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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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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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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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Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

The direct to DVD movie Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is awful. It’s so bad I can’t understand why it got made.

In the early seasons of the mostly excellent reimagining of the space odyssey TV show Battlestar Galactica, it was purported that the Cylons, the robotic enemies of humanity, had a plan. As it gradually became more and more apparent that the writers were making things up as they went along and that they didn’t have a plan for the show themselves, it likewise became apparent that the Cylons did not, in fact, have a plan.

This DVD movie, its synopsis claims, attempts to retrospectively show just what that Cylon plan was. But the Cylons’ attempt at a plan in this movie is almost as disjointed and stupid as the movie itself.

The movie starts with a sequence depicting the Cylons nuking the human Twelve Colonies. This is an impressive display of visual effects. It features spaceships and things blowing up. Sadly, it does not show spaceships blowing up.

But then the movie has shot its load. The movie then cuts between humanoid Cylons infiltrating the human survivors on Caprica, one of the Colonies, and Cylons infiltrating the fleet of refugee spaceships that was the focus of the TV show. Apparently the Cylons in the fleet want to blow up the fleet, but aren’t very good at it. The Cylons on Caprica just sort of follow humans around while looking mischievous.

I should explain more about the plot, but there isn’t an actual plot to explain.

Every scene in this movies exists between some other scene in the TV show. Consequently, every scene looks like it belongs as a deleted scene found on a DVD. The problem is, these scenes are shown out of context of the larger story. They require viewers to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the show itself. Worse, there are some scenes taken from the show itself and shown out of context for no good reason.

Most of the scenes in this DVD feature Dean Stockwell as Cavil, the seeming leader of the Cylons. Stockwell is a talented actor, and watching him work is engaging. But not enough to make me forget that nothing his character says makes sense.

There are also boobies. For some reason, director Edward James Olmos – who is as incapable as a director as he was thrilling to watch acting as the show’s Commander Adama – felt the need to add nudity in this DVD movie when there was none in the show itself. Sadly, the tits are the only redeeming factor in this mess of a movie.

There aren’t even spaceships shooting at each other and exploding.

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The Last Airbender – a critical response

The Last Airbender is a weird movie. It is a bad movie. But it is the kind of movie you can enjoy if you’ve read other critics’ reviews and found out its flaws ahead of time. It is also the kind of movie that benefits from you being drunk.

Other critics – ones with more prestigious publications than this blog – have said that The Last Airbender is rushed, and too quickly paced. They have said that it suffers from stilted dialog with too much exposition, and that this dialog is often poorly delivered by bad child actors.

They are right on all counts. But the movie isn’t quite as bad if you know these things going in. Especially if you have had several beers and/or joints beforehand.

The movie takes place in a weird world where there are four nations representing the four elements dictated by stupid Greek people – fire, earth, water, and air. The story is about this bald white kid Asianly named Aang who is found by some white kids from the water tribe. In this story, the different nations can each for some reason manipulate their respective elements, except for one being called an Avatar who can manipulate all of them. Aang is almost definitely the latest Avatar, and I’m sick of giving exposition already.

The movie gives this exposition. The critics are right that the exposition is overlong, and that the child actors delivering it don’t know how to act. They are right in saying that the movie’s pace is too quick because it attempts to summarize a twenty-episode cartoon series in less than two hours. Certainly the movie has a cartoony feel to it.

What is weird is that the movie is less than two hours long. It didn’t need to be. For the money he was budgeted, writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan could have made the movie maybe half an hour longer, and then the pace wouldn’t have been so rushed.

But the other critics have said the movie’s too-fast pace and excessive exposition made it incomprehensible, which it is not. The movie is based on an Anglican anime-style cartoon by Nickelodeon. I have only seen a few episodes of that cartoon, but I still understood what was going on in the movie. It was a fantasy tale about primal elements and their balance.

And it was visually gorgeous. The other critics knew that. But they deemphasized how awesome the special effects were. They deemphasized how brilliant the composition of the cinematography was. Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has always been a better director than a writer. He has always been better at visual composition than working with actors. In his past movies, he’s had better actors to make up for these flaws. The Last Airbender emphasizes his strengths and flaws more than his previous productions.

Shyamalan does amazing visual work with camera focus, left-to-right composition, long shots, close-ups, and whatnot. The scenes where the characters do their “bending” of the elements feature a dance like martial arts and brilliant special effects. These are beautiful. If you’re drunk enough, maybe you won’t notice that the story isn’t so great.

There have been two other major criticisms leveled at The Last Airbender.

The first is that the 3D, which was converted from 2D film, sucks. The obvious answer to this problem is to see the movie without the 3D gimmick. I saw the movie in 2D and it looked gorgeous. Maybe someday movie studios will realize that audiences don’t want to see bad 2D-to-3D conversions.

The other major criticism is that M. Night Shyamalan is racist because he cast white people in the lead roles, contrary to the races of these characters in the Nickelodeon cartoon. This is a stupid criticism because Shyamalan – as you might have guessed from his last name – is Indian himself. He cast the villains from the Fire Nation as Indians. Either this is an case of self-hatred on a race level, of Shyamalan cast race-blind. Either way, this shouldn’t be an issue to white critics.

What is more an issue is that Shyamalan cast most of the prominent Indian actors working today. There aren’t many. This means that he cast Dev Patel – who you remember from Slumdog Millionaire – as the lead villain. And he cast Cliff Curtis and Aasif Mandvi as the other two prominent villain roles. Aasif Mandvi is one of the latest correspondents on The Daily Show. For liberal white people like myself, it’s hard to take him seriously as a bad guy in a big budget, overbloated fantasy production.

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Following by Christopher Nolan

Following is the first movie made by Christopher Nolan, who you probably know as the guy who made the new Batman movies. If you’re a little bit of a film nerd, you probably also know him as the guy who made Memento. He also made The Prestige and that movie where Al Pacino couldn’t fall asleep. Following is mostly only interesting to film nerds, like me.

Consider this: In the early 2000s, Warner Bros. was looking for someone to revive the Batman franchise after directer Joel Schumacher had made two cartoonish Batman movies wherein Batman’s suit was made into something horrifically homo-erotic with rubber nipples. The studio was looking for a director who could make a Batman movie that was actually good. The leading contenders were two independent directors: Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky.

Aronofsky had directed the brilliant and groundbreaking Requiem for a Dream, a visually engrossing and atmospheric film about heroin addicts in Coney Island. His first movie, π, was a neo-noir film about the mathematical discovery of everything. It explored the mystery behind the number pi, Kabbalah, life, the universe, and everything else. It was also shot with a tiny budget on grainy black and white film.

Aronofsky didn’t get the job of making Batman. Instead he made The Fountain, an ambitious and underbudgeted film that was brilliant despite its flawed, and which flopped at the box office.

Nolan got the Batman job. But before he made Memento, a structurally engrossing and atmospheric movie, he made Following, which was shot on a tiny budget on grainy black and white film. The similarities between the two filmmakers’ early careers are interesting to film nerds like myself.

Following starts with a young man explaining to someone about how he is a young, unemployed writer in London who took to following people he thought were interesting. He began following a man who befriended him in a cafe and revealed that he was a professional burglar. The two of them burgled a beautiful woman’s apartment, who the young man later encountered at a bar and fell in love with.

The film follows conventions of film noir. The woman the young man falls for is the femme fatale. Neither she nor the burglar he befriends are who they seem to be. The ending, when their intentions are fully revealed, is trite and not as interesting as the setup.

But Nolan keeps things interesting through a non-linear plot structure, which allows for dramatic revelations and two or three plot twists. He used non-linear storytelling artfully in Memento, and also to great effect in Batman Begins, The Prestige. In Following, the lack of linearity isn’t necessary, except to allow for plot twists. Here, Nolan is essentially prepping himself for his later films.

But it is interesting how he uses sets to define people. In an early scene, the burglar takes the young man on a venture breaking into someone’s apartment. He speaks about how people’s personal space can define who they are. Nolan takes advantage of this idea by having different characters enter apartments with recognizable landmarks. These apartments indeed define the characters. The young man’s apartment is small and stark, like an employed person’s would be. The femme fatale’s apartment is well-furnished and has a piano.

Interestingly, Nolan used his friends’ apartments as location. All of the actors are amateur, but some of the apartments may actually belong to them, and may actually define them.

And Nolan’s film is furnished with his characteristic plot structure. Despite the grey and the grain, it looks visually similar to his other films, especially Memento. One idea behind Following is that we cannot escape who we are. Nolan is no exception.

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Snatch

Snatch is a movie that has balls. Or, since the movie is set in England and narrated with a cockney accent, it has bollocks. Either way, the movie so desperately wants you to know that it has bollocks that it waggles them around in your face stylistically for all of two hours.

There are no women in Snatch. Instead there are a motley crew of cartoonish men with names like Turkish, Franky Four Fingers, Mickey, Brick Top, Boris “The Blade” “The Bulletdodger” Yurinov, Vinny, Bullet Tooth Tony, Tyrone, and so on. Most of them communicate in a cockney accent, or in some indecipherable dialect. They all have about two dimensions, if that.

There is a plot, or a series of plots. They involve a stolen diamond the size of a fist, a boxing match where of course someone has to take a fall in the fourth round, a Caravan trailer, and gangsters, but not necessarily in that order. The plot is mostly indecipherable, and it doesn’t matter much. This movie is more about having bollocks.

Because the movie has bollocks, it is stylized. Director Guy Ritchie enjoys playing with hypersaturated film, slow motion, quick editing, obscure camera angles, and Jason Statham as the Turkish character narrating the movie in a cockney accent while talking in quick, choppy sentences. His narration comes off as an English imitation of Raymond Chandler.

Statham may be the main character of the movie. He plays a fellow who arranges fights for a bookie in a version of the English criminal underworld that is altogether unrealistic. But of course the plot doesn’t matter.

Snatch comes as a direct stylistic successor to Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, but it’s a mess in terms of plot, character development and story. The characters don’t evolve and the story doesn’t go anywhere.

But Snatch is entertaining. It’s really fun to watch. It has tough characters, a far-flung plot, and enough stylization to put most modern movies to shame. If nothing else, this movie was confidently directed. Snatch has balls, and it’s not ashamed that it has little else.

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