real or imagined) expectations of others.

The fact that Saito is paying Cobb's crew to break up his corporate competitor's empire could have resulted in Saito being characterized as a coldly mercenary capitalist "anti-villain". But it just isn't so, and if it were then it would have wrecked the film. The truth here is that while there are antagonists in the film who proliferate like so many Matrix Agents Smith, there really is no villain.


It's an FX-driven summer blockbuster that doesn't have a villain.

The audacity of that alone is stunning to me.

The closest thing "Inception" has to a villain, in fact, is nothing but a phantom.

And that leads to an important question that can be extrapolated from "Inception": what if personified "villains" are just figments of our imagination at best, or at worst are worn out and even culturally damaging narrative tropes that trick us en masse into thinking that "if we could just eliminate all the 'bad' people, then the world would be heaven on earth?" In spite of its star-powered Hollywood industrial product blockbuster summer appeal, "Inception" has at its heart the vigorously indie idea that we are all masters of our own destiny: architects of our own dreams, if you will. We are only beholden to the thoughts, dreams, and accomplishments of others to the extent that we allow ourselves to be.

And that notion of "the accomplishments of others" then leads us right into the labyrinthine maze of global empire that capitalism has built all around us… The dream world that global capitalism has created with its tendencies toward monopolistic business practices and rapacious conquest by hyper-urbanism is woven beautifully into every frame of the film. These images even border on a perverse kind of sublimity. Lazy floating helicopter shots of sprawling global metropolises are now beautiful to us. This is what we have come to.

It will crumble under the weight of its own fundamental instability (un-"sustainability"). And we who are its inhabitants who have become mere projections of some collective subconscious will increasingly come forth from our slumbering alienation to defend the core being of that collective subconscious.

In the end we will stand amidst whatever is left with our families, our friends, and our memories to treasure.
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visionary, personal, deeply affecting
19 December 2008
One of the movies Synecdoche brought to mind for me was Bunuel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" in which two different actresses play the same character with no explanation of any sort offered within the narrative.

It's always refreshing to me to see events in movies occur without the writer/director/actors seeming to feel any need to "explain it" to the viewer. As with (m)any other filmmakers who are genuinely engaged with film as a unique art form, it seems quite clear to me at least that Kaufman requires the spectator to meet him on his own wavelength.

This is what a significant portion of artists in any medium do: they take the constraints, conventions, and materials of their chosen form very seriously and explore their own perceptions, ideas, and emotions plying the tools of their medium on their own personal terms.

At the opposite end of this artistic spectrum is the sort of pandering manipulation of a Spielberg or the painter Thomas Kincaid. Their works are only "personal" in the sense that what is most prominently on display in their work is their own desperate personal need to have their intended message "understood" (and even experienced) by all spectators in exactly the same way, so that "the artist" can in turn feel his own personal worth has been validated by public and critical responses - "Hah, I must be a great artist, because I succeeded in making you think and feel the exact thing I wanted you to!"

I'll grant that this "spectrum" is a very broad one, and I won't discount the work of anyone along it, but that doesn't mean I have to enjoy things I see as technically accomplished hackwork. I don't, and never will.

I'll take an artist who refuses to telegraph his "statement" to me any day. I prefer works that wash over me, entrance me, and lead me down paths to new or long-buried thoughts and feelings.

I feel GREAT after having seen Synecdoche this evening. I laughed, I cried, and I see the world just a little differently now. I feel like a group of people I have never met (Kaufman and the others involved in making this wonderful movie) shared something with me that was very important to them. I wish I could thank them, because I think it takes a great deal of courage to share with others things that are so personally important in such an honest, unapologetic way.

I think it also takes a lot of courage for investors to throw millions of dollars at such a personal vision. It gives me hope for humanity that such a thing is possible.

The Day the Earth Stood Still gave me a tiny little glimmer of this sort of hope last weekend. But that movie was like a vending machine bag of chips compared to the full-course-meal of Synecdoche New York.
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WALL·E (2008)
How do overweight people feel about WALL-E?
6 July 2008
I read one very short thread on the message board for this movie about whether people think that WALL-E is "anti fat people," but I'm interested in thinking and writing more about this topic.

Personally, I am not overweight, but I was growing up, so I might have a thinner skin on this subject than some. I could tell that the filmmakers were working hard to be as kind as they could given the facts of the plot and characters that they had created - and given the fact that they were pushing an overall message of individuals taking personal responsibility for some very broad social problems.

Of course they weren't able to incorporate a nuanced social critique of the psychology of obesity-as-eating-disorder or some such thing that might be better left to Oprah and Dr. Phil. But it did seem to me that the filmmakers were pushing what I thought was a pretty well-reasoned thesis that people can be led by the profit-motivated logic of capitalism into behaviors that are unhealthy at best and devastating at worst.

I also thought it was interesting that the unhealthy behaviors that had lead to their extreme and infantilizing form of obesity were depicted very precisely as de-humanizing (or stated more precisely "de-adultizing"). As viewers we see that humans at the time of the launching of the AXIOM were indeed human (the use, jarring to some, of the human actor Fred Willard, and other "live action" images of humans in the movie), but over the course of 700 years humans had become "giant babies" in hovering incubators - their every need indulged by extreme high-tech devices.

This progression from human to... something else is underscored when we see the pictures of the series of ship's captains, each of which looks more "cartoonish" and infantile that the one before it.

I liked the fact that the overweight, de-adultized people were heroic in the movie, but I'm not sure how I feel about the overall message and whether it will come off as just more anti-fat negativity to adults who truly struggle every day with overweight/obesity concerns.

I think that perhaps my biggest concern might run somewhere along the lines of this: do people (especially overweight people) think that the anti-overindulgence / pro-personal-responsibility message of WALL-E was delivered with enough real love behind it to actually inspire change in people's lives and in our culture (and I mean US culture, because that is the culture to which this movie's message is clearly pitched)? I hope so, and this is something that I always wonder about when movies come along that seem to genuinely desire to create social change through the power of their artistry.
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Pinpon (2002)
HIRO KENZAN! The Most Uplifting Movie Ever Made. Period.
9 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Of course this is just my opinion, and you are free to disagree with it as you please :) The phrase "Hiro kenzan" (ヒーロー 見参) which translates to "enter: the hero" - as in a stage direction in a script - pretty much sums up this movie. This phrase is repeated throughout the film, and becomes a sort of mantra. I'm marking this as containing a spoiler, because some people might rather come to their own understanding of the use of this phrase in the film before reading my explanation of it.

What I love so very very much about this film is that it takes something (the game of ping pong) which is to me relatively insignificant (in the same way that many of the things that play an important role in my life would seem insignificant to you who are reading this now), and uses it to create an extended meditation on life choices and their after-effects; relationships of mentoring, friendship, and competition (in the best sense of that perhaps loaded word); and the very idea of what it means to be a hero - both to oneself and to others.

There is a hero that dwells in each of us. That hero is released by our taking charge of our own choices and our own lives. That hero is released by being true to ourselves, and when that hero "enters," the lives of others around us cannot help but be deeply touched and improved by such "self actualization." I hope that people who see this movie can come to feel the presence of that hero within themselves (and the others around them) in whatever small or large way.
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Best Movie I've Seen This Year
20 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
So, did you come here wondering what it's "really" like? Well imagine if Robert Altman and David Fincher co-directed an adaptation of a novel co-written by Philip K. Dick and Chuck Palahniuk. Yes, the fact that I put Fincher and Palahniuk in that sentence together does mean that Southland Tales has an anarchic (in the fullest sense of that word) sensibility similar to that of Fight Club, but I don't think that it's a "guy movie" in the same way that Fight Club is. The sheer originality and depth of this movie is astonishing. Even the way that it achieves its originality is original. What was that? Southland Tales relies heavily on what they call "pastiche" in postmodern theory: it takes a million things you've seen before in a million niches of popular culture and whirls them together like a "Will it Blend: Millenial Americana" YouTube video. Yes, it blends! There are so many aspects of it that made my jaw drop ranging from the casting of teen idol Justin Timberlake in the role of the facially disfigured narrator, to the bizarre insertion of an incredible precision-choreographed song-and-dance sequence at the movie's midpoint, to the glorious arrangement for string quartet of the Star Spangled Banner as sung by Mulholland Drive's Rebekah Del Rio.

There were scenes that made me burst into surprised, embarrassingly loud laughter. There were scenes that made me nearly jump out of my seat from the shock. There were scenes that froze me with deer-in-the-headlights terror.

And, oh those casting choices. From numerous Saturday Night Live alumni in both comic and serious roles (including a deadpan, scene-stealing Jon Lovitz) to Highlander Christopher Lambert selling heavy armaments out of an ice cream truck.

Without a trace of irony in his performance.

And that is truly one of the strengths of this film: it refuses to "wink" at the audience. It plays all of it's irony fast and straight as a Bladeless Lasik IntraLase® laser. It doesn't have the time to wink, and it doesn't give you time to blink either. Writer/director Richard Kelly knows how complex and irony-laden this stuff his and he trusts the intelligence of his viewers to keep up with him and not have to be told when to laugh.

And it is a complicated movie, but if it weren't complicated it wouldn't be so good.
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Really very good, actually
30 December 2006
I've been a Hellboy reader from the day the first issue of the comic hit the stands. When the live action movie came out I liked it, but thought it could've been a lot better. This movie, however, gave me the "a lot better" that I was hoping for: really fun and interesting MYTHOLOGICAL story (with interesting little bits of cultural details like the comics always have); interestingly plotted story that cuts backward and forward in time in a smart and engaging way; lots of cool, scary bad guys; and better written dialog than I thought the live action had, including better one-liners from HB.

I watched it with my six year old boy - checking in with him and explaining stuff if I felt nervous that he might be scared by anything in it - and he loved it too. I think it a great HB movie for a wide age range - again, like the comics.

The animation was sharp and detailed, but I kind of wished that the character designs and background work came closer to Mignola's originals. I guess if that were so, though, it would have probably been a much darker, scarier, and more "experimental" looking movie - all of which would have altered it's demographics a lot, and maybe killed it's financing in the process.

All in all I'd really recommend it.
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Forrest Whitaker alone is worth the price of admission
24 October 2006
How can an actor terrify you without saying a word, without even hardly moving his face or body? I'm not sure how he does it, but Mr. Whitaker does it over and over again in this movie. And then he turns around the next minute and becomes giant hug-able teddy bear superhero. Forget all the others, this is the best horror film of the year. This movie, and his performance in particular, grab hold of you and never let go. Whitaker should win an Oscar for best actor, I've never seen a better performance in my life. Also notable is the Nicholas Garrigan character who is written and acted very skilfully to draw the (non-African) spectator into the world of Uganda and Amin. The way his character willingly "falls into" Amin's web of charisma somehow goes a long way toward mitigating the racist potential of a story about a very troubled (African black) man. The way the interplay of the two lead character's cultural backgrounds plays out on screen moves the story beyond just their personalities and into the realm of incisive socio-political analysis and critique. This movie is quite incredible, really.
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The Departed (2006)
Good, but not as great as the original
7 October 2006
Infernal Affairs is such a fantastic movie, and I sort of groaned at first when I heard it was going to be REMADE in the US rather than just RELEASED here (theatrically, that is).

Then I found out Scorsese was directing and that got me interested.

So now, four years after the original, it's finally here. And it's very good, maybe even great - though I'll need to see it again to pass that judgment. In a way, that's really saying something right there because with the original my eyes were glued to the screen (which was only a six inch portable DVD player - pretty far from the 50 foot screen I saw The Departed on yesterday) and my spirit was soaring from the opening credits. The Departed lacks the breathtakingly beautiful flowing movement (camera work, editing, nuanced physicality of lead actors) of Infernal Affairs and replaces all this with grim, violent intensity. It's a very American, very Scorsese remake. There are great moments when it creates it own powerful, visceral sense of the pain that fills its characters. The Departed puts its focus much more on the painful consequences of lying to people and on the destruction that people who are lairs by necessity (because they have so much to hide) wreak upon their world. You can surely see the social/political message implicit in this - but sometimes I want a movie to be a sweeping emotional experience and not try to engage my political conscience.
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