My Instant Reaction to Inception

What’s Good: Nolan is one of the few masters the cinema has left. His films are beautiful puzzles. Flaws are secondary to the ambition, clarity and intense, German-like origination of his vision. However one chooses to look at this movie it is a landmark science fiction film that we will be talking about for years.  
What’s Not: However garishly constructed, when you dissected or deconstruct some Nolan films you often are left feeling empty handed and betrayed. “Memento” was that kind of film and in a lot of ways so is “Inception.” The screenplay is one of the biggest assets and flaws. DiCaprio is miscast as usual. The action is unnecessary and illogical (can’t believe I said that). And while I have a lot more bad things to say about it than good, I like the movie, I’m just not going to pretend it’s an all around masterpiece.

Note: Given the nature of “Inception” I thought it best to write about it with my gut and heart more than my head. The second after watching I was moved to get whatever I had to say down as quickly as possible but not to over think it’s “meanings” because doing so might lead to levels of madness of DiCaprian proportions. My reaction is obviously going to change for the better or worse after have some time to sleep on it (though I wish I could sleep in it as well)  but know that I’m writing all this immediately after seeing the movie. I’m posting this three and a half to four hours after STARTING, not finishing, the movie and that’s give or take the time it took for all those IMAX trailers, driving home and feeding my hungry dogs that were waiting for me in the dark when I got home. Whatever the following response is, it may be more unrefined and impulsive than usual but, really, not much more than my usual crap I’m capable of. Given that at this moment the film is ranked on the IMDB as the third best film ever made there’s (you gotta love IMDB users)  a lot of knee jerk(off) reactions are around even though none of us really know how it will hold up. The drive to talk about this film is just that powerful and just that’s welcome given the sad dearth of thought (un)provoking summer movies.

I have a feeling that the more someone likes “Inception,” the more in denial they are about how much they like “Inception.” It’s as great and technical and expertly crafted as a film can be. It is also as hollow and empty –but beautifully so– as one of Esher’s stair cases leading to nowhere. That it looks hypnotically fabulous on its way there counts for something or, in this film’s case, everything. Like one of Esher’s playful works, this film is aware of itself and made to be looked at as such. There is a scene where the mark/dreamer is told by the protagonist that he’s in a dream. His dream in fact and that he is being told this so that he can be taken further and deeper down into various levels of this overarching dream. Noland is doing to us what he has in the previous films of what I would call his head-trip trilogy. In “Memento” his character broke all sorts of fourth walls to guide us into his fractured and, as it turns out, literally fleeting attention span. As he ran from his reality, we were brought closer and closer to it and while it seemed to signify so much at the beginning, it all evaporated after we revisited it and applied the film’s own logic to its plot. The entirety of “The Prestige,” Nolan’s best film to date, was built as a cinematic magic trick that the audience was brought in to participate in because a magic trick cannot exist without someone there to be (willingly) tricked. That film worked perfectly because when you take the pieces apart you get something substantial–a timeless parable about human obsession and the thin line between magic and science in our world. And with “Inception” Christopher Nolan takes our hands once again, using his firmest and most aggressively forceful grip to date, and plunges us in a very mediated journey into the world of dream espionage (which is a lot cooler than calling it dream stealing). It’s a bit “Matrix,” a bit “Open Your Eyes”/”Vanilla Sky” a bit of a Joss Whedon dream episode and a whole heap of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Also substantial is the amount of in-dream shooting and clunky metaphors pertaining to our unconscious mind where people literally lock up their secrets. The film is strangely lacking in surrealism but, given the plot and even tagline “the dream is real,” it’s very refreshing that the director didn’t resort to any nonsensical dream related Dali-esq “randomness.”  The dreams of “Inception” have weight and a consistent internal reality that the film, whatever its flaws are, benefits from sticking to all the way to the end. The final, open to interpretation shot existing as a fun little existential joke that only Nolan is capable of ending his film with.

What I admire is all the work that went into it. And who wouldn’t? To watch it unfold is to enjoy the power of any well thought out and choreographed cinematic achievements. It’s as if the impossible has happened, Kubrick merged with Fellini! What I do not admire is also very clear cut. While the craft is there and at the top of its form, this movie’s basic plot is just not very interesting and it spends a lot of time masking that with fantastic sights and constantly juggled Rube Goldbergian machinations. It’s a flashy and well made hurricane of a movie, but to what end? What are we left with? When the layers are taken apart we are stuck with a very thin story that has almost no reason for existing on its own terms. It’s about a man who is not very interesting that has lost something that was not very interesting or original to begin with! He does everything he can to get “it” back and I kept waiting to get to the heart of what that is exactly and once I did was not impressed. The thinness of the story brings with it of course very thin character motivations as well and, worst of all, a very thin excuse to have people shooting guns at well dressed cyphers, existing as a built in security measure (an dream defense army whose job is to protect their host’s mind). The action scenes where characters shoot at each other feels off. Pondering “what is real” is of course nothing new and feels even more shallow in a college philosophy class kind of way this time around then it did when “Matrix” came out. The plot I will not waste my time describing because, first, this is not the kind of film you get people to see by explaining it and second, well, as I said: what plot? There’s lots of talk of getting “information” and beyond lazy MacGuffins featuring  hard to crack safes with hard to locate combinations and hard to care about documents within these mind-lockers. Such heavy handed icons never break free to signify anything other than themselves and I was never once pleased to find out what “vital information” any given characters was hiding. Perhaps that’s a deliberate way to impress upon us how, in real dreams, feelings are always more profound and lingering than the minute details. But that would assume that the film has much feeling or emotion. As is, the details are unclear and the emotions lack even definition.

I could talk about the beautiful, near non-stop music soundscape that Han Zimmer has created. This is amazing work by a seasoned composer that is able to lull us in with dreamy orchestral synths that guide without ever bringing us to the surface as, say, John William’s did with “A.I.” The editing is also first rate. It has that elliptical, metronome like construction that “The Prestige” used so well to its advantage. All the cuts are in service of the story’s vision rather than providing us with visual indulgences and I think that’s an important distinction to make. Same goes for the special effects. When characters float around and buildings topple into themselves, there’s a reason for it. Not a reason that is particularly engaging but a reason none the less. The way the film is put together, first in Nolan’s mind, second in the always brilliant Wally Pfister’s visual mapping and finally in Lee Smith’s cluttered but somehow coherent cutting room. These combine to form a effect worth treasuring and a big reason to come back again and again to this special world. The cast, in true human fashion, introduce flaws to Nolan’s otherwise perfect technical construct. He’s like Kubrick in the sense that humans always taint the notion of film in its pure form.

The film is has a pair of great actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and an underused Michael Caine. There are also competent but sometimes overrated performers such as Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard. There are even WTF casting choices that rival Eric Roberts in “Dark Knight;” Tom “where have you been” Berenger and Levitt’s “Brick” co-star Lukas Haas appear. Oh and, yeah, Leonardo DiCaprio. Except for Leo, nobody really does a bad job. The characters, however, are all as distant and faceless and as mechanically driven as all those unconscious/subconscious Mr. Smiths running around people’s dream worlds trying to seek out the foreign body. Nothing about these characters except for that persistent dream stalker played by Cotillard, the beautiful Freddy Kruger of this dream worlds (she acts as a much needed wild card that comes in and disrupts the dream team’s “plan” in very cool ways) stand out in any way that inspires or evokes much feeling or depth. I didn’t not really like these characters but that’s only because I did not know them! Or their highly specialized jobs for that matter. They may be the “best” at what they do but I was always are left having to take the film’s word for it because what each character’s job is, such as a “dream architect” that could learn her job and be the best in the world at it after about a half day of unconscious training, makes no sense but at least the film doesn’t dwell because what good would come out of that? Even after spending two and a half hours with these people I didn’t come close to having any sort of organic connection with them or what they do. When Levitt pecks Page on the lips it was the only moment of genuine human involvement and while I liked it a lot it also seemed like an after thought, and a tease of one at that.

Also integrated awkwardly is a pivotal snow-set section of the film which is not only narratively bland and unclear but represents the only instance where the technical aspects let the film down (stark but dull visuals and hurried editing make it hard to get a fix on anything that’s going on in the snow–it was like a level out of “Moder Warfare 2”). The actors are given very simple performance tools and very challenging physical demands to play with and while few bring much to their characters beyond exactly what is required of them, at least they don’t take away from them either. Except for DiCaprio. As usual he is out of league and unable to draw me in to his reality. He is unconvincing and uninteresting. Another actor, Christian Bale for example (I know, I know, you don’t have to say it, I’m too much of a Bale fan), could have finessed the part up a bit, adding perhaps small touches of humanity and some wry humor to go along with all that overwrought intensity. DiCaprio, who is always so wound up in his movies (and always so damn obvious about his turmoil), fails to hold the dream at large together because he is always so glacially sober which, again, is ironic given the fluid subject we’re dealing with. The character is just a drab fellow that is never fun or energetic on screen. He’s a total drag. To his credit, Leo was having a good year after a somewhat similar turn in a far more (as performances, and perhaps films, go) successful mind bending “Shutter Island.” Both movies exist to takes us into the corridors of this actor’s crumbling psyche, failing to realize of course that there’s just not that much in there to get lost in.

Grade: B

Has any of this made any sense?

Greenberg

What’s Good: Noah Baumbach manages to make his most dramatic film also his funniest. He just gets better and better. And speaking of better, this is one of the year’s best.
What’s Not:People who don’t “get” Greenberg. Actually I can understand why this film would turn people off. Museum crashing Stiller fans need not apply because this is not the kind of Stiller comedy you may be expecting. Also, while I usually hate hearing from critics (in any way and about petty much anything) I included the AO Scott review of “Greeberg” from recently dead At the Movies show because Scott is one of the few critics to give “Greenberg” the credit it deserves.  

 

“Greenberg” is out! Usually DVD/Blu-ray releases don’t interest me but this bit of news is an event and a reason to celebrate. I haven’t been very into movies this year for the simple reason that none of them are really worth writing about. Actually I’ve just been really lazy when it comes to writing, talking about movies, going out to movies or for that matter leaving my apartment. But, still, on top of that is the fact that movies have been sucking. Hard. Except for “Greenberg.” Seven months into the year and “Greenberg” is still the best thing out. I usually hold that personal info close to the vest so as to give my year end top ten some heat //term used ironically// but this year is so uneventful that I must appreciate the one great film of 2010 because I may not get another chance to do so after “The Last Airbender” gives me a brain aneurysm and kills me right where I sit. 

From “Greenberg” to this month’s solid but not particularly earth shattering “Cyrus,” man-baby movies are very in right now. These are movies about or featuring men so selfish and entitled that the world must meet their every selfish demand or feel their totally powerless wrath.  More often than not, in a movie like “Step Brothers” or “Cyrus,” men literally act like babies (to comic effect) and have a whole lot of mommy issues whereas in a film like “Greenberg” it’s more a part of the behavioral makeup of the character. Somehow we are able to like such characters played by top man baby actors John C. Riley, Ben Stiller and of course the biggest man baby of them all, perhaps even the inventor of modern man babyisms, Will Ferrell who, to his credit, seems to be channeling the classic literary man baby progenitor Ignatius from “A Confederacy of Dunces.” This character type rings true for a lot of reasons, the topmost of which  might be that male adults these days are indeed trapped in an infantilized, womb like haze of me-me-me self entitlement. Which brings me to the film at hand. “Greenberg” provides the most incisive, biting, funny and most dramatic treatment of this popular new cultural trope.

It’s kinda sad when you see a deliberately unlikable character and think to yourself that it could be you in ten years if you don’t stop what you’re doing right now and get some therapy. Greenberg is a character that has given up on life and success and happiness yet still desperately wants attention, validation and credit. He’s a walking conflict. This is a character that hates growing older while at the same time also hates the young and energetic. When his ever patient best friend played by Rhys Ifans exhaustively rehashes that Oscar Wilde line about youth being wasted on the young Greenberg feels that’s not cynical enough and fires back with “I’d go one step further. I’d go: Life is wasted on… people.” With great zeal he then adds, rhetorically perhaps, that “I’m strangely ‘on’ tonight” while the dinner party looks at him without an ounce of agreement. I have used that line many times in the months since “Greenberg” has come out. Capturing the self loathing vibe and sour humor of Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach’s “Greenburg” speaks to the misanthrope in me, perhaps us, and is honest enough to admit that we may all have a little Greenberg lurking inside of use.

That alone would make the film rather hard to tolerate so Baumbach balances his broken compass of a character with a 25-year-old babysitter played by “Mumblecore” (hate that term) princess Greta Gerwig. In this wonderful performance, a much needed base to Greenberg’s acid, Gerwig plays a family babysitter who is helping Greenberg watch over his brother’s killer pad and sick dog in L.A. while he’s out of town. Of course she ends up babysitting the mentally ill or perhaps mentally eccentric Greenberg, falling in a very depressing sorta love in the process. Even here the writers (this time Noah teams up with “Margot at the Wedding” star Jennifer Jason Leigh) do not fall back on the conventions we’d expect with these types of movies. The easy thing would be to give her the Helen Hunt in “As Good as it Gets” treatment, positioning her as the patron saint of patient women who put up with ass-holes for no clear reason. She’s also is not some sort of bombshell that would not normally fall for this guy except for in movie world (she’s cute, Greenberg, muses, but only if you had to work with her in a all day, every day sort of way), nor is she terribly witty in that annoying indie movie way. She’s normal and yet what she does makes sense because the writers take the time to develop the character and explore her psychology. Not enough good things could be said of this performance.

Noah Baumbach is one of the best filmmakers around because he’s not out to sell us one his cleverness and not out to drone on about how much life sucks. His films contain all the humor of his collaborations with Wes Anderson but fare better for my money because he sits down and actually attempts to deal with and engage his audience in some sort of unspoken dialogue with these characters. And sometimes, as in a film like this, “dealing” with a character does not mean fixing them and hoping for that happy off-screen ending, either, which is to be applauded. Baumbach characters in this movie, while funny, are all grounded and match their respective intelligence levels. While plagued with psychological troubles Greenberg is not a “Shine”-like savant or brilliant anti-social writer and his friends are just normal people who happened to grow up a little faster than Greenberg. While suburb and often underrated I always felt his characters in “The Squid and the Whale” and to a lesser extent “Margot,” especially the children, talked in a very stylized intellectual manner. Which is fine because so are many if not most of Allen’s characters. However it’s that kind of closed-off writing style that, outside of the Allen-verse, is impossible to sustain without coming off as a bit of a pretentious prick (Hal Hartley, Diablo Cody, etc. al.). Not Baumbach and definitely not “Greenberg.” 

“Greenberg” also happens to be Baumbach’s most skilled work as a filmmaker. The pacing and visuals doing a good job at keeping up with the story and writing. Shots of a solitary Greenberg or visual metaphors like a hose spewing water and spinning around in a pool attain a poetic quietness that help sell the film’s somber but not sad tone. Even the awkward (an obligatory facet of comedies these days) or dramatic moments are scaled back to avoid “Meet the Parents” sized exaggerations and, on the other side of the Ben Siller spectrum, cheep melodramatic storytelling shortcuts like the drama filled but somehow hollow attempted suicide scene in “Royal Tenenbaums”–a scene I don’t like in a movie I do… depending on what mood I’m in (I have a weird love/hate relationship with that movie that even I don’t understand).

Ben Siller should be commended for acting in a “real” movie. How considerate of him. Stiller does a fine and nuanced job here but those words lack proper weight and I understand that saying so is about as useful as say Adam Sandler is good in all of “Punch Drunk Love” and small parts of “Funny People.” It also does me no good to state that now that he’s made his money he should stick with quality directors like Wes Anderson, Noah B and, strangely enough, himself because they all seem to be the only ones giving his career longevity. I guess I’d add Neil LaBute to that list well as he was fantastic in “Your Friends and Neighbors. Stiller’s willingness to dive into this troubled man and ability to render him vulnerable but not in a cheap or sentimental way results in his very best performance to date. We have a really unlikable guy to contend with here and are often are left wondering why people would even bother meeting him a second time after receiving a mean (but delightful on the other side of the screen) diatribe. Yet for all his miserable ways the film is not mocking Greenberg or laughing at him or studying him under a microscope. Gerwig sums the enigma of Greenberg up best when she tells him, simply, that “mean people treat people mean.”
Grade: A

Review: Predators

What’s Good: Lots of fan service, which, for a film like this, is all that matters. One of those rare reboots that updates the formula as much as it pays tribute to the original.  
What’s Not: Waiting for the next Predator film.

“Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.”

You have to understand, fans of “Predator” movies are not like other fans. We don’t expect greatness, we don’t even expect good-ness. Unlike bitter and whiny fanboys of other franchises (ahem, “Star Wars”) “Predator” fans have the remarkable ability to be content with what we get, which is not often and not often that good so when we get a “Predator” film, any predator film, we also know enough not to complain (too much) because we’re getting a Predator film! Our expectations are always low but spirited despite knowing that this franchise maynever (a) surpass the first “Predator,” and (b) yield a full on mainstream success. As jungle planet movies go, this ain’t Pandora and thank the sci-fi Gods for that! Realistically, Fox is doing us a huge favor whenever they throw us a predator shaped bone so imagine my surprise when something I don’t expect or even need to be any good is actually good. Unnecessary but thank you very much for that.

Maybe I shouldn’t speak for “us fans” because, honestly, I’ve never meet a real Predator fans in person so the “we” in question is more of a projection of “me.” So from myside of things, “Predators” is everything a Predator film should be and actually a little bit more. This new high stakes jungle adventure is both a fantastic tribute to the classic John McTiernan film right down to the musical score that is basically a re-composition of the original (John Debney by way of Alan Silvestri), but it’s also a sturdy and competent reboot of a franchise long dead or as H.P. Lovecraft would call it, a “dead but dreaming” state. This film, R-rated and proud of it, comes off as being written by people who actually respect what the first film was about (human nature more than alien nature) and understand what the series needs to thrive in films to come if indeed there are any. “2 Fast 2 Predators” is my title suggestion for the next “Predator” which I hope gets made sooner rather than the standard one “Predator” per every twenty or so years. Included in this third (or fifth if you count b0th “Alien vs. Predator” films which most fans don’t or won’t or maybe just can’t) are key aspects like a slow and steady build-up which is an essential and I should think rather obvious ingredient that, somehow, most”Predator” films missed. Various hunter/hunted and predator/prey themes are also very strong, so strong that the cold protagonist even quotes that bear of a hunter Earnest Hemingway–that’s where the above quote comes from. Awesome weapons, seedy humans that die off one by one, stealth kills, gruesome Mortal Kombat-esq kills (no kidding: a Predator yanks a dude’s skull and spinal chord, Scorpion-style), fearsome non-Predator creatures (that’s a new one!), well timed explosions, booby traps, alien ships and while I could go on I will settle by stating that everything is calibrated just right. There is a build up to be sure as the Predator doesn’t rear it’s “one ugly motherfucker” head for a while, but the story never drags. Like the Predators themselves, the film is quick and over before you know what hits you. The film even adds to the always mysterious mythology/methodology of these tribal creatures by including different species within the Predator kingdom of creatures. I took a perverse pleasure in learning from this film that even Predators can be racist.

The film just kicks ass. All kinds of ass. If you ever wanted to see a samurai sword wielding Yakuza tussle with a Predator, this film has that! If you ever wanted to see a Predator get a shiv in the chest and called a “space faggot” from a surly inmate, this film has that too! And for anyone thought that Aliens fighting Predators was just about the coolest thing ever, this film offers up a sight that may just be cooler: Predator vs. Predator! I’m gushing but I can’t help it, it’s that awesome. I may be embellishing as to how good this movie actually is but I have no problem blaming that on timing and the lack of a single worthwhile summer film this year.

This film understands that a big budget does not make a “Predator” film better or worse. Similar to the “Pitch Black”/”Chronicles of Riddick” schism where more is not anywhere close to better, this film gets back to the basics. Tension and atmosphere, if done right, do not necessarily need to cost a lot or be over thought and while I am usually very reluctant to give Robert Rodriguez credit for much of anything except for “Desperado” I’ll concede that his down and dirty filmmaking philosophy works very well on this type of project. But this is not a RR film, director Nimrod Antel (Kontrol, Vacancy) may not be a great or stylish director but he clearly understands how to use atmosphere.

“Predators” is set on a prison planet where people are dropped from the sky while Predators lie in wait. That simple hook (and I’m not spoiling because the trailers give that away–which sucks but that’s the world we live in) gives the plot a perverse sense of hopeless pessimism that even the first “Predator” did not have. Even if you are able to defeat the enemy at hand you’re still stuck on the planet which is one giant big game reserve. Also, killing a Predator, as we learn from a deranged and seasoned vet who has been on the planet for “ten seasons,” will only cause more to come because apparently they dig the challenge. Dutch had it easy because he was able to GET TO THE CHAPPA by getting the hell out of Dodge or Central America as it were. Not so much this time as the setting is literally an amusement part for the world’s most demented race of “higher beings.” Advanced Lobster men with dreadlocks who have somehow figured out the whole interstellar travel thing and yet look, and act, no more evolved than the main portion at a Red Lobster. To contradict myself for a sec, while watching I actually thought about the nature of these Predator “monsters” and a part of me, a small part, could almost makes a case for them not being monsters. He or she (though nobody’s ever seen a female Predator as far as I know; maybe they’re huge nags and that’s why the men go halfway around the universe to distract themselves with the hunt of primitive human bipeds) is a hunter and a warrior and follows what appears to be a strict set of codes and customs. They may be violent but at least they have honor. Humans… not so much. I mentioned a samurai fight: in this scene, the bad ass Predator could easily shoot the sword wielding ninja with his three red light missile contraption a la Indiana Jones in that funny “Raiders” scene but, no, he steps up and uses his hand knife. And they fight. To the death. In tall grass. And it’s awesome! There is a dignity to that gesture and I appreciate the hell out of it. Yes, the “monster” wants to kill humans but they are not innocent or unarmed humans. Predators don’t want it to be easy and that separates these aliens from other movie aliens.

I’ve saved the cast for last. Not without reason. They serve the plot well but unlike Predator 1 or 2, no great personalities emerge. The cast offers a very strange range in styles and personalities. You know something’s off when Adrian Brody is cast as the Arnold of the movie. He speaks like Clint Eastwood (minus the humor) and carries a very large gun. It feels like a joke at first (the dude is no sexual tyrannosaur) but the character grows on you even if it’s no where close to how Arnold or Danny Glover did. There’s also the always welcome Rodriguez favorite, Danny Trejo, as a Mexican gangster (or something), a Russian military thug who gets to use Jessie the Body’s chain gun, a convict played by Walter Goggins (so good at playing a sleaze in The Shield, Justified and now Predator), an African death squad guy, the Mr. Eco of the group, played by Mahershalalhashbaz Ali(as opposed to Majdkajfksjkfdajskjfaskdfaskljfdk Ali) and, of course, the obligatory “Predator” movie staple of casting a hot Latin co-lead (Alice Braga, who made “Blindness” better and “I Am Legend” worse). Topher Grace, the one “non warrior” of the group, appears as a out-of-place doctor and Lawrence Fishburn even pops in to offer a few great surprises that I won’t spoil except to say his intro is brilliant. The film has a timeless set-up where a bunch of strangers wake up in an unknown place for an unknown reason. That kind of story has been done before (“Saw,” “Identity,” every other “Twilight Zone” episode and even Agatha Christie) with the only difference being that the characters in this story wake up while free falling towards the ground. With guns! And a parachute that may or may not work.

As I said, this is not a great film but it ends up being great by simply offering something that’s missing. Fun, non pretentious summer action and sci-fi thrills. That was once common but a precious commodity in the era of CGI kids movies, superfluous 3D action films (effin “Clash of the Titans,” “Last Airbender”!!!) and Kathryn Higel movies. The summer movie, as we knew it, is dead. “Predators” recalls a time when B-grade sci-fi were not only found on syfy channel late at night. In fact, films like this were once an event and for however brief a moment in time, there are once more.

Grade: B+