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“Game Changers”

Watching Pacific Rim last Friday made me wonder: What constitutes a 21st century sci-fi “game changer”? What determines the kind of movie that gets labeled “instantly iconic” or “revolutionary,” that accumulates a fandom by the end of its first weekend in release? Pacific Rim, for example—whose goofy kid-in-a-bathtub mayhem I really enjoyed—struck me as kin to a couple of other recent movies, Avatar and Inception. Here’s what the three have in common:

  • They’re written and directed by men with considerable nerd cachet. (Co-written, in the case of Pacific Rim.) They all started life as “original” projects, but are banking on audience members’ knowledge of their auteurs—and willingness to see anything from the mind behind AliensThe Dark Knight, or Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • That “original” status. Although all three draw heavily from their sci-fi forebears, they’re brand new properties, with minimalist titles calculated to tease. At least prior to their respective releases, they all looked new, mysterious, and intriguing.
  • The near-future worlds crafted for these movies are all dependent on CGI for their size and detail. Each of these worlds also centers on a series of conceits—e.g. avatars, dream theft, drifting—meant to hook the viewer, with “rules” which must be explained via endless exposition.
  • Brooding, recently bereaved white men headline these movies, each of them leading a team on a redemptive mission. Outside of a few minor flourishes in Inception, they’re all very conventionally plotted, with conflicts that are easy to grab hold of: “natives vs. imperialists,” “thieves vs. the mind,” and of course “robots vs. monsters.”
  • As decidedly PG-13 action movies, they lack any sexuality (beyond a single chaste scene in Avatar) or graphic violence. They disengage from the reality of human bodies, opting to make them one more glossy component of these digital fantasy worlds instead.
  • Given their shared interest in charting the mind’s interior and playing with characters’ identities, they’re all indebted to the work of Philip K. Dick, as well as to The Matrix—their most obvious predecessor as far as conceit-driven sci-fi sagas go.

None of these traits are inherently negative, but together they do lay out some very narrow parameters for Event Movie sci-fi. I don’t expect to be blowing any minds here, but given how familiar these three films’ stories, ideas, and visual grammar are from countless earlier movies, maybe (just maybe) “game-changing” has less to do with content and more to do with packaging.

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Link Dump: #33

What the musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors lacks in kitties (this is the only one, shown for a second during the opening number; of course our immediate reaction to seeing a kitty not related to the plot of the movie is to pause to get a screenshot for the link dumps) it greatly makes up for in blood-thirsty, alien plants and sexy, doo-wop trios. With that said, please enjoy these musical (read: totally not musical at all) links!

Alas, we had a drought of truly weird or awful search terms. The only one that really stood out to me was “mom and dad eat the babysitter pussy” because honestly, that’s fucking gross. It’d be odd without “pussy” at the end, but that one word puts it over the edge. Honestly, WTF.

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Oscar Grouching ’10: Inception and Black Swan

The Oscars are almost almost here, and I’ve promised Ashley that I’ll shut up about them soon. But there’s so much I haven’t been able to talk about! So I’m going to make a last-ditch effort to address some of my lingering nominee-related thoughts.

First of all: Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which I discussed in an initial, wildly enthusiastic review and in my year-end wrap-up. My opinion of it has fluctuated over the past 6-7 months, and I recently revisited it to write a “Mix Tape” article for The Film Experience about the film’s use of Édith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” A few points stood out to me: first and most frustratingly, the film totally wastes a fantastic ensemble. Ellen Page and JG-L act as Cobb’s glorified assistants (and bounce exposition off of each other), while Cillian Murphy is a quirky, talented actor trapped in a bland nothing role.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting, meanwhile, leaves a lot to be desired since he’s supposed to be the film’s lead and emotional linchpin. He has two modes here—pedagogic and brooding—and neither is especially enthralling. Only Cotillard, Watanabe, and Hardy do anything much of interest, and even they are hampered by the film’s structure and dialogue. It’s emphatically not an actor’s movie. However, it is an art design and special effects wet dream, and redeemed by its moments of sheer visual spectacle. It also builds a creative, streamlined world out of old clichés and pieces of cultural detritus. Given this last attribute, I could imagine Inception 2 going in some cool directions.

For now, though, all we’ve got is Inception 1, which is occasionally awesome and fun, but nonetheless has plot holes big enough to drive a train through in the middle of its raison d’etre, the über-complicated shared dreaming technology. But I’m still excited for The Dark Knight Rises and whatever else Nolan wants to make; maybe we’ll get another Ledger-as-Joker-caliber performance out of his movies again. In the meantime, Inception certainly deserves a technical award or two. We’ll find out tonight!

It’s hard to separate the good and bad of Black Swan (see my initial review), and I think that’s just how Darren Aronofsky likes it. Is it gorgeous, intense, and sensual, unlike almost every other Best Picture nominee? Hell yes. Is it adolescent, prurient, trashy, and obsessed with Natalie Portman’s oh-so-romantic masochism for her art? Also hell yes. It’s an icky, atmospheric horror movie that would make a great double feature with Perfect Blue; it’s also comparatively simple-minded about sex and female performance, steeped as it is in hoary melodramatic tropes. (After all, it is an unofficial remake of everything from 42nd Street to Showgirls.)

To be frank, though, I love all the women in this. Portman (this year’s almost-certain Best Actress) is the film’s center which cannot hold, the diva around whom Ryder, Kunis, and Hershey orbit, and each one of them still gets a few juicy moments in the limelight. In the end, though, it’s all about Nina’s manic, transformative dance to the death. In that final scene, you either applaud Aronofsky’s gall, you ask “What the fuck is going on?!”, or both. To conclude, I’ve got a few fascinating and informative Black Swan-related links:

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Welcome to My Nightmare

Slasher movie sequels don’t generally have high standards. As original ideas morph into long-lasting franchises, the tendency is to slip into autopilot and retell the same story; after all, if it was good (or at least profitable) enough the first time, why not again, and again, and again? This is why A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (1987) is so refreshing. It’s not exactly groundbreaking or profound, but neither is it boring or lazy.

Directed by Chuck Russell (later of The Blob [1988] and The Mask [1994]), Dream Warriors is thoroughly competent,  but has occasional  flashes of great imagination—like when the balls on a Newton’s cradle float apart to signify a dream sequence, or when Freddy’s skeleton comes to life à la Jason and the Argonauts (1963). So yes, much of its awesomeness derives from its special effects and creatively unsettling violence, but the writing is also unusually sharp for a Part 3. (The involvement of The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabont may account for some of this.)

The film’s teenagers aren’t exactly well-rounded characters—each of them gets only a couple of attributes, like “was addicted to drugs” or “likes to make puppets”—but they’re nonetheless plausible and, more importantly, they care about each other. Stuck together in a mental hospital under the dominion of the Nurse Ratched-like Dr. Simms (Priscilla Pointer), the Dream Warriors are reliant on their own camaraderie and teamwork in order to overcome Freddy—as well as the mentorship of Dr. Gordon (Body Double’s Craig Wasson) and Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who fought Freddy herself in the first Nightmare movie, and has now returned as an intern.

Dream Warriors further expands on series mythology by introducing Kristen (Patricia Arquette), who has the ability to drag others into her own Freddy-plagued dreams, enabling them to fight him together. Shared dreaming? Yeah, it’s Inception 23 years before the fact and with weirder dreams to boot. They’re dreams where Freddy takes the guise of a sexy nurse, and then uses his own tongues to bind one of the kids above a fiery pit; where he terrorizes the disabled Will with a giant, spike-covered wheelchair; and where he can appear in a dozen mirrors at once. The film’s dreams are unpredictable, irrational, and sometimes terrifying as Freddy potentially looms around every corner.

Meanwhile, Nancy and Dr. Gordon wrestle with a subplot that involves a mysterious nun (OK, she’s actually the ghost of Mrs. Krueger) and the need to bury Freddy’s remains in hallowed ground, all of which leads back to Nancy’s dad (John Saxon), who helped kill Freddy in the first place, and to a gory junkyard showdown. Throughout all of this, the film isn’t quite good enough to transcend its dated genre trappings, but it’s still a curious mix of the slasher formula with team-oriented adventure, surreal visualizations of teen angst, and a dose of comedy—both intentional and otherwise. And it’s definitely better than the first two Nightmare movies.

So if nothing else, Dream Warriors is good for the same reasons that it’s odd: it crosses genre lines while capitalizing on the narrative potential of the Nightmare series’ deadly dreams. The Dream Warriors don’t just fall asleep, one by one, and get hacked apart; they work together through their nocturnal trials, even experiencing moments of real wonder as they share their (sometimes goofy) dream powers. (“In my dreams, I’m the Wizard Master!” says the hopelessly nerdy Will.) And if all that’s not enough for you, Dream Warriors co-stars a young, hot Laurence Fishburne as a sympathetic orderly.

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2010: The Year We Make Lists

It’s that time of year again. Just when everybody else is busy decorating and throwing away 2010 calendars, film critics everywhere are releasing their best-of lists. A.O. Scott picked his; so did Roger Ebert. David Denby talked about Boston and gave a cutting description of Inception: “like a giant clock that displays its gears and wheels but forgets to tell the time.” I still don’t think Inception deserves the critical thrashing it’s received. I may have been more than a tad overzealous in my initial review – “it lived up to all the expectations,” I claimed hours after seeing it – but in a brain-draining summer crammed with sequels, prequels, and lowbrow shit, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, original heist movie was a welcome reprieve – even if it is an overexplained, ultimately pointless white elephant.

The summer’s other, more lasting treat was Toy Story 3. It was the second sequel to a computer-animated kid’s movie about toys, yet it ended up being one of the most thoughtful, powerful, and humane movies of the year. Not since the song “Worthless” in The Brave Little Toaster (1987) has a film tapped so effectively into the transience of inanimate objects, and our relationships to them; although it’s not perfect (some of the jokes fell flat), it harnesses all of the franchise’s built-up good will of the past 15 years during its gracefully cathartic ending. My favorite part remains the subplot wherein the teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty) takes on the role of a southern political boss. Animation’s not just for kids anymore. And you know what else? It never was!

Later in the summer, I was moved to tears by the realistic depiction of relationship being torn apart and pieced back together in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Topical in its nuanced representation of same-sex marriage, questionable in the way that the lesbian Jules (Julianne Moore) falls into bed with sexy sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the film abounds with strong performances, headed by Moore, Ruffalo, and most of all Annette Bening as Nic, the stern breadwinner of the family. On the wackier, more in-your-face side of the gay comedy spectrum is the recently released I Love You, Phillip Morris, which gives Jim Carrey both a juicy, dense role as a con man/pathological liar, and a cute boyfriend in the form of Ewan McGregor.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to talk about the Movie Of The Year, at least according to critical consensus and award reception: David Fincher’s The Social Network, which is cruising on its way to a likely Best Picture Oscar come February. It’s been seized on by critics as emblematic of 2010’s zeitgeist – which involves digitally connecting with other human beings, it seems – even though it’s not so much about Facebook as it is about betrayals and shady business deals, with the irony that founder Mark Zuckerberg “doesn’t have three friends to rub together” acting as a nice analytical bonus. Part of The Social Network‘s genius is that it touches tangentially on so many themes, Big and little, that you can approach it from any direction – digital revolutions, friendship, ambition, Ivy League privilege – and come out the other side with a brand new set of questions.

Set at a Harvard that’s ominously drenched in muted green, the film makes the school out to be a hotbed of amoral genius, romantic in its intensity and dangerous to those around it, with Mark as its epicenter. Through Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed script, the characters speak either in high-speed banter (a game at which Mark invariably wins) or snappy, declarative soundbites. Fincher directs with Kubrickian iciness, and in Mark he finds his HAL. Eisenberg plays him as a borderline autistic “asshole,” a programming juggernaut who reveals the occasional human emotion as he systematically edges out any potential competition: the Winklevii (Armie Hammer as twin brothers) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella); his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield); and eventually his accidental mentor Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), culminating in a sit-and-think scene right out of The Godfather Part II.

Besides Eisenberg and Garfield, my other favorite part of The Social Network was Rooney Mara as Mark’s ex-girlfriend Erica; her lisping outrage at his presumptions introduced some humanity to a movie that sorely needed it. My least favorite part was the curt dismissal of Eduardo’s clingy Asian girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song), who was written to accommodate every conceivable stereotype and then dropped when it suited the screenplay. Now, on to a few other little accolades: I quite enjoyed The Town, especially Jeremy Renner’s performance  as the latter-day Irish equivalent of Tommy DeVito from GoodFellas; Edgar Wright’s totally one-of-a-kind direction of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World outshines any other part of that movie; Emma Stone in Easy A, a relatively disappointing, poorly written movie, quipped and sashayed her way into my heart; Katie Jarvis is unforgettable and trashily human in Fish Tank; and the Australian gangster movie Animal Kingdom is engaging, suspenseful, and has a mustachioed Guy Pearce. With that, I move on to my top 5 of the year…

(For what it’s worth, I went with a top 5 instead of 10 because 1) these 5 were, to me, head-and-shoulders above the rest and 2) I haven’t seen enough of the year’s films to really put together a complete, meaningful list. By sheer coincidence, I watched #3 and #1 theatrically back-to-back in July.)

#5: The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski

For me, the defining moment of Polanski’s latest film is when the unnamed title character (Ewan McGregor) tries to smuggle the all-important memoirs of former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) out of the office by attaching a flash drive to his laptop. As soon as he downloads the file, an alarm goes off and the ghost writer, terrified, runs from the room, assuming that it was triggered by his actions. But it turns out it was just a routine security drill, and the breach goes unnoticed. This scene is the perfect example of how Polanski’s precise direction – often assisted by Alexandre Desplat’s oddly playful score – establishes the darkly comic, paranoid atmosphere that makes The Ghost Writer one of the best films of the year.

A throwback to the classic Polanski of Chinatown (1974) and The Tenant (1976), the film casts a sharp eye on political corruption and the media as its protagonist unravels an international conspiracy involving his employer, the War on Terror, plenty of red herrings, and the CIA – as well as his mysteriously drowned predecessor. Brosnan applies all his post-James Bond charisma and sex appeal to the affable Lang, a historical stand-in for Tony Blair, while Olivia Williams steals the movie as his sharp-tongued, world-weary wife. (Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson also stand out in single-scene roles.) Although it may falter in its third act as its roman à clef storyline clashes with its secret agent theatrics, The Ghost Writer picks up just in time for a sucker punch ending, all told in Polanski’s inimitable, cosmopolitan style. Instead of being just another generic conspiracy thriller, it’s incisive, personal, and unexpectedly funny.

#4: Please Give, directed by Nicole Holofcener

Right from its opening credits montage of breasts being examined in a radiology clinic, Please Give distinguishes itself with its comic timing and courageous wit. A well-written, character-driven examination of body image, aging, privilege, and guilt, the film parallels the stories of two Manhattan families linked by the fact that Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) will own the apartment of the other family’s cranky matriarch, Andra (Ann Guilbert), once she dies. Out of the characters’ interactions and individual crises (whether it’s over needing $200 jeans or being disgusted by the large back of an ex-boyfriend’s new love), the story evolves organically, forcing each character to question their preconceptions and lifestyles.

Please Give doesn’t have much of a climax; people’s lives undergo minor changes, but there are no shocking revelations or character arcs. Yet in its own quiet, gradual way, it’s a very probing film filled with very complex characters, from the miserable, compulsively charitable Kate to Andra’s granddaughters, the bitchy, image-obsessed Mary (Amanda Peet) and the awkward, selfless Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Bound by no conventions but her own, Holofcener laces the film with moments of uncomfortable but perceptive comedy, acknowledging one harsh truth after another in subtle, intelligent ways: disadvantaged people can be mean, mean people can be right, and good intentions are meaningless. Largely ignored by critics and audiences, Please Give is one of 2010’s hidden delights.

#3: I Am Love (Io sono l’amore), directed by Luca Guadagnino

This long-gestating Italian import is both a showcase for Tilda Swinton’s considerable acting talents, and a movable feast for the eyes and ears. Its sweeping storyline is anything but original: Swinton is Emma Recchi, a Russian émigré married to a Milanese industrialist, who falls in love with her son’s best friend, a swarthy chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). They discreetly indulge their carnal passions in their spare hours, but when Emma’s devoted son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) begins to suspect the truth, harrowing emotional ramifications lurk around the corner. Interspersed throughout the film are other melodramatic subplots, detailing Emma’s daughter’s sexual self-discovery and the future of the Recchi company.

Dialogue and characterization are relatively insignificant in I Am Love, a film that foregrounds textures and sensory experiences. It’s all about the all-important taste of gourmet food, the thrill of an orgasm, and the visual juxtaposition of Swinton and Gabbriellini’s sweaty bodies with the gorgeous, fertile Italian countryside. Accompanying this sensual mélange, and complemented by the stirring strains of John Adams’ score, are explosions of emotional grandeur, culminating in a frantic, overwhelming crescendo. I Am Love may be all surface, but it’s a lavish, wonderful surface, and the sensitive, daring Swinton gives one of the best performances of the year.

#2: Dogtooth (Kynodontas), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

A brazen cinematic experiment executed with disturbing effectiveness, Dogtooth is both one-of-a-kind and insidiously compelling. Set at a sunny, idyllic estate in rural Greece, its premise sounds potentially gimmicky: a psychotic father and complicit mother have raised their three teenage children with false knowledge of the outside world, teaching them that “cunt” refers to a large lamp and that children can only leave the house when one of their dogteeth falls out, among other absurd lies. Lanthimos plays the story as both dryly funny and casually violent, brimming with open-ended satirical metaphors and provocative suggestions about family, free will, and private languages.

Deliberately paced but never pretentious, Dogtooth virtually dares viewers to keep up and follow it to its shocking conclusion. The characters regard their horrifying lifestyle with calm sobriety, treating their daily rituals – which range from merely useless to dangerous and even incestuous – with the same attitude we give toward brushing our teeth or washing our hands. With their sick games and perverse logic, the children prove that innocence and good behavior do not always go hand in hand. Dogtooth has its share of graphic, painful, and even unbearable moments (viewer be warned), but it’s also a film of rare insight and audacity, pulling off its transgressive stunts with understated flair. I feel like we’ll be discussing the cryptic, brilliant Dogtooth a long time from now.

#1: Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik

This year contained so many powerful cinematic experiences: the lunatic bravado of Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop; Greta Gerwig’s lonely compliance in Greenberg; and Michael Fassbender’s seething sleaziness in Fish Tank, just to name three more. But above and beyond everything, I was enthralled by the bitter duo of Jennifer Lawrence as self-reliant teenager Ree Dolly and John Hawkes as her hair-trigger uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. It’s a tense, sometimes terrifying film that still has room to breathe; it’s a drama of shared blood and backwoods codes of honor. Ree, who cares for her two younger siblings and mentally ill mother, has to track down her absentee father, an inveterate meth dealer, or lose her house – but in order to do so, she has to ask questions of people who just don’t want to be asked.

Even though Winter’s Bone takes place in Missouri mountain country as brutal and unforgiving as its title, even though its protagonist dwells amidst destitution and drug addiction, the film has an underlying humanity and a sense of Ozark heritage. It’s strange to say that I love a movie this superficially cold and forbidding, but I’m so drawn to Ree, the unbreakable survivor, to the disturbing, lived-in realism of her junk-filled surroundings, and to the inscrutable, intimidating secrets of her kinfolk. Winter’s Bone has scenes that are now blazed into my brain: the teeth-clenching “Is this gonna be our time?” showdown, and the grotesque, late-night climax that puts Ree’s mettle to the test. But it also has moments of laconic warmth, as when the injured Ree cuddles with her little sister. All year long, no movie touched me quite like Winter’s Bone. For that, I thank Debra Granik.

[By way of disclaimer, here’s some important 2010 movies I have yet to see: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Carlos, Another Year, Black Swan, 127 Hours, True Grit, Blue Valentine, The King’s Speech, and Rabbit Hole.]

So, dear reader, what were your favorites this year? What gave you the kind of revelatory thrills that Winter’s Bone gave me? Comment below!

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Upsides and downsides

[Note: I am really sick right now. So for added humor, imagine me saying all of this with a stuffed-up nose and sore throat.]

Part of being a film critic (or whatever it is I am here) is reevaluating your own opinions. Because none of us exist in critical vacuums, so of course we’re constantly exposing ourselves to the critical discourses surrounding one movie or another. And we factor in these arguments as we reshuffle our thoughts, and… well, what I’m trying to say is that the art of criticism is complicated as fuck, and I’m still learning it. And since I’ve written recently about two movies – Inception and Southland Tales – one of which I liked and the other of which I disliked, I want to look at the flip sides of my opinions. Both of these movies are important, I believe, when you’re looking at 21st century American cinema thus far. They both have sundry strengths and beauties, yet both are significantly flawed. So here’s the other side of the story.

With regard to Inception, I wrote, “Nolan one-ups just about all [dream-centered movies] by manipulating the paradoxes, the irrational events, and the conflation of the symbolic and literal that are the stuff of dreams, all to enrich his action-packed, emotion-based story.” This is probably the weakest claim in that entire review, because Nolan doesn’t really have the same hold on actual dream logic that makes movies like Eraserhead or Paprika so enticing. He does, however, have an incredibly strong hold on his own inorganic, sometimes arbitrary, but always fun conceits. Inception is made out of rigid, rational science fiction (cue the word “Kubrickian”) rather than the free-wheeling, unhinged fantasy/horror of, well, dreams. It’s about embattled interior states being realized as unstable cityscapes, yes, but only in accordance with Nolan’s disciplined plot structure and ultramodern design aesthetic – and this goes right along with my complaint that “the performances sometimes feel cramped by the density of the script.” Nolan’s neo-noir vision is so fully in control here that neither the characters’ personalities nor their dreams get any breathing room.

None of this, however, prevents the movie from being twisty, action-packed, cerebral, and fun. But Nolan’s virtuosity leaves little room for idiosyncrasy. This also takes its toll on the film’s psychological aspects; the Cobb/Mal conflict is a great hook that bypasses the onslaught of narrative curveballs, but it feels more by-the-numbers than, say, Leonard and Natalie’s compelling interplay in Memento. And despite all of Cillian Murphy’s acting talent, beauty, and blue eyes, the inner turmoil of the Fischer dynasty felt more like a placeholder or a template than a real, lived-in father/son relationship. It was only in the movie to be manipulated, and it shows. Thankfully, what Inception lacks in terms of spontaneity or humanity it makes up for with cool ingenuity. I don’t regret the morning-after enthusiasm of my review; I still maintain that Inception is the best “Borgesian action movie” out there, and I suggest that you describe it as such whenever possible. But I do want to counterbalance that nerdy zeal with some weeks-later critical honesty.

Similarly, I want to balance out my pessimism about Southland Tales by pointing out its hyperactive, muddled glints of genius. No matter what else I say about it, I insist: Southland Tales is, all in all, a bad movie. But it’s bad in a fascinating, explosive, catastrophic, occasionally insightful way. It’s bad in such a way that I feel like I need to keep writing about it. I was recently glancing through an old issue of Film Comment (November/December 2009, to be specific) and I found an article entitled “All Fall Down: Thinking inside Richard Kelly’s ‘Box'” by Nathan Lee. Much of it deals with The Box, which I haven’t seen, but Lee touches several times on Southland Tales and, I think, he takes the right approach in defending it:

That’s the funny thing about Southland Tales, and the reason I no longer care about its many haters: what I admire in the movie doesn’t run counter to accusations of crap acting, unintelligibility, pretentiousness, shameless pastiche, overweening ambition, etc., but alongside them. For it’s precisely everything awkward, ill-formed, garish, tawdry, and clichéd about Southland Tales that enables it to so brilliantly embody, and thus parody, its moment. Less Lynchian than Tashlinesque, at once diagnostic and symptomatic, Southland Tales is the Showgirls of D-list celebrity sci-fi satire.

I don’t know if I’d say that Southland Tales does anything “so brilliantly,” but I’ll confess that in the film’s dystopian framework, frenetic pacing, and ensemble of self-concerned would-be superstars, you can distinguish traces of a scathing, self-conscious attack on Hollywood and the Bush administration. But saying that Southland Tales is scathing or self-conscious gives Kelly far too much credit, especially given how much of the movie he spends dwelling on Southland Tales‘ supposed profundity. I love many pieces of this movie, like how brashly it posits its Orwellian setting and how it wields some of its stars in unconventional, if miscalculated, ways. While watching it, I quickly realized that Southland Tales was exactly the kind of movie I would’ve dreamt up when I was 14, and I can still appreciate that now.

But so much of the movie is sunk by the flourishes of Kelly’s outsized ego and by his refusal to extend even the slightest olive branch to his audience. Because by the film’s climax, Kelly’s sci-fi twists and turns are about as arbitrary as Nolan’s dream rules, but they’re not followed as consistently or to nearly as much effect. Southland Tales is a mess, and while it may be a gorgeous mess, it’s also a self-cannibalizing, gorgeous mess. It’s successful as a paean to junk culture, but unsuccessful as sociopolitical commentary. I definitely recommend at least one viewing if you’re at all curious, and don’t worry about expecting too much. Because “too much” is exactly what Southland Tales has to offer.

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Inception: Dreamscapes and Mind Games

Earlier this week, whilst participating in Things That Don’t Suck‘s Christopher Nolan blogothon, I described Inception as my most-anticipated wide-release movie of the summer. Well, last night I caught a midnight screening, and was enthralled: it lived up to all the expectations, the hype, and the mystifying trailers. This is only a tentative review, because the film hasn’t had any time to settle in my brain yet, but I think I can guarantee that we’ll be talking about Inception for a long time. It follows all of Christopher Nolan’s pre-established authorial tendencies, but adds in a few new tricks and twists to delight the senses and boggle the mind. It’s sort of a Borgesian action movie, with a dash of neo-noir and M.C. Escher. If that doesn’t convince you to buy a ticket, nothing will. Now, on to the movie itself…

The plot of Inception is relatively simple, as it follows the formula of every heist film from The Asphalt Jungle to Bob le Flambeur to the present day. A crook with a checkered past (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb) finds out about a risky plan with a huge pay-off, he assembles a team of specialists, they concoct strategies for every outcome, and they do the job, which here constitutes the majority of the film. But, as always, complications arise, and soon our team is in for the fight of their lives (or, rather, their minds). While the plot may be simple enough, it’s grounded in the complex techniques of shared dreaming, which is thankfully explained to us with the neophyte Ariadne (Ellen Page) as our stand-in. You can enter someone’s dream and alter it, you see, but not too much or else their subconscious projections will attack you. If you die in a dream, you wake up, except not always. If you think this is confusing, just wait till you enter a dream within a dream (within a dream, ad infinitum).

Nolan has tons of fun with these dreams and the nonlinear narrative techniques they allow. This isn’t just the same old chronological rearrangement as we saw in Memento, though; much of the film actually unfolds in parallel stories with different timescales. Between the hazy laws of dreaming and this layered storyline, it’s easy to get lost in Nolan’s maze, as I did once or twice. But it’s just as easy to retrace your steps and get back on track because he’s left a path for you to follow: the emotional arcs of Cobb and his team’s would-be victim, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). The former is dealing with the loss of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard); the other with the loss of his ornery father. In dreams, however, checkered past can become physical reality, and both characters must do some quick soul-searching – Fischer especially, since the team’s success depends on his emotional state.

Many films have taken place partially or entirely inside dreams. (See this recent Inventory for more.) Nolan one-ups just about all of them by manipulating the paradoxes, the irrational events, and the conflation of the symbolic and literal that are the stuff of dreams, all to enrich his action-packed, emotion-based story. I have only a few gripes with the film, like the way the performances sometimes feel cramped by the density of the script, preventing Page or Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays Cobb’s right-hand man) from shining as brightly as they have in other films. At some moments, the characters feel reduced to accessories of the plot, a failing Nolan is prone to. The resolution is also abrupt, slightly suspect, and predictable, but it’s a minor complaint given all the giddily warped physics and three-tiered climaxes that preceded it. Finally, you will be confused; for my part, I enjoyed it. That sense of disorientation is just part of experiencing a Christopher Nolan movie, and this one is easily among his best.

[END OF NORMAL REVIEW. SPOILERS AHEAD.]

Now that I’ve given a broad overview of Inception and why I recommend it, I want to get a little more analytical, which means giving away crucial plot details. As in Memento, Nolan embedded the end of the film in the beginning, though time this around, it wasn’t required by the overall structure. Yet Cobb washing up on the shore of Saito’s decades-long limbo doesn’t feel forced or tacked on. It blends easily into the real beginning, the two-layer dream interrupted by Mal. Nolan is playing on a very deep level with how we react to plot structure. Rather than thrilling us with just what’s on the screen, he engages us with the order he puts it in. So part of Inception‘s fun, as with Memento or any similarly puzzling story, is the cognitive experience of being demystified. And this synchs up with the film’s reality/illusion dichotomy, as we must use all the onscreen evidence to establish causality, chronology, and objective truth (if there is any).

With Inception, then, Nolan is really coming into his own. He’s refining his techniques and obsessions while taking them in more extreme directions. Mal, for example, is both of Nolan’s female character types (femme fatale and lost love) rolled into one, with both those functions tied together.1 Relevantly, the flashbacks of Mal’s story reminded me of a comparable film from earlier this year, Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Both films are strongly concerned with the noir theme of destabilized masculine subjectivity, and in both films, DiCaprio has a crazy wife seen only in flashback. Teddy’s wife in Shutter Island, however, never gets a crisis as compelling as Mal’s existential doubts, and the terms of the conflict are far more consistent in Inception. Cobb’s final confession to Mal – “I can’t imagine you with all your complexity…” – also rebukes any notion of the masculine gaze capably encompassing femininity.

Setting aside Cobb’s internal struggles, I’d like to touch on the film’s broader atmosphere. Nolan has a knack for making open spaces feel hermetically sealed. In Memento, Leonard could drive and drive, but he never escaped that city. In Inception, Cobb can fly and fly, but he’s trapped unless he can get back to America and his children. The characters’ jet-setting, like their costumes, is really a throwback to both film noir2 and to the glamorous, intercontinental heist movies of the 1960s, as well as the James Bond franchise. In its monochrome, streamlined décor and its genre trappings, Inception is something of a self-conscious pastiche infused with a totally fresh premise and nested structure. This is compounded by the fact that Cobb’s métier is corporate espionage: the conflicts between Saito, Cobol Engineering, and the Fischers act as a grandiose but hollow frame for the real, substantive story of concealed traumas.

Maybe Inception‘s greatest victory is how well everything hangs together, how it lays out its ideas and plausibly keeps them straight, even if the audience can’t. The team’s subtle strategy for manipulating Fischer determines the progress of the dream layers, convincingly translating the psychoanalytical into the physical. And I’d take the slow-motion sequences of Dileep Rao’s crash into the water, and the consequent shifting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s balance in the hotel, against anything The Matrix had to offer. Although comparisons are inescapable and it was probably a significant influence, The Matrix was so burdened by its pretentious, Joseph Campbell-inspired sci-fi mythos that it pales next to Inception, which is cleaner and straighter to the point. It’ll no doubt be the best American movie of the summer, since Nolan has replicated the masterstroke he pulled off with The Dark Knight: making an action movie that’s at once engrossing on a superficial level, but also genuinely cerebral. Now let’s see what he cooks up for the summer of 2012.

1Mercifully, Page’s Ariadne represents a departure from that schematic, as she’s a caring, perceptive woman who’s also good at what she does. Have I mentioned that I love Ellen Page?

2When Cobb mentions Buenos Aires early on, all I could think of was Gilda.

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