Friday, December 31, 2010

Another Year: On How Life Is

We tell stories about all kinds of things. Love. Passion. Murder. Crime. Retribution. Triumph. Smart people doing dumb things. Dumb people doing smart things. There are stories about kings leading armies into battle. There are stories about small romances and great romances, and there are stories about little people that one would never hear of or remember unless they were a personal acquaintance. Every so often, there’s a story told that we call a “slice of life.” Another Year is one of these stories, but it’s more than that. Where other films try to portray the lives of people we think we know, Mike Leigh holds down the corner on the market. This is one of the truest examples of what a slice of life looks like that I’ve seen.

The story’s simple. In 4 acts that mirror the changing seasons, it’s about another year in the lives of two of the nicer people you’re ever bound to meet on a movie screen. The emphasis isn’t on any obvious character arcs, which is in direct opposition to the accepted norms of most standardized screenwriting. Instead, it seems to me that Leigh’s goal is to portray the grace and nurturing power that these two people hold over those they come in contact with.

Tom and Gerri, wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, weren’t even on screen for 2 minutes and I found myself thinking, “That is the kind of relationship I want to have when I am older. That is the type of person I would like to be.” I can only hope that, if I am fortunate enough to marry, my partner and I will have the kind of love and deep friendship that they have. There’s not an ounce of fakery in the kindness evident in every frame they share. These two people love each other, and what’s more, there’s not a moment on screen that either of them is shown concealing anything from each other. They’ve moved past pretense and pretending and are content to simply be, and be together.
Another Year is very different from the film I’d been anticipating. Mike Leigh is interested in relating the totality of a person's life experience, not just the fun bits. Near the end of the film, there’s a scene where someone shows up at Tom and Gerri’s house unannounced and has to talk a third person into letting her come inside. In other hands, this sequence would have lasted about 30 seconds. Leigh lets it run its course, and it lasts at least 2-3 minutes, possibly even longer.

You know something? It’s awkward when 2 people don’t know each other and are trying to get something done. You know this. I know this. I think everyone does. The difference here is that Leigh has confidence that his audience will keep a steady eye on things, even when they’re awkward. In the movies, we’ve become very used to only seeing the most exciting parts of someone’s life. There’s a reason that the quiet months that Forrest Gump spends with Jenny in his big ol’ house only last for about 5-10 minutes, now, isn’t there?

Unlikely as it might seem, I don’t think Another Year’s central character is Tom or Gerri. It's Lesley Manville who gives the film's standout performance. I’ve seen her in a couple of Leigh’s other films, but I can’t say I remember her from them. She’s wonderful here. Mary is a co-worker of Gerri’s that, I suspect, has been coming over for dinner/counseling sessions since the day they met. She’s the type of person that I’ve met on many occasions and have been more times than I care to admit. She’s fundamentally unhappy with the way her life’s going and is convinced that the next big thing is what’s going to make her happy.

First, it’s a new car that’s going to be “small and red.” When she gets it, there are all manner of problems. They’re funny as can be, and it’s a warmly affectionate kind of humor. While it’s clear that she’s been pining away for Joe, Tom and Gerri’s son, for years, I don’t think she’d be happy even if she got him to like her. The happiness she seeks can only come from self-actualization and self-acceptance. She already has all of the support she needs to begin the process. Her mistake is to look outward for what can only be found within.
It’s ironic when she finally does find someone that she connects with as an equal. Everyone else in the group is used to her nattering on and on about her life and what she’s going to do. Not this person. He has no frame of reference, and is so quiet that it forces her to slow down and, sometimes, just breathe. Later, she tells him, “it’s really nice to have someone that you can talk to.” This is coming from a woman who’s spent the entire film talking, talking, talking to anyone who will listen to her. She’s only known this man for a matter of hours and has hardly told him anything about her life, but feels that the tiny bit of herself that she’s shared is more genuine than these people she’s known for 20 years. That’s striking.

Mike Leigh doesn’t usually do what I want him to do, and he doesn’t usually do what I think he ought to do. I am beginning to think that this is a good thing. Another Year has a combination of subtlety, honesty, and clarity rarely encountered in contemporary film. It is my continued hope that room be found for the film on the awards circuit, with particular regard to Leigh’s screenplay and Manville’s performance. In a year dominated by high concept stories and "big stars," Another Year and the people in it have a little place in my heart. They can stay as long as they like.

4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, December 24, 2010

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): Look Again

Contribution to The Spielberg Blogathon. Thanks to Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly for hosting.

If you have not seen the film in question, you would be very foolish to read this.

One of the main charges that’s often labeled at Steven Spielberg is that he’s never content to leave well-enough alone and must always end his films on a sentimental (if not clearly positive) note. This viewpoint isn’t entirely unfair. It’s a trait that, for better or worse, Spielberg has demonstrated at various points throughout his career. The guy likes things to end on the classic Hollywood lump-in-the-throat. However, putting whether this is good or bad aside, there’s one place that the sentimentality charge simply doesn’t fit, and, oddly enough, it’s one of the most often used examples of Spielberg’s penchant for sentimentality.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
is often criticized/decried/lamented for being the film that Stanley Kubrick might have directed. The story’s simple enough. In a distant future, humans use robots called "mechas" to do all of the jobs that they don't want to do. A technician creates a child mecha that, once activated and specifically imprinted to a human being, has the ability to love that person. David, the child mecha, spends his entire life looking for ways to earn the love of the human being he considers to be his mother. Kubrick started conceptualizing the project in the 1970’s. Along the way, he showed Steven Spielberg what he was working on, spoke with him at length about the project, and attached him as a producer. For various reasons, he didn’t actually make the film, and tried to give the project to Steven, who didn’t want to take over the film. However, after Kubrick’s death, his family approached him with the project again, and Steven set out to complete Kubrick's vision.

Visually, the film’s spectacular, and I’d argue that the script (written by Spielberg himself) has nary a wrong step. Despite this, the fact remains that there’s a large contingent who believes that the film goes on about 20 minutes too long. Their preferred ending would come with David sitting in the sunken underwater remains of Coney Island, staring at the statue of the Blue Fairy, waiting for her to turn him into a real boy.

Then, the film departs into a distant future. A group of advanced mechas/robots exploring a frozen Manhattan find David and re-activate him, downloading his memories. What’s quickly apparent is that humanity has become extinct and these beings have never met their creators. David is the first link they’ve found to the heritage they cannot understand. After telling him the fate of humankind and of his “mother,” they tell him that they have found a way to recreate individual humans from a single strand of DNA present in something like a lock of hair. However, these people only live for one day, and, upon falling asleep, die for the last time. Unsurprisingly, David asks for his mother to be revived. They spend a wonderful day together, the kind of day that David had always wanted to spend with her. Finally, she falls asleep, as does David, and the film ends.

Detractors find this ending a cop-out, claiming that this is Spielberg’s attempt to soften a narrative that’s too harsh to fit within his usual aesthetic. Initially, I understood this point of view, even if I felt that the ending served the film successfully. What’s ironic about this is that the film ends exactly the way that Kubrick intended.

So, what does this mean?

The first time I watched the film, I took the ending at face value. It meant what it said it did, and wasn’t anything more than that. Then, I thought about it, thought about it some more, and came to a different understanding.
See, the ending is anything but a happy one. It is impossible to recreate all that an individual human being is from a single strand of DNA, even in the fantastical world of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Even if it were possible to recreate a person’s body (which is not entirely inconceivable), DNA isn’t truly what makes a person a unique individual. Memories created by a singular life experience are the things that define who someone is. If it were possible to reconstruct someone’s body, there would be no way to restore that person’s soul. The lights would be on, but the same person wouldn’t be home.

It’s ironic that the most caring creatures in the film are these advanced mechas. Even as person after person has used (and abused) David, what remains after humanity is dead has surpassed its creators in kindness and basic “human” decency. After David’s memories have been downloaded, the advanced mechas have learned all that they’re going to about humanity from him, and they’ve decided to give him the only thing that he’s ever really wanted: the love of his mother. It would be simple for them to deactivate David or to modify him to become a member of their community, but instead they choose to GIVE. They know exactly what it will take to make him happy, and they provide that for him. The Monica that we knew in the first part of the film wouldn’t treat David with as much love as her recreation does. No, she’d want to know where her husband and son were, what was going on, and why David, who she’d abandoned, was there in the first place. Through their processing of his memories, the advanced mechas knew exactly what David has always wanted from her, that he had a lock of her hair, and construct an elaborate fiction that will allow them to provide it for him. Finally, remember that David does not sleep, so his curling up next to Monica to go to the “place where dreams are born” is an impossibility. Essentially, they’re allowing him the chance to end his life after experiencing ultimate happiness.

While it’s a tragedy that A.I. Artificial Intelligence hasn’t taken its place in the cinematic canon, I think it’s because the film is smarter than a lot of its audience. In this version of the Pinocchio story, the dream of becoming “real” doesn’t come true so much as the protagonist, and, by extension, the audience, believes that it has come true. It’s no small thanks to this ruse that A.I. Artificial Intelligence gains so much resonance.

What resonates more? A lump-in-the-throat happy ending or an ending built on the deception that someone’s gotten everything that he wants when he hasn’t gotten a thing? You already know what I think.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Tale Told In Gasps

I gratefully acknowledge my good friend J for being a first-rate discussion partner after the screening.

I’ve been anticipating Black Swan for months. MONTHS. The studio’s release schedule is one that’s pretty tough to figure out. I don’t get why they’ve screened the film to high heaven at festivals and previews, building anticipation to a fever pitch, and then have put it out an inch at a time.

No matter. It’s gone wide now, and whether or not it finds its way to a large audience remains to be seen. Now, onto the matter at hand.

Black Swan is a crazy ride of a movie, filled with moments that alternately make the head tilt, the body cringe, and the heart flutter. Natalie Portman's performance is the best I’ve ever seen her give. Period. Not only do I think she’ll merit some serious consideration come the year-end awards process, but I also hope she wins, since my other favorite performance (Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy) probably won’t be eligible. While the rest of the cast is strong, this is Natalie Portman's movie.

Portman is Nina Sayers, a member of a successful ballet company. After the forced retirement of the company’s aging star (a strong Winona Ryder), Nina is cast in the title role in Swan Lake, and must portray both the chaste, serene White Swan and the wild, lustful Black Swan. Her struggle for perfection, present from the first frame, drives her mad as her role becomes reality.

To be honest, Black Swan isn’t quite the film I’d expected. I’m not sure if the superiority of the last half of the film is due to an increase in quality or to the first half laying tracks for the train. Who knows? Black Swan kept me guessing, and made me wince more than once, which is a lot more than I can say for most other films. I am more inclined to think that it’s a film that requires time to build traction and gain momentum to make its way to a climax. After having heard so much about it, I was surprised to see this. I’d anticipated the type of mindbender that would engross from the get-go, much like the way Mulholland Dr. enthralls from the opening frame.

Here, I stumble over my own thoughts. Both films are fairly “quiet,” allowing the viewer time to take a deep breath before sucking the air out of his/her lungs. However, they’re very different in the way they go about telling a story, and I’m not entirely sure how to describe the divide. Let's try this. . . both films put the viewer down in drastically different places than he/she had been picked up in the first place. Where David Lynch’s film is a lyrically hypnotic dream in which the nightmare is in found in waking up instead of going to sleep, Darren Aronofsky’s fever dream simmers, simmers, and finally boils until it’s consumed.

The validity of perception is one of the biggest questions raised throughout Black Swan. As a viewer, it’s so easy to get caught up in Nina’s struggle to keep her head on straight that it can become tough to keep an objective perspective. By objective, I’m not suggesting that the film experience should be a dry and boring one that’s approached like a reporter covering a bake sale. What I mean is that, by the end of the film, it dawns upon the viewer how little of the story may have really happened the way it initially appeared to. For example, Nina’s mother seems to be a very controlling person, leaving almost no part of Nina’s home life unregulated. It’s in the reexamination of the narrative that I began to wonder exactly how accurate my perception of her actually was. I mean, if I thought that A, B, and C were all true, and they were proved to be tied up in Nina’s delusions, then it’s logical to conclude that the ramifications could spread through the entire alphabet, right?

However, with Black Swan, I really do want to understand the subtleties of the narrative, and will watch the film again (if not several times) with the hope of gaining valuable perspective. Conversely, with Inception, 2010’s biggest "head trip" movie, I’m not particularly interested in trying to plumb its shallow depths to try and figure things out. I just don't really care.

Darren Aronofsky’s direction reminds me very much of his work on The Wrestler, particularly with his prolific use of Super 16mm and his fascination with following his characters from behind as they move from place to place. However, I’m not a big fan of his prolific use of hand-held cameras, though I did warm to them a bit, at least in the way he tried to film the dancing sequences so as to capture their sense of rhythm and movement. There was one specific instance where I felt that he was trying to unnecessarily punctuate a certain surprise moment. I got it the first time, Darren. No need to go for a “da-DUM!” It may seem like a minor quibble, but it does detract from the air of gravitas he’s trying to establish.

Through much of Black Swan, I found myself waiting for the thrills I’d expected to manifest early on. Let me tell you, when they hit, they come with a vengeance. The last 10 minutes or so is gripping cinema that's tautly beautiful. I’m inclined to think that the film’s ending is quite possibly a perfect one. I have a very small number of narrative endings that I consider to be perfect, and I wasn’t expecting Black Swan to find a way on that list. The conclusion thrilled me, but, much more than that, I was enthralled, blasted back in my seat, in the happy delirium of the satisfied cinephile.


4 ½ stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Early Review: True Grit

If there are better filmmakers than Joel and Ethan Coen alive and working today, then I’d like to meet them. The seemingly effortless way they control the tone of their films and the brilliance of their craftsmanship are second to none. I’ve often said that, if one wanted to make a film, all that’s necessary is to watch No Country For Old Men for a “textbook” example of how do to do the job right. True Grit is the next chapter in that book.

True Grit is based on a 1969 film with John Wayne, which was itself based on a 1968 novel. All three feature a quest to find the man who killed 14 year old Maddie Ross’ father, with Maddie helped by Marshal Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn and La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger. Now, I can’t speak for the novel, because I haven’t read it. However, the Coen Brothers’ film is so much of an improvement over the original that it suggests the difference between the Jonas Brothers and the Beatles. It’s all pop music, but they are NOT, by any stretch of the imagination, doing the same thing.

The script is fantastic. Joel and Ethan have more than found a way to walk the narrative tightrope between retelling a well-known story and putting their own spin on things. Their version is much more organic than Marguerite Roberts’ original. I was amazed at how much more fluid the film’s pacing is. Most of the same moments, conversations, and setpieces take place, but they’re allowed to do so within a narrative rhythm, where certain bits in the original stuck out in awkward places. Joel and Ethan’s seamless script takes the same moments and, through changing the timing or setting, infuses the story with an energy and vitality that just wasn’t there the first time around.

It’s because of the structural tightening that True Grit really takes flight. Not surprisingly, the Coens bring out a lot of the story's inherent humor. I found myself cracking up all throughout the film, and not always when everyone else in the theater was too. I’m ok with that. What’s more, their version of the post-Civil War South feels so much more real than anything that the original accomplished. Where 1969’s take was squeaky clean and refined, 2010 is still refined, but much, much grimier, leaner, and meaner.

Jeff Bridges’ performance. . . oh, wow. He’s five times the actor John Wayne ever was. (yes, I said it) While Wayne's Cogburn was a charming character because of his self-consciousness as a performer, Bridges effortlessly goes further than that. He brings a remarkable sense of depth to the character. Instead of only being an old man who wants to do things his way and usually ends up shooting anyone who tries to stop him, he’s a gruff guy who can barely be understood a lot of the time. He drinks too much and sometimes says things that he doesn’t mean. Mostly, he’s got a very simple way of looking at the world. After making Maddie climb a tall tree to identify and cut down a dead man hanging there, he turns him over and says, “I do not know this man.” And it’s hilarious.

You know why? It’s because it’s true. He doesn’t know the guy.

Like The Big Lebowski and the Dude who only wanted his rug back because it tied the room together, Cogburn needed to find out if the man was who they were looking for, was too old/heavy to climb the tree, made Maddie do it, and it just wasn’t the right guy. Case closed. That’s where a lot of the Coen Brothers’ humor comes from. Their jokes aren’t anything revolutionary, and they’re not even that complicated. They just have the guts/balls/chutzpah/common sense to say things out loud that are completely obvious.

The direction and editing are wonderful. By serving as “Roderick Jaynes,” their own editor, Joel and Ethan are able to alternately shoot and select exactly the shots they want. Sometimes, when I’m watching a film, I want to stretch out my hands, make them into a rectangular window, and try to capture what I’m seeing. I think of those shots as shots that were born rather than created. True Grit has many born moments, and they're beautiful.

There’s another aspect of the Coens’ craft that often goes unlooked. They have the souls of poets. No matter what type of film they’re making, there’s an element of what Herzog refers to as a “deeper truth, an ecstasy of truth.” Whether it’s the evocative simplicity of the ending of No Country For Old Men, the Dude and Walter’s hug on the cliff in The Big Lebowski, or the rumination on the meaning of life in the police car in Fargo, they’re quietly at work creating some of the most affecting moments in cinema today. It’s not enough for Joel and Ethan to just tell a story. They find a way to leave the viewer with something that connects that story to daily life. Here, in a story that’s been told for years, there’s a sense that more is at hand than simple retribution for a crime committed. Time passes. Children are forced to grow up too soon. Men must admit that they are wrong. People grow old. “Time has a way of moving past us.” I am grateful, so grateful, for these moments.

As True Grit neared its conclusion, there’s a sequence where two characters on horseback race against time, and you know what, reader? I got a little bit emotional. 2010’s been such a lackluster year for cinema that it was like giving a hungry man a meal. On the inside, I was crying out, “THIS is how you make a movie. This is how you do it.” I’m reminded of something Emily Dickinson said once. Someone asked her what poetry was and she said that she didn’t know how to describe it, but when she read something and felt like the top of her head was being blown off, then that was poetry. She knew it when she found it. That’s what True Grit is. I may get tongue-tied if you ask me exactly what makes a great film, but I know how it feels when I find it.

People often look fondly at older films and say, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” They’re right.

Here, Joel and Ethan Coen didn’t make one like folks used to. They made one better.

4 ½ stars (out of 5)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thoughts From a Red Rug - Certified Copy

From AFI Fest.
Certified Copy is an evocative, sly, intelligent, and ultimately poignant dream of a film. Abbas Kiarostami’s work here reminds me of the best of Godard and Antonioni. On the surface, the story is simple enough. A woman who specializes in antiques meets an expert who’s just written a book that questions the idea that an original piece of art is superior to a copy of itself. She decides to take him around to see various works of art before he has to leave for another stop on his tour in support of the book. Along the way, their conversation evolves until it’s become something else entirely and the nature of their relationship is called into question. Are they actually a long-married couple who’s merely pretending to have just met? Or are they two people who’ve only just met that are pretending to be a long-married couple?

In the end, does it matter?

Here, strangely, I don’t think that it does. Ordinarily, things like that drive me up the wall. I grow weary when I feel that a filmmaker’s pretensions toward making some kind of artistic statement overshadow what should be his/her commitment to tonal consistency. If you’re happy with what you’ve made, that’s great, but I need a way inside in order to be able to step back and regard it as a whole.

That’s part of what makes Certified Copy so fascinating. Even though the nature of their relationship is still murky by the end of the film, it rings true. It may not make empirical sense, but it makes emotional sense. I’m reminded of Buñuel’s decision to cast two actresses as Conchita in That Obscure Object Of Desire. The similarity is striking. Both are decisions that should not work, but do so despite the odds against them.

Juliette Binoche may be the most beautiful woman in the world. I can’t think of another actor, male or female, who can light up the screen like she can with a simple smile. It’s a radiant thing. She won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her work here, and it’s not hard to see why. Her character runs the gauntlet emotionally speaking, sometimes in a short period of time. According to IMDB, the film won’t be released in the States until March 2011, which would mean that her performance will probably be overlooked come award season. That’s terrible.

Of films released in the US in 2010, I can only think of two performances by an actress that rival hers: Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go and Noomi Rapace in the Millennium Trilogy. While I sincerely hope that both of these performances receive consideration, the idea that Binoche’s work is probably going to be forgotten is yet another sign that the way films are distributed in this country is all wrong. Something like Transformers (I know that this franchise is an easy target, but it remains so nonetheless) gets greenlit sight unseen and ends up in thousands of theaters around the country, while Certified Copy is pushed off into a corner. By delaying its release until early next year, it will be ineligible for most, if not all, year-end awards in the U.S. What’s more, a movie coming out in March will almost never contend for major awards the following year. Essentially, by sticking the film in that slot, it’s being condemned to fade away into insignificance when it should be given the chance to shine.

What might even be worse is the idea that, even if circumstances were drastically different, Binoche still might not receive any serious consideration. The masses in America have been convinced that they’re not going to be interested in films that aren’t easily found in local megaplexes. The idea that she won’t even be given the chance is something that makes me sad.

Certified Copy hearkens back to an older time when films were made with characters who were preoccupied with the questions of life, death, art, and the meanings thereof. 50 years ago, it was possible to make a film where the main conflict was that of ideas, not armies or souped-up robotic creatures, and have that film find its way to an audience.

When did we lose that curiosity? When did it become important only to provide thrills and chills to an audience and blind them with beautiful people? I’m not suggesting that films don’t, on some level, have some obligation to divert one’s attention, though I hesitate to use the word “entertain” as an overarching responsibility. I think that, too many times, the emphasis is on entertainment through titillation of the senses at the expense of enlightenment through stimulation of the mind. Certified Copy finds a way to entertain and enlighten. The majority of the film consists of two people talking, talking, talking, and it’s almost never less than fully engaging. It doesn’t NEED crashing cars and the like. No, it’s concerned with the nature of identity itself, and has the courage to explore the questions with intelligence and grace.

Can a stand-in ever take the place of an original? Is there such a thing as finding the right thing twice in a lifetime? At what point does a person’s love for something overshadow his/her head shouting that it’s not right to feel that way? By the end of the film, I came to a point where I’d come to a conclusion regarding which relationship of the two main characters was true and which was the illusion.

But, you know, I’m not sure. Still, I feel almost as though nit-picking instances of plot and story are to miss the point. Midway through the film, Binoche finds herself gazing into the mirror/camera as she styles her hair, chooses earrings to wear, and re-applies her lipstick. For her, it’s a hopeful gesture, as she’s hoping that it’ll be something that will be noticed by her husband/companion. The final shot of the film is of him gazing into a mirror at his reflection, but instead of making any effort to change what he sees, he regards himself tiredly, almost resignedly. He runs water, but never splashes any on his face, as most men would. I think the most beautiful moment in the film occurs at the conclusion. Throughout the film, they’ve referenced her brother-in-law’s stammer and the way that her sister loves how it makes him stretch out her name. Elle looks at her husband with a beautiful, tear-filled smile and calls him “J-j-j-james.” If Certified Copy had been released 45 years ago, there would be film classes taught about that moment.

Certified Copy is more than merely one of 2010’s best films. It’s one of the better films I’ve seen in some time. It knows something about life and has the courage to share it with us.

The heart understands what the head cannot.

4 ½ stars (out of 5)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thoughts From a Red Rug - Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine is the rare film that serves more as window than artifice, as it seems more like watching the lives of 2 people through a window than a mere movie. Apparently, the filmmakers were influenced certain recent European films, including 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, one of the finest writer/director teams at work today.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are Dean and Cynthia, an American middle-class married couple with one child, a daughter (played nicely by Faith Wladyka). Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance uses a dual timeline to tell the story of the relationship between two people who would probably have never met had not circumstances aligned perfectly, much less gotten married. The film cuts back and forth between the “present” timeline, when their marriage is disintegrating, and the past, when their relationship is beginning and blossoming. Thus, at the end of the film, we’ve reached what might be considered both the conclusion and beginning of their love story.

Blue Valentine’s European sensibilities are readily apparent. Where American films tend to try and balance things/characters to a fault, this film feels like one that’s been lived in rather than created. The balancing act usually means one of two things.

  1. Characters are clearly good or clearly bad, and if this isn’t initially apparent, then it’ll be pretty clear how we’re supposed to feel about them by the end of the film.
  2. When things are a bit more ambiguous, then each character will have strengths and weaknesses that even out pretty well, a la “you are right from your side and I am right from mine.”

That’s one thing that makes Blue Valentine effective. The 2 main characters are messy, messy people with messy, messy lives. As their relationship breaks down, it’s almost impossible for them to have a rational conversation. When Dean wants to talk honestly, Cynthia thinks he’s being unreasonable, and when Cynthia wants to speak her mind, Dean thinks she’s attacking him. I’ve known people like that. No matter how much they may want to work things out, there’s such an incredible divide in their terminology and in the way that they approach certain things that they will probably never be able to really talk. I found myself feeling so sorry for Dean as the story progressed. Cynthia’s incredibly frustrated with him, but, really, he’s a giant puppy dog. All he wants is to be with his wife and daughter. They’re are all he has, and, what’s more, they’re all he wants.

The writing is fantastic. I know that it’s somewhat silly to gauge everything by the Academy Awards, given the somewhat dubious logic behind their selections, but I sincerely hope that this receives a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The dialogue is wonderfully authentic, with Williams and Gosling bringing it to effortless life. I love the way that natural speech rhythms are present in their conversations. They’ve got all of the little stutter-stops and false starts that are present in the way that people talk. There’s a great scene where Dean finds a way to compliment and insult Cynthia at the same time by talking about her looks. Essentially, he’s telling her that pretty girls have it easy, because people pay closer attention to them than they might actually deserve by laughing at their jokes, which may or may not actually be funny. He then asks her to tell him a joke, and she tells an obscenely funny one about a pedophile. One of the highlights of the scene is the way that Cynthia starts telling the joke, messes up, and adjusts her delivery automatically to fix her mistake. When I (try to) tell jokes, that happens every time. Additionally, there’s a wonderfully naturalistic scene where Dean plays a little song for a dancing Cynthia out on one of their first dates. It’s just terrific. Also, don’t miss the end credit sequence. It’s is one of the loveliest I’ve ever seen. If you don’t stick around, you’re really missing out.

Chances are the only reason that you might have heard of Blue Valentine was because it received an NC-17 from the MPAA. That’s a sad thing. All too often in this country, so-called “obscure” films only get recognition due to controversy, be it related to the personal lives of the actors or the content of the film itself.

Personally, I’m slightly torn on the whole thing. I understand the MPAA’s place in society, but I question the amount of authority they’re given over a film’s exposure to an audience. If the NC-17 stands, a film that will have an already limited theatrical run shrinks even smaller, because many theaters refuse to play films rated higher than an R and funds for advertising dry up almost immediately.

Is there a significant amount of sexual content in the film? Yes, certainly. Is it pornographic? Not even close.

The emphasis remains squarely on the emotional lives of the characters and their responses to what’s happening. It’s about so much more than sex. Furthermore, it’s not as though sex is some kind of revolutionary subject (though you’d certainly think so, given this country’s public persona). Blue Valentine is documenting the way that a lot of people live and act, from the way that they speak, fight, relate, understand, misunderstand, and, yes, have sex. It’s unfair for the MPAA to suggest that the attempt to be honest about the way that people deal with relationships is a negative thing. It’s yet another example that the U.S. needs a workable adult rating. Personally, I’d go for breaking up the R rating into 2-3 subdivisions to denote the level of “objectionable” material a film contains. Under the current system, Lost In Translation and The Passion of the Christ have the exact same rating. Please.

I sincerely hope that Blue Valentine survives the MPAA appeal process unchanged and finds its way to the audience it deserves. It's one of the brightest lights in a year that's been largely unremarkable, and, even more than that, Blue Valentine is one of the better films to tackle human relationships in recent memory. One of 2010's best films.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thoughts From a Red Rug - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Anyone who’s read this blog in May knows of the uber-love I feel for the Cannes Film Festival. That’s the festival that excites me most as a cinephile, because, more than any other, Cannes plays the films I want to see. So, after getting my pass, I was very excited to see that SDAFF was playing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, because, for the very first time, I would have a chance to see a Palme d’Or winner on the big screen. Thus far, I’ve been relegated to watching the big films from Cannes long after the fact on my admittedly much smaller (though still awesome!) LCD television.

Sadly, my excitement would die quickly enough once the film was underway. I could BS you with numerous platitudes and flowery descriptions, but I think that simplicity is the best way to go about this. Look, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives sucks. I find it staggering that it was seriously considered for the Palme, and even more so that it ended up the winner.

Whenever a jury is deciding awards, it’s bound to allow for interesting results. A small group of people is choosing from among a clearly defined sample of films, and, depending on the makeup of the jury, anything can happen. Certainly, it’s not surprising that any jury with Tim Burton as its president might choose a title that’s a bit further off the beaten path than most. Still, this year’s festival had a number of films that generated a lot of buzz that seemed to be major contenders for the Palme. Another Year, The Housemaid, Of Gods and Men, and Biutiful come to mind. So . . . what happened???

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the story of a dying man who lives on a farm in the midst of the jungle. As he nears the end of his life, his sister-in-law and a few other people come to be with him. It’s a quiet, meditative film. Now, just exactly WHAT it’s meditating on is something that I can’t tell you.

Writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has a clear penchant for long, unbroken takes that remind me of Antonioni more than anyone else. However, with Antonioni’s films, there was a latent sense of quiet desperation and a somewhat ambiguous sense of angst that made the pacing work to his advantage. Conversely, Weerasethakul tends to focus on things and objects for much longer than I’d argue is necessary. For example, take the first sequence of the film. A small group of people is camping(?) in a field with a water buffalo tied to a tree. The animal escapes and trots off, only to be retrieved by a man from the group. Let me tell you, I saw far more of that water buffalo than I wanted to. I found myself giving silent instructions to the director: “ok, aaaaaaand it’s time to cut now, dude.” Still, a proclivity for deliberately long takes isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It’s in the writing that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives falls short, and it’s really too bad, because the early going is promising. There’s a very strong scene where Boonmee and his sister-in-law are visited by the his dead wife's ghost and long-lost son, and the conversation swirls around the dead’s relationship with the living and the presence of spirits/ghosts in the world. It’s at that moment that the film peaks. Unfortunately, it’s almost all downhill from there.

Not long after, the film takes a left turn that it never recovers from. We’ve been on a farm in the present with Boonmee, and now . . . we’re in the forest about 300 years prior with an emotionally/sexually frustrated princess who ends up having sex . . . with a catfish??? And the CATFISH does most of the work? I kid you not. It doesn’t actually play nearly as disturbed as it sounds, but the sheer oddity of the shift in time/place/subject doesn’t make much sense within the narrative. Then, without any explanation, we’re back in the present and the film continues with the story of Boonmee, albeit without any explanation as to how and why things are happening as they are. By the time the film ends, I was completely lost. I still have no idea how, even in the strange, fantastical reality of the film, the final scene is possible.

Glimpses of a good film shine through in bits of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It’s a shame that those moments weren’t allowed to serve as the axis around which Weerasethakul could have framed the rest of the story. Then, it might have made for something truly meaningful. As it is, it’s an uneven, frustrating, and ultimately thankless experience.

1 ½ stars (out of 5)

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's coming!

I am a lucky guy. The past year, I’ve found myself working very closely with a major film festival. As a result, I’ve been able to gain access to a ton of screenings, events, parties, and other festivals that I’d have been hard pressed to get into otherwise. The past few months have been particularly lovely, in terms of both the quantity and quality of what I’ve been able to do, so I thought that it’d be a shame to let all this go past without taking the chance to tell you about it.

So, I’m going to be starting a regular column right here called “Stories from the Circuit.” Or maybe I’ll call it “Festivalations” or “Thoughts from a Red Rug.” Or something like that. I plan to use it to write about the movies I’ve had the chance to see, many of which have not yet enjoyed release, limited or otherwise. Over the next week or so, keep one eye right here, because there’s a lot coming, given my prolific schedule of late.

And I’m open to ideas about the name.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Baddest Next-Door Neighbor. Ever.

When I first saw the promotional material for the American remake of Let The Right One In, the Swedish film of now almost mythic proportions, I wasn’t terribly optimistic. Fact #1: I don’t usually go for horror films, and Let Me In looked nigh terrifying. Greetings and salutations, flaming hospital beds. Fact #2: American remakes of foreign films are often unnecessary, not to mention insulting. Ah, so those little American idiots can’t keep up with a couple lines of white text at the bottom of the screen? No problem! Let’s stupefy the things that made the idea work in the first place and make everything ten times bigger, louder, and more incoherent. No big deal.

Having gotten some (a mere fraction!) of that veritable load off of my chest, I’m pleased and somewhat surprised to put forth that Let Me In is actually quite good. As I have not seen the original, I was able to go into the film fresh, with only a basic understanding of the premise to guide me.

In the current climate of films like The Twilight Saga, The Vampire’s Assistant, and so on, Matt Reeves’ direction is remarkably elegant and, for the most part, restrained, choosing a wonderfully classical style of shot construction that eschews a lot of camera whirlygigging for the beauty of careful composition. Instead of piling on the camp, the story takes the idea of a young boy’s encounter and eventual friendship with a vampire trapped in the body of a 12 year old girl very seriously. To its credit, by sticking with a real-world setting and lived-in characters, Let Me In allows the viewer to experience the fantastical world of the film on its own terms, without a ridiculously over-arching series of convoluted vampirical mythology to deal with. Kodi Smit-McPhee deserves particular merit for his strong turn as Owen, the film’s emotional anchor. He may only be 12, but this kid’s got range and the potential for a bright future.

Unfortunately, the film’s not perfect, with the chief problem being several poorly executed VFX shots of Abby in full vampire mode. Some early comments have noted that she looks like Gollum, although I contend that Gollum looked better. A lot better. I would have much preferred that Reeves had simply cut from one location to another without feeling the need to show exactly how she arrived there. One of the film’s best moments involves Abby arriving at a second-story apartment and, when pressed as to how she got there, she simply says, “I flew.” I’d have much rather seen more of those moments instead of unnecessary, second-rate attempts at digital trickery. While these moments don’t torpedo Let Me In, they certainly slow the film’s momentum, which is unfortunate, given the wonderful balance between reality and fantasy that much of the film strikes.

In lesser hands, Let Me In might have been another gorefest of a bloodsucker flick, or even worse, another overwrought exploration of teenage angst as filtered through the vampire tradition. While it'll certainly be bread-and-butter to folks who love vampires, this film is a rare thing. Let Me In is a genre piece that appeals to a wider audience without (much) compromise, a modern action film that pays the viewer the respect of actually allowing him/her to see what's going on, and a genuinely entertaining experience.

Recommended: 4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

We have someone on the inside!

The Toronto International Film Festival is upon us! Their line-up is wonderful, their festival awesome, and their city a joy, but I will not be there. Fortunately, Amanda, a colleague of mine, will be! What's more, she'll be blogging from the Festival with updates on the films she's seen and her impressions of the grand shindig.

TIFF's program this year contains almost every single film that I've been excited to see for the remainder of 2010, and I'm eager to hear Amanda's thoughts. You can link directly to her site here.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Don't Say Much and Carry a Big Knife. You'll Do Fine.

On a hot summer night several years ago, a group of dudes sat around a card table with a superior stash of booze and a lot of time to kill. One of the dudes, Robert (it’s his house, see) says to the group, “man, somebody should make a movie about a disgraced Mexican dude who used to work for the U.S. government on stuff too dirty for them to risk their own people on.” His idea gets instant support from the bleary-eyed duderage assembled around a pretty boring game of 5 card stud. QT, already close to passing out, says, “YEAH! And he should carry around a huge machete and kill people with it!” Again, props come immediately. You’d have a tougher time getting an amen in a Pentecostal church than you would saying anything to this group.

If this isn’t the way that the idea for Machete was conceived, then it’s got to be pretty close.

If you read this blog, you know that I'm pretty particular. I'm not going to go and just see anything that's out. If a film doesn’t appeal to my taste/sensibilities, I’m not going to go out of some sense of obligation that I need to see “everything.” But you probably know much (if not all) of this already.

Look, dudes. Machete ROCKS. I hadn’t planned to see it, but found myself on an outing with a friend and it was one of the only films on the marquee that I hadn’t seen that seemed at all interesting.

Robert Rodriguez is a bit of an outsider as far as Hollywood goes, and that’s a good thing. The concept and title character for Machete debuted as one of the fabled fake trailers in the underachiever that was Grindhouse. Expanded to feature-length, Machete is one of the more enjoyable films I’ve seen all year, and just might sneak its way onto my Best of 2010 list. No promises.

Now for the laundry list: the performances service the film pretty well. Look, if you’d told me beforehand that I’d see Steven Seagal AND Lindsay Lohan in a film and actually be able to look at them without feeling an unbearable sense of sadness, I would have disagreed. Possibly strongly so. Robert De Niro has a lot of fun with the role of a ridiculously corrupt senator with a penchant for approving hilarious campaign ads. And Cheech Marin almost steals the movie as a wonderfully colorful man of the cloth. He’s got a line of dialogue that’s one of the best I’ve heard all year. I’d reproduce it here, but kids and Catholics visit this site.

Danny Trejo manages to sell almost every inch of the Machete character by playing the guy completely straight. There are no winks or nods to the camera here, thank goodness. I am in awe of the way that a grizzled, tattooed, (dare I even say) ugly man manages to spend quality time with Michelle Rodriguez, Lohan, Alicia Rachel Marek, AND Jessica Alba within the stretch of 1 hour and 45 minutes. Jerk. I am curious, however, about the remarkable ability of an unmanned movie camera’s ability to zoom in on some of the hanky-panky. An aside? Yes, but still something I noticed.

Another thing that’s worth noting is the film’s political bent. Think you’re just going to watch a movie about a lot of splatter? Rodriguez is NOT happy about the situation at the Southern border of the United States, and he’s not shy about it. That said, Machete is not without a sense of humor at the expense of all involved, which is great, as the somewhat preachy quality of the politics gets offset by some inspired sight gags.

Machete is a gory, hilarious, rip-roaring throwback to the grand tradition of the B picture. Your $11 (or less, if you’re a not a city slicker) could be spent much, much worse. My hat is off, my shortest, squattest digit is upraised, and my understanding of the human intestinal tract has been expanded. What more could you want from a movie like this?

4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 23, 2010

I know how I feel. How do YOU feel?

The Standard Spoiler Warning
If I mention a particular film, I just might go into explicit details of the plot. Read at your own risk.

I have often lamented the fact that Annie Hall’s vaunted influence seems to be a thing that exists in name only. If I had a dime for each voice that proclaimed the film once known as "Anhedonia" to be the first real modern romantic comedy . . . you get the point. The thing is, in addition to its deserved place in cinema’s hall of fame, Annie Hall has a special place in modern romantic comedy because the hero and heroine don’t end up together, and you know as much from the first 2 minutes of dialogue. Name another rom-com that tries THAT. I’ll wait.

(Adam waits as you frantically sift through endless memories of reasonably attractive pink-skinned actors running through airports/disrupting weddings to the “wrong” man/ultimately falling in a messy heap before the objects of their affection to declare undying love.)

Can’t do it? OK, I will. (500) Days of Summer.

At first glance, this is a funny little indie movie with some strange ideas of what tonal consistency is. I’d be lying if I said that every little nuance and flourish worked equally well to move the narrative forward, but, ultimately, this thing achieves a remarkable sense of emotional resonance.

I was surprised at how well this film captures the complexity of human relationships. It’s all too easy to do what just about every rom-com does and tell a story about two drastically different people who learn they can’t live without each other. (500) Days of Summer takes the opposite approach and runs with it, which I think is much more difficult. It’s about two very similar people who find that, try as they might, they just won’t be able to make things work.

Tom and Summer’s relationship defies easy classification, which is unusual for a modern film dealing with matters of the heart. (I very much wanted to just call the thing a rom-com, but I don’t think that using that label would be completely honest.) Usually, all we get are films with characters who are very clearly right for each other or not right for each other with very little grey area. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in a relationship that wasn’t technically a “relationship.” Would drive me nuts.

When the story begins, it’s very easy to demonize Summer by thinking that she’s treated Tom poorly without any reason. She gets very close to him very quickly, both physically and emotionally, and then, after a while, jumps right out of the frying pan and walks off. Not only that, but she seems to fully expect that he’ll be ok with all this and ready to be “just friends” just as quickly. It seems like she almost expects him to have an on/off switch for his feelings.

Summer reminds me of people I’ve known and interacted with, with varying levels of intimacy. She has an inclination toward being somewhat flighty and sometimes emotionally impenetrable from a readability standpoint. She’s got a strong penchant for doing things for their own sake and rejecting the need for them to fit within a larger framework of values and norms. That said, I felt like I understood where Summer was coming from when the credits rolled. She’d been honest up front with Tom that she wasn’t interested in a real relationship and didn’t want anything serious, although I still can’t help but feel that, to a degree, she used him and his feelings for her own purposes.

Near the end of the film, there’s a scene where they “bump” into each other in a park, and have a chance to really talk. Without this moment, I don’t think that the film would have worked nearly so well as it does. I really admire the way that the two of them completely level with each other. He holds her accountable for her actions toward him, and she is completely honest about the way that she didn’t love him like she wanted to/should have/felt like she ought to. The way that she takes his hand, squeezes it, and he doesn’t move it at all is great. He’s not allowing himself to be drawn back in any more than he has to be. Of course, her mere presence is enough to pull him toward nostalgia and thoughts of what might have been, but he’s trying really hard.

The thing that rang true for me was how she said that she had fallen for the man she married so completely in a way that she had never really felt for Tom. She said it in a way that made me think that she had spent a lot of time thinking about that. Maybe she even tried really hard to make herself feel that way because she thought that she “should.” I can identify with this. Who hasn’t spent time asking oneself over and over and over again if you’re feeling the way you ought to about someone? “Do I care enough? Do I care too much? Am I in love? Should I be?” Like Tom says in the film, movies, pop songs, and greeting cards make it really clear how “normal” people feel about things of the heart, when the actual truth is that things are incredibly different in the so-called real world.

This scene reminds me of what my college speech professor used to call “peak communication.” It involves two people communicating exactly what they’re feeling, without holding anything back. He said that it wasn’t possible to really do this, but I wonder. Without this moment of genuine human communication, (500) Days of Summer would feel like an incomplete indie sketch with a lot of homage-style winks to the camera thrown in for good measure. With it, it’s wonderfully tender and remarkably poignant. It’s not common for a modern film, much less a modern American film, to portray relationships so honestly. This film touched me, and I’m grateful for that. Those don’t come around every day.

Was Summer the “one” for Tom? I think so, at least in the way that a certain number of people could probably qualify as being the soulmate of one person. All that stuff is primarily related to geography anyway. Was he only remembering the “good” stuff about her, as his little sister seemed to think? I don’t think so. Well, to a point, yes, he probably was, but I think that he really did love her completely despite her personal inconsistencies. But I understand where she’s coming from. I really do. The look that Tom gives her in the park when her head is down before she gets up to leave is just wonderful. It’s what a broken heart looks like, but that's not all. It's so much more than that.

I think you understand.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Strudel, party of 1, your table is ready."

In the 2 years that the blog's been active, we've been very lucky to have the steady support of a core team of writers. But times change, people embark on new endeavors, and we've recently found ourselves with only one active team member/blogger. Me.

From the beginning, I saw this blog as a collaborative place where a group of people with different worldviews, tastes, and areas of expertise could come together to engage an audience with articles that were insightful, enjoyable, and, above all, could start a discussion. In the world we live in, it's not enough to just have a site where a person or group of people sit on a mountaintop and deliver maxims to the masses without allowing for the 2-lane highway of effective communication.

As such, when Megan & Christopher left to begin writing at Suspension of Disbelief, I knew that I didn't want to be the only person writing here at the blog. This is for 2 primary reasons. First, I didn't (and still don't) see myself as being prolific enough to be able to write a steady stream of articles that could not only attract new visitors, but also encourage people who stumbled across us to stick around. Second, my tastes, while eclectic, contain certain gaps that will simply have to be dealt with. I'm certainly not apologizing for what I like or don't like, but I want this blog to represent the diversity of preference that exists among cinephiles.

So, it's with great pleasure that I introduce a new member of our team. Kelly's been a friend of mine since the day we met as 2 parts of a guerilla marketing campaign gone (slightly) awry. She's not only a talented writer, but she also has a genuine passion for the movies that's just infectious.

I'm sure that she'll have more to say in the way of introductions, so I'll leave the rest of that to her. Just know that I'm glad to have her as a member of the team, and hope that you'll enjoy her take on the movies as much as I do.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Totems & Trances

I've tried very hard to avoid putting any spoilers in my review. That said, if you want the freshest experience possible with the film, it's probably best to watch and then come back to read.

Christopher Nolan is one of the smartest men in show business. He’s got an incredible knack for taking a story that you’ve heard before and giving it that little extra something to propel it into territory you’ve never visited. He’s done it with murder mysteries, superheroes, and magic tricks, and with Inception he tries to tackle the single most complex entity on the planet: the human mind.

Does he succeed? That’s going to depend in large part upon your definition of success. Is it the accomplishment of a certain set of goals and objectives predetermined by the narrative, or the ability to take the expectations of a viewer and supersede them? I suppose that I think of success as a combination of both variables, with the overriding hope that the piece is going to hold together thematically, conceptually, and emotionally.

To answer my question about whether or not Inception succeeds: well, mostly.

Ironically, the story that had seemed to be incredibly complex is actually rather straightforward. Cobb (a strong Leonardo DiCaprio) works as an extractor of information by infiltrating people’s dreams. In the real world, he’s unable to return home to his family because of some trouble with the law, and voila! Saito (Ken Watanabe, solid although sometimes unintelligible) offers him a dream job (no pun intended). If Cobb can plant an idea in the mind of his business rival, Saito will make all of his problems disappear.

One thing that struck me about much of the film is how much of it involves talking heads. Now, we certainly get our share of action, but there’s a ton of time where characters talk to one another explaining exactly what will happen later, what might happen later, and what they didn’t say originally about what could have happened later. Not necessarily a flaw, but certainly a point of interest in a film that seemed to promise a world of visual wonder after visual wonder. In fact, the biggest “wow” moment was already revealed in the trailer when the city folds back on top of itself and becomes, essentially, its own horizon.

The performances are uniformly good, with particular notice going to Tom Hardy. I thought he was great in Star Trek: Nemesis, and he’s very good here as a charming and very effective “forger.” I hope that he gets a chance to shine in a lead role sometime soon. Marion Cotillard, one of my favorites, is solid here, if not ascending to the heights that she’s capable of. (note: is it a coincidence that Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien has such a pivotal role in Inception, given Ms. Cotillard's recent history? I think not.) Sadly, Ellen Page might have bitten off a little bit more than she could chew. Verbal comedy, her strength, is on a positively spartan diet here, and the way that she interprets some pivotal dialogue is very nearly groan-inducing. It’s great for the car to handle well when you’re driving through the countryside, but when it’s a matter of life and death, you’ve really got to hope that the thing’s going to be able to take the quick turns.

The real star of Inception is Christopher Nolan’s concept. The idea of people being able to enter dreams at will, to dream collectively, and to find endless amounts of time present in dreams within dreams is fascinating, to say the very least. The way that he deals with certain logistical problems is inventive, effective, and follows dream logic as “rationally” as possible. I’m very grateful for the fact that someone with Nolan’s clout is using the resources and talent available to him to make high-concept films that attempt to break new ground. In today’s cinematic landscape, filmmakers like him are sadly few and far between. We live in a world where it’s much safer to spin the same yarns over and over again with faces and minor details changed than it is to try to tell a truly original story that no one’s ever heard before. Sure, The Matrix and Minority Report come to mind as precursors, but Inception has an innovative spark of invention that sets it apart.

So why the hesitation? Why not proclaim it the cinema's newest masterpiece? Why not wax eloquent about how great Inception is?

Because, sadly, there are flaws. What’s incredibly unfortunate is that I cannot go into very much detail at all without discussing major plot points, and I wouldn’t dare spoil anything for someone who’s not seen the film. I will outline a few. While Nolan’s a brilliant conceptual thinker, I didn’t feel anywhere near the amount of emotion that the material should have been capable of generating. Some of the major plot motifs seemed simplistic and, while some of his directorial flourishes are nice touches, there are certain pivotal slow-motion shots that were unintentionally silly.

My single biggest problem with Inception is the ending. Unfortunately, I figured out a big part of it midway through the picture. With films, we may enjoy being one step ahead of where we feel we’re “supposed” to be, but what we really want is to be slapped sideways by something we never saw coming. While it ends (I suppose) the only way that it really can, I think Nolan painted himself into a bit of a corner. By ending it on the note that he did, he was forced to do something with the final shot of the film that I can’t help but think is a major cheat. I love the idea that it be the last image we see, but don't think that it works in execution.

I'm sure that a number of people are going to say, if they haven't already, that they can't wait to see Inception again (and again) to grasp the supposed riches within. I've felt similarly about many, many films in my life, but, strangely, in this case I'm not sure that a second viewing would really help me understand anything any better. We'll see. . .

Should you shell out some hard-earned cash for Inception? Yes, I’d say you should. Nolan’s risk-taking is something that you don’t see often enough, and it’s the single most audacious film you’re likely to see all summer. What’s unfortunate is that something that sets out to be this daring in its approach needs to be flat-out incredible to fulfill its potential, which Inception isn’t. Look, I enjoy a good game. I’m just not someone who loves being toyed with.

3.75 stars out of 5.