Monthly Archives: July 2010

Inception – Decoding the Dream

I would recommend that you don’t read this blog post unless you’ve already seen the film Inception. This is not a review; it is analysis. Brief analysis, but analysis that could still spoil the film. Readers who haven’t yet seen the film probably won’t understand what I’m talking about. I will try—probably unsuccessfully—to keep things coherent.

Justin Chang, a movie reviewer for Variety, pointed out in his review that “movies are shared dreams.” In an ironically perfect metaphor, he calls Christopher Nolan one of “one of Hollywood’s most inventive dreamers.” This is perfect because it sums up the plot mechanics of Inception, wherein a dreamer uses a science-fiction device to bring a subject into a dream.

I’ll jump ahead and spoil the ending: Inception ends with the notion that the whole movie, or maybe just part of it, or maybe just the ending itself is a dream. Any part or even all of the movie could take place either in a dreamscape or in what we call “reality” or maybe something else, but the film won’t say which is the case. We, the audience, have to question these things. Because the ending questions the film’s reality, we have to go back and look thing over again. This movie begs to be analyzed and decoded. It needs to be rewatched to be understood.

We have to figure out for ourselves what parts of this movie are real. The reflexive implication is that we have to figure these things out outside of the shared dreaming experience of a movie theater as well. We have to figure out which parts of our world are unreal. We have to question the nature of our reality.

It is not a spoiler to say that Inception is about a team of corporate espionage specialists who hack into people’s minds to steal their secrets. The interesting twist is that the team is asked by a powerful figurehead named Sato to instead plant an idea in a subject’s mind. They have to do so in such a way that the subject will think they conceived the idea themselves. This process is called “inception,” and it’s nearly impossible.

As one character says, “If I tell you not to think about elephants, what do you think about?”

Elephants. You think about elephants. And you also know who made you think about elephants.

The team is led by a man named Cobb, played convincingly by Leonardo Dicaprio. Cobb has an emotional investment in the inception job. He lives in political exile because the authorities in America think he killed his wife Mal; all he consciously wants is to return home to his children. Sato says he can make this happen.

Cobb is haunted by the ghost of his wife in the form of a subconscious projection he carries with him into dreams. She makes things difficult for him in his line of work, especially when she starts killing people within the dreams. Usually this will wake them up, but in the inception mission, they are sent to a terrible place called “limbo.” Mal is played by Marion Cotillard, who is talented enough to play her character both as a whimsical figure of love and a horrific menace. She is also beautiful enough that she fits into the movie’s heist-noir elements as an enigmatic femme fatale.

If the movie has an internal conflict it is that the emotional love story between Cobb and Mal sometimes conflicts with the heist-like inception mission and the cold logic of the dream worlds. The movie is at its most interesting when Mal comes into literal conflict with Cobb and members of his team. Because, remember, Mal is just a projection of Cobb’s subconscious (probably), so that she sabotages his missions and sometimes attacks his cohorts may mean that his subconscious is self-sabotaging. Mal is partly a representation of the fact that Cobb wants to see himself fail.

Why? Well, that would be a spoiler, but I’ll tell you anyway. It is revealed that Cobb knows that Inception is possible because he first performed it on his wife. Experimenting, they went deep into a dream together. Because in Nolan’s dream mechanics, time is experienced exponentially slower in successive dream worlds than in reality, the couple literally spent decades together in a dream. Perhaps they killed themselves to get out; perhaps they lived out decades of their life in the dream world. Both explanations are given. But during their time in the dream, Cobb introduced an idea into his wife’s mind to help her cope with the length of time they spent inside: the idea that her world might not be real. As Cobb remembers it—and it is important to remember that the film’s perspective is not always reliable—she committed suicide because she thought dying would wake herself up. He is beset by guilt over his part in this tragedy. One of the implications of the film’s ending is that she might have been right.

These paragraphs I have written so far scratch only the surface of an outline of the level of analysis needed to decode this film. But Inception’s achievement is that it never becomes incoherent. Despite the fact that the movie is literally about a heist taking place in dreamscapes; despite the fact that at some points the narrative cuts between three parallel dreamscapes happening at different rates of time—and these dreamscapes include car chases, zero-gravity gun fights and explosions—the movie never becomes incoherent.

It’s also exciting to watch. There is enough chasing, punching, shooting and exploding to keep even the most witless viewer entertained. If you want, you can ignore all the intellectual mumbo jumbo and instead enjoy watching two guys fight in a rotating hallway. Christopher Nolan learned how to direct action with his two Batman movies. In Inception, he creates action scenes unlike any other movie’s.

Oddly, despite most of these action sequences taking place in dream worlds, they are not surreal. These dream worlds are governed by Newtonian physics. They take place in literalized spaces. They are more akin to the Matrix than the dreamscapes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or actual dreams. Every moment of strangeness is explained.

Inception’s lack of surrealism is surprising. This is a movie about dreams and dream worlds. Moreover, these dream worlds are accessed not through high-end technology, but through hallucinatory drugs.  In order to perform their psychic heists, both Cobb’s team and their subject are hooked up to a device that pumps drugs into their arms. These drugs place them in the dream world. In essence, the entire inception mission is a shared drug experience.

Cobb is a drug addict. He finds a chemist to balance the multi-leveled dream worlds necessary for the inception mission. He finds this man in a Moroccan drug den. Cobb, like those who frequent the drug den, cannot dream without injecting himself with the special dream drug.

But there is no psychedelia. The dream worlds are strictly logical. When Cobb injects himself, he flashes to memories he has about Mal. There are no Jungian archetypes in Inception, or Freudian ideas aside from Mal’s invasions. The best and most accurate depictions of dreams and dream logic remain those David Chase wrote for The Sopranos. But Inception adheres to its own internal logic, and this makes it a successful mind-bender.

I should mention one other thing: Christopher Nolan has some fun with meta-fiction in this movie. Cobb is named after the elusive but charming con man character from his first movie, Following. Roger Ebert pointed out that Ellen Page’s character, an architect who designs maze-like landscapes for the dreams the team ventures into who also serves as an emotional guide for Cobb, is named Ariadne after the mythological figure who guided Theseus out of the minotaur’s labrynth. And Edith Piaf’s song “Non, je ne regrette rien” is played for the dreamers to indicate to them that they should wake themselves up; Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for playing Piaf in La vie en rose.

It’s not hard to make connections between Inception and Nolan’s other movies. Other critics have done that. As a filmmaker, he’s always been concerned with criminals and the blurred edges of reality. He has also frequently worked on stories about men who do extraordinary things because they are plagued with guilt.  So far, he has not run out of stories to tell with these themes.

I’ve been having more vivid dreams since I saw this movie. They have been more lucid than the ones I had before. Maybe this is because, as an insomniac who rarely dreams, I’m actually getting a proper amount of sleep lately. Oddly, these lucid dreams have caused me to question reality in the same way I do when I don’t sleep for days on end and enter a state of waking dream. Now that I’m awake, I have to wonder if the dreams weren’t more real, or at least better than the reality I regularly find myself in. I have to question where I am, and why I am here.

Maybe Christopher Nolan successfully performed inception upon me.

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Girls: Conception

On the back cover to the first collection of Girls, a quote from Brian Michael Bendis, the bestselling comic book writer of the past decade, exclaims, “The Luna Brothers are the future of comics!”

I really hope they’re not.

Because judging from this first volume – called Conception – the Luna Brothers don’t know how to write or draw a comic book, and they’re probably misogynistic too.

The book opens with a young man named Ethan masturbating. We get a closeup of his sperm, and then a closeup of his face. His lip is slightly upturned, which indicates that he’s enjoying himself. This is the most expressive his face will be for the entire comic book.

Ethan is a lot like other characters, few of them from comic books. Like other fictional characters, he is upset that he has trouble with women. Like other characters, he lives in a hillbilly town, which is a lot like other hillbilly towns in fiction. It is more of a cliché hillbilly town than, say, the one in the silly movie Black Snake Moan. But perhaps Ethan will appeal to stereotypical comic book readers, who stereotypically tend to have trouble with women. Perhaps the mundane hillbilly town will also appear to comic book readers, who are used to reading stories about soaring metropolises with hypersexualized beings in spandex punching each other.

One night, at a bar, Ethan starts drunkenly rambling about how terrible women are. His monologue reads like something a bad writing student might have spouted. (I’d know; I’ve been to writing school, and I’ve been a bad writing student.) His facial expression remains relatively stagnant throughout his dialog. In a self-reflexive moment of irony for the Luna Brothers, Ethan is rightly called out as a misogynist. Soon after, on his drunken drive home, he discovers a mysterious naked woman in the middle of the road. Every man unlucky in love fantasizes about such things.

From there, things get strange. Ethan and the mystery woman fuck, and she lays eggs from which hatch more, identical naked women. These naked women proceed to terrorize the town. Later, there is a giant sperm monster.

Girls thinks it is a clever comic. It thinks it’s an erotic horror tale, but it’s neither erotic nor horrific. This story thinks it has something clever to say about human sexuality, but really it’s a dumb comic book with a giant sperm monster. The Luna Brothers are not great crafters of sequential visual storytelling. They’re just two more guys in the comic book world who like drawing naked women.

And what they have to say about women is awful. These mysterious naked women attack the women in the hillbilly town. This an awful male sexual fantasy, cathartic only for men who see women as sex objects and hate when they talk.

At least the naked women look lovely. Unlike most comic book women, they’re drawn with anatomic realism. Their breasts and butts aren’t impossibly large, and their waists are normal size. They’re drawn with relative simplicity and economy of line. They’re also the only decent bit of art in this comic.

The rest of the art is bad. It’s not just that every character maintains the same facial expression no matter what they’re doing or saying; the sequential art often fails to effectively convey the story. In the scene where the giant sperm monster kills two people, I only realized that it had, in fact, attacked them two pages later when one character said that it had.

The Luna Brothers’ Girls is not the future of comics. It’s only redeeming quality is that it’s unlike any other comic published. But that doesn’t make it worth reading.

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Predators

For a few decades now, Robert Rodriguez has been one of the finest producers of pulp cinema. He’s made From Dusk Till Dawn, one of the best vampire movies made before vampires  became sexy; Sin City, which was a literary reinvention of the hardboiled noir genre, stylized in the mode of the comic books from which it was adapted; Grindhouse, a love letter to gorey and stupid movies from the 70s; and also a few movies about men with guns shooting things. It’s high time he made a science fiction movie.

Someone smart gave him the Predators franchise. Rodriguez opted not to make the film himself. Instead, he produced the new sequel, Predators, and hired relatively unknown director Nimrod Antal to direct an amateur screenplay. Oddly, the result is a film more tense, serious, and mature than one Rodriguez might have made himself. It still has men with large guns killing ugly aliens.

The movie opens with a character played by Adrien Brody in free fall. He’s falling toward an unknown jungle, and he doesn’t know how he got there. Somehow, he figures out that he has a parachute on. Soon after, he meets a group of really tough badasses who also parachuted into this jungle, and they discover that they’re actually on an alien planet.

Roger Ebert says, “Predators may be the first film in history to open with a deus ex machina.” Ebert is not entirely wrong in that the free fall opening is convenient to the plot, but he ignores the fact that this is a rare movie to open in media res, or in the middle of the action. This story opens with action and intrigue, and the pace never lets up.

The badasses Brody meets up with include a Russian soldier, a convict, a Mexican cartel enforcer, an African death squad officer, a ninja, and a female IDF sniper. They are all badasses. You’ve probably seen them in other movies, but you’ll only be able to figure out where if you’re a nerd. The Jewish woman is not necessarily cast as a romantic interest, but rather to emphasize that the casting was equal opportunity. Over the course of the movie, most of the badasses die. They die in various exciting ways. As with most sci-fi movies, the black guy is one of the first to go.

At the start of the movie, the predators themselves, who are aliens who for some reason like to hunt things, are an unseen menace. They attack the badasses with their dogs before appearing themselves. When they do appear, they are disappointing.

Modern special effects should have made these predators look terrifying and real. And they do, when they stand stagnant and look menacing. But when they actually have to fight the human badasses and each other, their movement is slow and stocky. The scene where the ninja sword-fought a predator – as he was inevitably going to do – relied on editing to show the action, and so it was not shot like a proper sword fight. Director Antal had to rely heavily on editing in all the fight scenes, and because of this the third act was less exciting than the two that preceded it.

But Adrien Brody takes his shirt off. He slathers himself in mud. His frame is bulky. He is not as bulky as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s once was, but he is as convincing at punching and shooting guns at aliens. And that is what people should pay to see this movie for.

That the first two acts are intelligent and smartly paced makes the ticket price a bargain.

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Invincible: Yet Another Superhero Comic Book

Invincible is yet another comic book about superheroes. That it is an independently produced and creator-owned comic book about superheroes does not mean that it is good. Invincible reads like its two creators, Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker, were two comic book fanboys who really wanted to make a superhero comic of their own. But Invincible doesn’t do anything new or groundbreaking for the overtired superhero genre. Maybe it doesn’t have to, but it should at least tell an engaging story.

This is the story of Mark Grayson, whose father Nolan is a superhero named Omni-Man and is a lot like Superman, except with a mustache. Omni-Man is so much like Superman that he even came from an alien planet. Oh yes. And despite Omni-Man not having a secret identity – because he doesn’t, as some superheroes do, wear a mask, or even glasses – the Grayson family lives a middle class lifestyle. Mark’s mother Debbie is boring human and a professional housewife. Her only purpose in the story is to cook.

“Family Matters,” the opening story arc of this comic and the only one I’ll suffer myself to read, deals with Mark realizing that he’s inherited his father’s powers. They’ve begun to manifest themselves now that he’s hit puberty. Cool. This should have made for an engaging if cliche coming of age superhero story. It might, as the title implies, deal with the fallout of his coming of age in the context of his family unit.

But no. None of the characters are fully realized enough for that – in art or characterization. There are no stakes, and none of the characters seem too excited by any of the supernatural things happening to them. When Mark realizes he has super strength, his reaction is, “It’s about time.” When he tells his parents he has superpowers, his mother’s reaction is, “That’s nice. Can you pass the potatoes?”

Characters in these types of stories usually care about the things happening to them. When they don’t care, I don’t care.

Throughout “Family Matters,” Mark – and indeed the entire world in this comic book – seems entirely disinterested in everything. He joins a team of teenage superheroes with about the zeal I approach my morning bowel movement. The world doesn’t seem to mind or notice that there are people in tights flying about; society doesn’t seem to be any different for it. At one point, Mark quits his job at (of course) a hamburger stand and laments at how upset his parents will be. But they’re not. In fact, Omni-Man suggests that very night that Mark should probably quit his job at said hamburg stand, which was a cliche place for a teenager in a story to work anyway.

At one point, Mark actually says, “Dad was sucked into a portal about fifteen minutes ago. I don’t think he’ll be home tonight. It was some aliens we fought earlier today. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

And his mother disinterestedly remarks, “Well, that’s more pork chops for us.”

Maybe this is supposed to be funny. But in any decent story, even if a father figure was literally invincible, his family should at least be mildly concerned when he gets sucked into an alternate dimension by bloodthirsty aliens. They might even try to rescue him. These characters don’t. They don’t care. And because they don’t care, I don’t care.

There’s also some sub-plot about a teacher blowing students up with bomb vests, but I don’t care enough about it to discuss it right now.

Even the art is bad. Cory Walker’s renderings look like the thumbnails of a better artist. His lines are loose and sketchy. He even leaves ink blobs at the end of some of his lines, as if his pen jammed and he didn’t care.

I don’t care either. I won’t be buying another collection of this comic book.

But it’s a shame. Robert Kirkman is capable of telling complex stories with real characters and dramatic stakes. He does this regularly in his zombie comic book The Walking Dead. I don’t know why he thought a pile of ineffectual cliches would suffice here.

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The Best Laptops

This is an article I researched and wrote for the upcoming issue of IMAGE Magazine:

The Best Laptops

It’s bullshit, but not entirely bullshit.

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Filmtracks.com

If you’re a film nerd like me, you watch a lot of movies. You know who directed them, who wrote them, and who starred in them. You even know the composers of the scores. If you’re as nerdy as me, you listen to these scores instead of actually popular music your friends want to listen to. And if you’re really, really nerdy, you want to read reviews of movie scores to know what is good.

For over a decade now, Filmtracks.com has been one of the finest websites dedicated to giving out film reviews. What’s most impressive about the site is that it’s run by one guy.

That guy’s name is Christian Clemmensen, and I have to wonder where he finds the time to write as many reviews as he does. The man writes at least one review a day, which is more than I can manage. And unlike me, Clemmensen writes really long reviews. His recent review for the score to The Last Airbender clocked in at over 2,000 words – twice the length of my longest review, for the book The Elves of Cintra by Terry Brooks. He also designed the site, maintains it, edits all his reviews, and does everything else needed to keep a large niche market website alive. So far, I’ve left those duties to the WordPress staff.

That Clemmensen maintains the site all by himself is occasionally a problem. Because he is human, Filmtracks.com sometimes experiences moments of downtime. I recall a period of a few months some years ago when no new reviews were being updated because of Clemmensen having a life. Right now, though, the site is regularly updated with reviews of movies new and old.

Clemmensen has a strong ability to write expository prose. That is to say that he knows how to write reviews clearly and intelligently. He has a keen ear for listening to music and discerning what’s happening technically with the sound. Sometimes his reviews incorporate too much jargon, but that is not what is wrong with them.

What’s wrong with Clemmensen’s reviews is that he doesn’t hit the Enter key.

His reviews do have multiple paragraphs. But they don’t have enough of them. An average paragraph in the aforementioned review of The Last Airbender ran 500 words long. There were five of them. Each paragraph could have been subdivided multiple times, and the article would have benefited for it.

Clemmensen’s reviews are overlong as it is, but when readers are confronted by huge blocks of text longer than the entirety of this review, it becomes intimidating. Readers today — especially readers on the internet — are accustomed to quick bursts of text. We’re used to what we read being in digestible, bite-sized chunks.

The site’s design is clean and attractive. That it features white text against a black background makes it seem a bit old-fashioned in terms of the Internet; most modern sites use white backgrounds. But these kinds of criticisms are nit-picky. Overall, the site is an incredible resource.

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The Gypsy Morph by Terry Brooks

The Gypsy Morph starts with a lone man named Willis trapped in a large nuclear missile silo complex with nothing to do but eat canned food, reminisce about how his companions have died, and think about launching nuclear missiles. Willis is a ticking time bomb. He is Chekov’s gun. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that he launches the missiles and destroys the world at the end of the book.

This is the last book in Terry Brooks’ Genesis of Shannara trilogy, which means that it wraps up plot lines established in the first two books, Armageddon’s Children and The Elves of Cintra. The story is still set in a post-apocalyptic version of our world, and it is still more of a fantasy adventure than a realist tale. This book reads much like the other two; if you’ve gotten this far, you don’t need me to tell you what the tone is like.

And if you’ve read the first two books, you already know what’s going to happen in this one. The magical boy named Hawk, the messiah figure introduced in Armageddon’s Children, has to lead a large group of human and mutant refugees to a place of safety before Willis launches his nukes. The Elf named Kirisin has to use a magic rock called the Loden Elfstone to transport the Elven capital city Arborlon – called “Arbor-lon” because the Elves like trees – to said place of safety.

That they will succeed is never in question. The Genesis of Shannara trilogy is just part of an ongoing saga, and the next few books have already been commissioned by Brooks’ publisher, Del Rey. And this saga is all prequel to his Shannara series, wherein Arborlon has survived and thrives.

With much of the plot predetermined, there are only two questions left. The first is how many characters will die along the journey to safe haven.

The second question is whether Terry Brooks is a good enough writer to make the story interesting.

He is. The Gypsy Morph is fun and engaging. It is a quick read, and a pleasurable one.

Brooks makes The Gypsy Morph fun by putting his characters through no end of strife. The protagonists are all hunted by demons, who have by this third book amassed an army of zombie-like once-men and evil mutants. They attack the main characters and the refugees, and this is violent and exciting. There are even a few large-scale battles, and Brooks excels at describing these.

Brooks makes his story relatively intelligent by adding heavy subtext of Judeo-Christian mytholgoy. Hawk was established as a messiah figure in the previous books, partly because he experienced a kind of death and resurrection. Now he embodies Moses as he leads his followers on an exodus away from the Pacific northwest urban centers. He performs miracles to stave off their demon pursuers, and then he leads them on a long, arduous journey through a desert.

The sequence involving the long, arduous journey is itself arduous to read. It comes at the end, and the book plods towards its inevitable finish. That Brooks seemed bored with writing the end of this trilogy is the series’s greatest flaw.

Perhaps Brooks, a traditional fantasy writer,  felt out of his comfort zone while writing this post-apocalyptic story, and wanted to get done with toward the end. The next set of books in this prequel saga should be more standard fantasy fare, and he will be in his element there.

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