July 21, 2010

The media goes in, this blog post comes out

So, there's been a bit of media in this hazy, hot, humid summer that we're having in the Queen City...here's what I've thought of some of it...

Inception - I'm not nearly as sold on it as some of the reviewers (Katydid and Ebert, for example) have been.  The build up and expectations - for me the big advance deal has come from awesome trailers, Nolan's direction, Levitt's acting - have been admittedly huge for this one, and the early reviews have been largely positive and occasionally fawning and hyperbolically reverential.

Yes, it's good.  It's very good, in fact.  The plot is tightly wound.  The action scenes are marvelously well filmed.  The internal logic seems flawless.  The ending is expertly left open to viewer interpretation.  The character names are symbolically perfect (maybe except Cobb...I don't get any symbolism there).  The building action produces the needed amount of tension by layering on four simultaneous action sequences, all of which have to end with just the right timing.   The acting is spot on.

But the whole thing is cold.  I found it emotionally vacant.  There was nothing for me to connect to in the least.  I felt like I would looking at a beautiful but plastic, cold, vacant woman.  Yes, all the parts are there, and they're put together nicely and all, but I'd rather have something with a little personality, a little humanity instead of the ice princess.  I've found a few reviews - Slate and Salon, in particular - that agree with me more or less (Salon a little more harshly perhaps).

Here there be spoilers...

Some reviewers had issues with the need for Ellen Page's character to be a newbie, necessitating the other characters explaining what was happening to her and hence to the audience rather than allowing the complexity of the situation to be decoded by the viewer.  I'll admit that I did think there were a few times that Page's scenes seemed a little awkward - sometimes the lines she spoke, sometimes the lines being spoken to her.

I dig the ending, by the way.  I appreciate that Nolan didn't tell us for certain whether Cobb was back in the real world or still in a dream.  I've read a few interpretations- Cinematical has a nice post on six possible interpretations - and I'm impressed that Nolan's film has been able to generate this much discussion about what is and isn't real in the Inception world.  One of the things that I appreciate about a film is the power to generate discussion and draw viewers back into the word by providing reward for repeat viewing. 

I could speculate on which of the interpretations I feel is correct, but the truth is that I think each one can be supported by various details within the movie, and the one that each viewer chooses to believe probably says more about the viewer's hope for the characters in the film - reflecting on the viewer's hopes for their own lives - than it does on what actually happened within the film.  If you want Cobb to have regained his happy, bucolic life at the end, then it's probably something that you hope for within your reality.  If, on the other hand, you feel that Cobb's bucolic ending was really some form of a dream, it might say something about your belief in each of us attaining true happiness.  I would think all that if I were the kind of amateur, rookie psychologist that Ariadne plays within Inception.

I will say that one comment that I read on the Cinematical article rings most true to me...
Clearly, Nolan is also making a meta-comment about all filmmaking as a form of inception -- the filmmaker is architect, and we are sharing the dream.
This feels the truest to me.  I know that I often become so involved, so enveloped in the world of the movie that the return to reality upon the ending sometimes feels like a jolt - a kick in the parlance of Inception - to me and sometimes leads to a moment of disappointment at leaving the magical world and returning to the world of my reality.  In that commentary, perhaps Inception is most successful to me.

Once Upon a Time in America - I firmly believe in coincidence rather than synchronicity.  I had this film in the queue to review before going to see Inception but am intrigued that both deal with a question of what is and is not real within the movie's framework.  I'll get to that in a bit, however...

First, the film as a whole is a huge weight of impressive filmmaking.  ...America is clearly director Sergio Leone's career-capping film - not necessarily his finest work, but the work on which he spent decades preparing (necessitated by the interminable time it took to secure the rights to the story), the work that feels the greatest heft of length, the work that explores that longest spread of time, and his final production.  Clocking in at three hours, forty-seven minutes (the version that I saw, anyway) and exploring the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, ...America could be viewed as one of the films to firmly capture the mythical spirit of the yet-unwritten Great American Novel.

Told in non-chronological fashion, the film's story begins with five relatively poor but industrious Jewish youths in 1920s Brooklyn.  The five become fast friends and work their way up from petty crimes - burning down newspaper stands, mugging drunks - to more serious crime after blackmailing their neighborhood police officer.  Once they establish themselves as integral members of the local crime family, they make a pact to share equally all proceeds of their efforts, one of the crew is shot, and the main character goes to jail for eleven years in retaliation.

When Noodles - our main character, played by Robert DeNiro - is released, he finds that his friends have become hugely wealthy through their efforts during prohibition days and that they are now traveling in much higher circles, drawing the attention of criminals from other cities, local politicians, labor bosses, and businessmen.  In this new world, Noodles struggles to find his place while also pursuing the girl that he left behind.

The framing device of the story sees 1960s Noodles returning to his Brooklyn neighborhood for the first time in three decades as an initially unknown message from the past writes to him, bringing him back to find his old neighborhood largely unchanged but the financial success of his friends' time together entirely evaporated.  The growth through hard work (if admittedly illegal hard work), troubles with success, reflection upon past times is a classic story arc that Leone works beautifully here.  DeNiro's character is initially the leader of the entire operation then finds himself usurped by his best friend upon his release from prison, and the relationship between the two comes to a conclusion in the movie's final act.

Leone's film is an absolute masterwork in cinematography - according to DVD documentaries, Leone had thought through the entire film shot by shot before beginning production - showing us the glory that was equally with the pain and loss that came about as a result of that glory.

The reflections upon Inception come in the form of the framing device for the whole of the ...America story.  The film opens with gangsters searching for Noodles in 1933 Brooklyn.  We find Noodles drowsing in an opium den hoping to escape the life that has been made for him.  At the end of the film, we return to Noodles on the same opium den bed, smiling bucolically into the camera.  One possible interpretation of the film is that the 1960s scenes were nothing more than an opium dream of the 1933 Noodles in light of the situation in which he finds himself - his best friends gunned down after he backed out of one final job.  Leone himself even supported this as a possible interpretation.

I don't know that ...America is Leone's finest film - his other five set an awfully high standard - but it is clearly a worthy capstone to the great director's legacy.

Once Upon a Time in the West - Well, if I'm going to see Leone's final film, I might as well take the time to see the films leading up to it, the loose trilogy of ...America, this film, and Duck, You Sucker!.  All three were - as always - procured from the Cincinnati Library.

Where ...America explored the lives of Jewish Brooklynites bettering themselves through organized crime, ...the West sees the same search for a better life played out against the backdrop of the biggest scenery that this country can offer - Monument Valley.

The film opens in typical Leone fashion with a trio of gunslingers waiting wordlessly for a train.  They terrorize the two townfolk working in the dilapidated station before stepping toward the arriving train.  As the unnamed main character - called Harmonica throughout much of the film - steps off the train, the film begins.  This opening scene itself is an absolute masterpiece...

From there we find out that one of the people in the town has bought land where he expects the railroad to have to go, has ordered the supplies to build a new railroad station and town around the expected train stop, and has sent for his new wife to come join him from New Orleans.  Set against this we have the wealthy railroad baron and his hired guns.  Into this conflict, Harmonica comes looking for revenge against the blackest-hearted of those hired guns.

The story is actually two very small ones: man against man for money, man against man for revenge.  Leone's film, however, slows down the pacing, zooming in for drastic close-ups on the faces of the men in conflict, and tells these two tales as though they were the grandest stories in the world, archetypes for every conflict that ever can and ever will be.

It's been a few years since I went through the Dollars trilogy, so I won't say whether this is a greater film than those, but I can say clearly that this is one of - if not the - finest Westerns ever made.

Duck, You Sucker! - Well, obviously if you're going to see the two Once Upon a Time in... films, you have to finish off the Leone oeuvre with this one, right?

I found this to be easily Leone's most comedic film, laughing out loud in at least three scenes.  The fish out of water character of James Coburn's Irish mad bomber drops right into the world of survival and banditry of Juan Miranda and turns everything entirely upside down.  Where Juan lived only to feed his 'children' by robbing stagecoaches and dreamed of robbing the bank in Mesa Verde, Coburn's John leads Juan into the bank and the unwelcome roll of hero of the Mexican Revolution when Juan finds the vaults filled with political prisoners rather than gold.

Throughout the film, the friendship between Juan and John develops by fits and starts, each man's motivations running counter to the other but finding themselves heading down the same paths no matter how hard they try.

At heart, then, this is a buddy film set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.  John is on the run from British police, wanted for his part in the Irish Revolution and telling Juan that he's had enough of revolutions for his life - but still finding ways to help out the Mexican revolution with his talent for and stock of explosives.  Juan, on the other hand, wants only to rob the Mesa Verde bank and live out his life in comfort with his 'children' - youthful banditos six of whom he appears to have actually fathered - and thinks that each of John's choices is really a start of a scheme to become wealthy, only to find himself tricked into helping out the Revolution at nearly every turn.

In the end, the relationship between the two men is far more important that the explosions and the gun fights.  To this end, the film fights itself at times, inserting action scenes, shootouts, explosions that would be very much at place in a more seriously-toned film and juxtaposing those scenes with John's casual warning to "Duck, you sucker" every time he surprises one of the characters with an explosion and Juan's constant announcing to John that he's been screwed yet again.

This isn't Leone's finest film, but it is a fun ride.  Leone's weaker effort here still makes for a pretty good film - a seven out of ten rather than the nines and tens that all of his other films manage.

Sandman - Dream Hunters - Gaiman's full run of Sandman is among the finest creations of Comicdom, and on the tenth anniversary of the first Sanman, Gaiman wrote a tale of a young monk keeping solitary watch over a small, nondescript temple in Japan and of the two animals that try to force the monk from his adopted home.

Gaiman wrote the story in the style of ancient Japanese tales, including Cain and Abel, the three witches, and the King of Dreams himself and added a postscript in which he fancifully told the history of the tale as though it had been a real and ancient Japanese fairy tale.  The tale was published as a novella with accompanying painted illustrations, further cementing the tale as a real and ancient fairy tale.

Ten years after that initial publication, then, the tale has been adapted again into comic book form. by Craig Russel who also adapted the graphic version of Coraline that I read last year.  Russel's gentle artwork fits the story beautifully, residing halfway between the comic book world of the original Sandman series and the source material's Japanese 'origins'.  This would likely have fit marvelously into the original series as there were a number of issues telling ancient or exotic tales of Morbius's past actions.

The tale was initially a welcome addition to the Sandman canon.  This graphic adaptation retells the same tale is a gorgeous - not better, but different - form and is an easy recommendation for anyone - those who know the Sandman story arc already as well as those who simply love a gorgeous, mystical tale.


joey said...

Exactly the same feeling with Inception. I feel that it probably deserves a best picture nomination, but I don't think it should win. The storyline was one of those "why didn't I think of that?!" kind of ideas, but the whole thing just seemed to be lacking a certain depth.

Even though everything felt so epic, I was never on the edge of my seat and really pulling for anyone in particular. Maybe I was too caught up in everything going on besides the main storyline. Still, a great movie with some amazing scenes and dialog points. It was very much in the mold of a long episode of Lost, which was a wonderful surprise for me.

PHSChemGuy said...

I don't ever see that it's deserving of the Oscar nomination. I don't want to look at a movie and think "wow, that's well done" and think it's the best of the year. I want something that is able to generate some emotional connection - shock, awe, stunning, pain, fear, horror, sadness, soomething. Inception did none of that for me.

Read a review that takes the "Inception is about making movies" thing a little too far, I think.