7/17/10

Review: Inception (2010)


Christopher Nolan's Inception is a silly maze with a relentlessly pounding score seemingly designed to SHOUT that this film is not BORING, but it IS in places, and it also takes outrageous liberties with the willing suspension of disbelief which I will not decree here is necessarily a good or bad thing. Despite all that, it's good, complex and solidly entertaining. The acting is all first-rate, with stiff upper lips for yelling out significant plot points without giggling.

Inception incepts with our hero, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio of the similar Shutter Island), washing up on the beach against the vanilla sky in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. Clearly something titanic has happened in this boy's life; he seems a dead man. Within view is a sort of pagoda-palace, surrounded by security guards who notice him and quickly take his gun and another significant memento, which are all he is carrying. They bring the prisoner face to face with the lord of the manor, with whom he has a cryptic conversation about the nature of time and existen(z)ce.

Before we can determine if this is real or only a dreamscape, if we're lost in Okinawa, Dallas, on Mulholland Dr. or Elm Street or in the twilight zone, we seem to skip forward and back at the same time to a naked lunch in the same ornate chamber, where Cobb explains to Saito (Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins) that he is a neuromancer, or "dream extractor," offering to work for Saito to protect his dreams from similar intrusions to the one Cobb represents, into Saito's subconscious.

But Saito's had some experience with these dream invasions before, training his subconscious to dream lucidly and fight back against unwanted dream contact. Strange days indeed when such outrageous technology in the science of sleep has spread widely enough that people train against it. Saito manages to escape from the altered states in which Cobb and his team are holding him in the dream world and in his waking life, but secretly begins to agree with Cobb's own stated worth as the Wizard of Oz of dream warriors--as an avatar, he's the aviator--and offers him another gig: inception.

Inception is different from extraction, inception represents the true outer limits of the dream-creating art. Cobb and his team have extraction down pretty pat, they plant an idea in the subject's mind of where the secrets are kept, allow his subconscious to place all its x-files there, then steal them. Sometimes this involves creating levels, dreams within dreams, to fool even well-trained fortress minds. Inception means planting an idea or course of action in a subject's mind as if it were their own, and must involve a complicated Jacob's Ladder, or cabinet of Dr. Caligari, if you will, of dreams within dreams, with information and intellectual and emotional manipulation placed just so on each level to hide the true origin of the idea. Cobb thinks he can do it, that he even may have done it before. He's skeptical of Saito at first, until he's made an offer he can't refuse, a chance to avoid taking the fall, and his objections fly away on wings of desire.

His team having recently experienced some growing pains with the failure of the first Saito operation, Cobb and his trusted partner, taxi driver and ceiling-dancer ("I had a dream, I had an awesome dream"), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), begin assembling a larger team for the inception mission, the target of which is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy, The Dark Knight), heir to a large energy fortune Saito would like to see scattered to the wind, and whose father (Pete Postlethwaite), rarely enough, is not named Robert, Sr., but Maurice (also Michael Caine's real name). Caine, a frequent Nolan collaborator, plays Cobb's father, a professor, and a consultation with him about smart people gets Cobb a recommendation for a new "dream architect," Ariadne (Ellen Page), who builds the matrix of the dreams. Cobb finds forger and mercenary Eames (Tom Hardy, smashing) in Mombasa, in a barroom drinking gin (like Roland found Van Owen), then together they drop some real-world surveillance and recruit the sedation expert Yusuf (Dileep Rao, fun in Drag Me to Hell and good here). The cell trains and plans and grabs Fischer on his regular redeye flight from Sydney to L.A., and gets ready for what dreams may come.

Ah, but there are secrets. Cobb has a past with his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard, Oscar winner for La Vie en Rose, so great in Nine and Public Enemies), a fellow pioneer in lucid dreaming research, and architect, with Cobb, of a dark city of shared fantasy. She stalks his dreams--not just his, but those he shares with his team--as a memory, an obsession, an obstacle, a projection of his own subconscious as well as his long-held notions of her. If he's Alice, she's the mad clatter in his dream Wonderlands. Her presence frequently threatens the integrity of the team's plans, even to make flatliners of them all, not to mention Cobb's own at-times tenuous connection to the fountain of reality. Will it end up as a ghost story, a Romeo + Juliet tragedy, or another sunny (500) days of summer? Emit Flesti can tell you the answer is faraway so close.

Hans Zimmer contributes a notably and relentlessly pounding score inspired by the depressing parts of Mahler and Herrmann, with some Tibetan- or Mongolian-style deep vibrations for the climax. It's strangely free of artifice or even wit, and effectively becomes the driving pulse of the film. The scenes change, the rules change, the characters change a little, but the score just THROBS and THRUMS. Except when it plays Edith Piaf (not "My Husband Makes Movies" or "Bye Bye Blackbird"). But there are regrets.

Inception is unique, and uniquely successful, despite many similarities to many other films, and direct references to others. It artistically limns strong themes of obsession, romance, self-sabotage, group action and dynamics, reality vs. fantasy, memories of the departed, sanity, longing and of course the dream world and its true nature. It moves emotionally and moves fast even for an action film, despite talkiness at times. It seems to conclude, like Macbeth, that life "is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing." But, what the heck, still and all, it's a wonderful life. I wish it were a little less tidy and neat and a bit more dangerous. It's not necessarily the greatest movie of its often-oddball genre. And it's not for everybody, indeed, some may wish that instead of seeing it, they'd kept their eyes wide shut, especially those who've seen signs or had a sixth sense they might not like it. We don't find out what's on the thirteenth floor, why 12 monkeys and not 11, the secret of Roan Inish, what it's like being John Malkovich in Synecdoche, New York, or what's eating Gilbert Grape, but it still works. I've seen it twice, and with a good crowd, there'll probably be gasping and laughing at the very end. So-lar-is that....

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

7/13/10

Shop the Shop!

Check out the Choose Our President 2012 Shop. Since '05, I've sold items in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. military bases overseas, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan, Canada, the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, Australia, the United Kingdom, Austria, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and Turkey. I've sold campaign items for President Barack Obama (IL) and for first lady for Michelle Obama, as well as Colbert for President and Olbermann for President items.

There are 2010 congressional campaign items, Senate campaign items and governor's race items available and no doubt for more and more candidates as we get on toward the 2010 election and beyond. Candidate stores have buttons, rectangular, oval, and bumper stickers, notebooks, mugs, shirts, yard signs and more, so get decked out and support your candidates early!

Along with specific-candidate items, there are Democrat and state and national flag items, and more at my politics and humor shop.

Thanks,

Alex
Choose Our President 2012

7/9/10

Review: Predators (2010)


Nimród Antal's Predators, a sort of a reboot or one-off in the successful sci-fi series, produced by Robert Rodriguez, is a pretty solid Predator movie, fun and cool. It does suffer from clichés and silliness, but not too badly.

The film opens precipitously, as Royce (Adrien Brody of Splice, stolid) drops in on a jungle he's never seen before. He's some kind of black-ops CIA ghost-type of mercenary, well-armed for anything except what's coming next. It's not too long before Cuchillo (the great Danny Trejo of Desperado, all right), a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, joins him on the floor, also weapons-ready and trigger happy.

Not to give away anything you haven't seen in the trailers, Royce and Cuchillo--and later Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov, good), Stans (Walter Goggins, good), a dangerous convict, Isabelle (Alice Braga of City of God and I Am Legend, very credible), Edwin (Topher Grace, "That '70s Show," eh), a doctor, Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien, good, underused), a Yakuza enforcer, and Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, pretty good, also underused), an African soldier--come to discover they've arrived in an alien game preserve, a sort of planetoid satellite with Earth-like qualities used by the Predators of the title as an arena for sport-hunting.

Or is it just sport? One of the mysteries of the Predators throughout the series has been just why they like hunting people (and members of other alien species) so much, just what the point is. The Predators display both callous disregard for life and a certain sense of fairness and honor in combat, though it's not quite like what a human understanding of fairness and honor would be. They are ruthless and cruel, to be sure, but also, at times, playful or even respectful.

Full disclosure: I've seen all of the Predator movies with the exception of the first Alien Vs. Predator crossover. They tend to run on the hokey side, but have great action and effects. I particularly enjoyed Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, the least hokey of the ones I've seen. It's ruthless, spare, elegant and doesn't expect you to care anything about the humans, just to enjoy the Alien-y and Predator-y goodness.

This film is more on the camp and silliness side, though most of the action sequences are pretty credible, and there are some nice serious surprises contained within what could have been more standard and boring set-ups. It does unfold with a real-time urgency which helps cut a lot of potential crap. But if you get a familiar feeling about any of the humans, stereotypes or worn tropes from other action movies, you can rest assured that this is just about exactly how they're going to work out as characters. This is mostly trouble-free, with one exception.

Brody has a lot of fun with his role, and the camp and seriousness he alternately displays go hand-in-hand, as with any good popcorn action movie. Brody has a stone face like Buster Keaton and he has a lot of fun with it, while still managing to maintain his badder-than-everybody attitude when necessary. Alice Braga and Laurence Fishburne act slightly above the level of the rest of the film. Fishburne's character especially seems written to play effectively on his personae from other films, and it works well.

This is attempted with Edwin, too, without success. Without spoiling it, Topher Grace's character is every bit the stereotype one expects from moment one, and there's not really suspense about how this develops, just delay, which is not even close to as interesting as real suspense.

If you're any kind of Predator fan, Predators should hit the spot, despite common action-movie flaws and old saws. The real star, as it should be, is Predator Hunt World and all its associated lore and detail, expanded and expounded nicely here.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

7/8/10

Review: Winter's Bone (2010)


Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell (which I have not read, but certainly will), is a refreshing, suspenseful, simple human story set in a drug-infested community in the rural Ozarks. It's a little old-fashioned, completely absorbing, patiently and carefully observed.

The film tells the story of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, excellent), a teenager raising her two younger siblings and taking care of her catatonic mother, because their father is on the run from the law over several drug-related incidents.

This is sad, with rewards, and more and more overwhelming for Ree. But when she learns from the police and an angling bail bondsman that the house where she lives with her family, and the voluminous woods they own nearby, have been put up for her father's bail in his latest court case--and it doesn't look like he's going to show--she starts beating the bushes trying to find out how to locate his sorry self.

She looks for help from her friends, relatives, some who might be friends and relatives, and anybody who might have a clue or any assistance for her. Some try to help. Some say no. Some seem to want to help, but to be held back by decisions made with the best interests of local widespread drug-trafficking foremost.

The best advice, given to Ree consistently and by everybody, is to shut up and stop making trouble. There's a familial, criminal, incestuous omerta which everybody respects and which is enforced, ultimately in some pretty terrifying ways. But what choice does she have? Once she sets her course, we know her sheer willpower and desperation are going to lead somewhere. The suspense builds well.

The acting is all first-rate. Nobody overplays. In general, everybody underplays, and this is mostly effective, though it gets problematic in a few instances. Jennifer Lawrence mostly carries the film on her own, with the strongest support coming from John Hawkes as the violent, dangerous and addled Uncle Teardrop in a star-making role, and Dale Dickey as Merab, wife and/or confidante of the Ozark meth kingpin Thump Milton. Dickey rides herd over a difficult and maybe a bit too stereotypical part. These two, especially, are confident and complicated performances to offset Ree's lonely journey.

There are a few times when violence portrayed either casually, devastatingly or matter-of-factly, feels somewhat incorrectly done. I'm not complaining about the level of violence especially, or any specific instance of it which is over-the-top. Instead, the film is just slightly unbalanced by certain notes which should be hit, but are not, quite. In particular, a spectacularly gruesome sequence near the end relies a lot on the actors' poker faces to put it across. It might have been more effective in total darkness, with only voices and noises.

The very ending has a certain flavor of Elmore Leonard, and might be a bit too easy, but it's relatively well sold and pretty satisfying. Winter's Bone also reminded me of the Donna Tartt novel The Little Friend; it has similar flaws in the resolution. If the incident I wish had been left in the dark had been, or if it had been handled just slightly differently, more credibly somehow, the film would fly and have earned four stars from me.

So Winter's Bone doesn't quite make it to four stars, though it is in my top ten for the year so far. I found the ending--not the very ending, which is good, but the denouement--to be a bit too strained and missing some cinematic realism and impact which might have elevated it. But it is one of the best movies of the year so far, and quite worth seeing.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

7/3/10

Palin leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for June

Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) led June voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

June 2010

#1 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 18.5%
#2 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 15.6%
#2 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 15.6%
#3 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 12.8%
#4 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 10.4%
#5 - Other ... 8.5%
#6 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 5.2%
#7 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 4.7%
#8 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 4.3%
#9 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 1.9%
#10 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... .9%
#10 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... .9%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... .5%
#12 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 0%

211 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Alex
Choose Our President 2012

7/2/10

Review: The Last Airbender (2010)


M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender, based upon the Nickelodeon cartoon series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (which I have never seen), is an amazing, absorbing, beautiful, fun tai chi/kung fu action fantasy adventure for kids of all ages. It's an effective, rousing, gorgeous and satisfying story of the post-post-apocalyptic elemental telekinetic Dalai Lama and the beginning of his war against the evil Fire Nation.

The film is indebted to several Asian, Scandinavian, Inuit and other Native and aboriginal sources, most especially in the writing system used and its adaptation of Asian health, meditation, fitness and martial arts techniques, though all the characters speak English. This could be a recipe for a mishmash, but instead the film is a wonderful visual, emotional, special-effects and character success.

Thousands or millions of years in Earth's future, or perhaps another planet's future, with rules of physics, magic and spirituality different from our own, a young girl, Katara (Nicola Peltz, excellent), and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, very good) leave their snowy village in the Southern Water Nation on a hunt. Their mother is dead, and father long missing in a conquering war upon the world--specifically the Water, Air and Earth Nations--by the technologically advanced, and rapacious Fire Nation.

During their travels, they unwisely investigate something seemingly frozen in the ice, which begins to move after a couple of taps, then pops up as a huge ice sphere. Not dead yet, but still unwise, Katara rushes forward and taps the sphere, which again begins to move and melt magically, revealing a huge bison-with-a-tail creature we later learn can float in the air, and a young boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), with a mysterious arrow tattoo on his forehead associated with Airbenders from the Air Nation. Aang indeed turns out to be the last Airbender of the title.

Airbenders are magical, elemental wizards/monks/priests who can psychically command air molecules to produce physical effects, so they can command winds and clouds, sometimes other elements in contact with the air, and sometimes perform feats of speed and agility which resemble magic tricks or near-physically impossible acts. In this world, there are also Waterbenders, of which Katara is an apprentice, Earthbenders and Firebenders, who can command their respective elements and who are mostly separated into their respective nations, three under attack from the forces of Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis, very good) and his general Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi, odd, good), and their dastardly ships of death and hands of fire.

Then there's the Avatar, the long-missing sole human representative of nature and the spirits who can bend all the elements to his will and who brings balance to the world, like a telekinetic Dalai Lama. Could Aang be the Avatar? The Last Airbender is a quest and rebellion movie, like the first Star Wars movies, The Last Temptation of Christ, Harry Potter, Little Buddha or Gandhi. And it is of a high quality.

The fantasy world is beautifully created and lovingly detailed, elemental, a world at least one dimension and many millions of years away from ours. We get to see it in all its amazing splendor, from the flying lemur-bats and decimated monastery of the Air Nation to the plains of the increasingly enslaved Earth Nation to the sacred pool of the Ocean and Moon Spirits in the Northern Water Nation stronghold. Unlike in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and more like in the recent Narnia adventures, the characters as well as the larger conflicts are well realized very much because of and along with the effects. I want to see more of this world.

The acting is very good, too. Lead Noah Ringer carries the film with his charisma and martial arts chops. Three lead villains, Fire Lord Ozai, Commander Zhao and Prince Zuko (the brilliant Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) create interest and conflict amongst each other as well as against the forces of balance and nonviolence. Shaun Toub especially stands out as General Iroh, the wise uncle of Zuko and powerful Firebender elder.

I have to love a movie where the star, in the middle of the big action finish, says, "Some great monks can meditate for four days!" and promptly drops into coma-like trance. If you're not going to be obsessed with little details from the Nickelodeon cartoon, I think you'll like it. If you're not too embittered at the lousy movies Shyamalan has inflicted between Signs and this, keep an open mind, and I think you will enjoy it very much. Deep in my heart, without quite knowing it, I have always wanted to see a great movie exactly like The Last Airbender. I have now seen it twice, in 3-D and not, and would go again, it's fantastic, one of the best movies of the year so far.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies