Monday, July 19, 2010


Prologue 1:
September 1, 2009:
Or maybe the whole movie takes place in DiCaprio's head, and it's just about him going nuts.  You heard it here first, kids.  If I'm right, I totally called that 9 months before the movie came out.



Prologue 2:
This is my longest post ever.  Whatever I happen to say down there, remember this:  you should go see Inception if for no other reason than I had this much to say about it.  Too many movies are just "there were cool explosions" or "he got the girl in the end" these days.  This one had thousands of words in it, and I still have more to say.  So get yourself to a theater already.

Man, it's been a while.  Since I've done a real movie review update, but also since I thought about Inception.  I was so pumped back when that first trailer came out, and then last weekend it was suddenly in theaters.  So I went.

While I recommend going into Inception without having a plot summary since the way the thing was put out there for most film goers, I also just want to put down into words what I remember happening.  If we're going to think about a movie like this, it couldn't hurt to have a quick recap.  So here goes:  Leonardo DiCaprio is a professional thief, but instead of stealing real stuff he goes into people's dreams (with fantasy technology that's just sort of taken as a given throughout the film) and steals their ideas.  He's got a team of people who help him with this, including the 500 Days of Summer guy, some other dude who is a pretty serviceable actor, and Juno.  Michael Cain shows up for like 10 lines, too.  Anyway, playing around in people's dreams is a super cool setup and leads to some pretty sweet special effects (though maybe not enough sweet special effects - more on that in a minute).

Our heroes screw around for a while as the movie lets us figure out for ourselves what the hell is going on for the first half an hour, a technique I appreciated.  There was danger that the audience just wouldn't figure out what was up and the whole film would be impossible to follow, but that didn't happen at least to me personally.  I'm sure someone's movie experience was ruined by it, though.  After the initial action scene shenanigans take us through this setup, we get to the basic plot of the film:  some Asian dude wants DiCaprio to go into someone else's mind and preform inception.  That is, instead of stealing an idea from someone else, he wants to plant one there.  500 Days of Summer guy says it's not possible, but DiCaprio insists that it is.  Gasp!  So they gather up their team who I already introduced to you and get down to business planning what is essentially the coolest heist movie since Ocean's 11.

By this point, we've already been introduced to the concept of a dream within a dream, so it's no surprise when it turns out that the heist / inception is going to take 3+ levels of dream.  This is cool.  There are also complications that arise from DiCaprio's dead wife, who still lives on in the dream world as a projection from his subconscious.  She keeps lurking around in the background, potentially sabotaging our heroes plans.  Then there are further complications, etc, etc.

Damn good movie, in my opinion.  I'd been comparing the previews to Blade Runner, Chinatown, and The Matrix, and while I'm not sure it lived up to quite those standards, the feel was definitely along those lines.  The noir aesthetic wasn't as good as Chinatown's, and the script could've used more work.  Usually when I say that it's because the dialog was bad, but in this case it was more like they didn't take enough time to flesh out the supporting cast of characters.  DiCaprio gets a good amount of personality since the movie basically comes down to his relationship with his wife, and Juno certainly gets moments.  We get a hint of something great from 500 Days guy, but it looked to me by the end that that was just because he's a good actor.  There's like 4 team members who are more or less disposable, which begs the question of why they were included the first place.  Cut a couple and give more time to fleshing out our principals.  I mean, the whole inception heist is based on this sort of character study of the guy they're planting an idea inside, yet even he seems a little empty by the end.

Just a quick aside, have you been following all those imdb links I've been throwing out?  Holy crap.  This movie's cast was just awesome.  It's like a who's who of actors that I like seeing in pretty much anything.

So we don't get as much character as I'd like, which is a shame.  But characters are boring - what about cool action sequences and sweet dream effects?  Sadly, the film does in this area pretty much what it did in the characters section:  while full of good intentions, but it didn't push them far enough.  You get a couple really great moments like the train plowing through the middle of city streets and the hotel fight scene that takes place as the van one dream level up does a barrel roll, but then it feels like things slide.  I want the creativity of Eternal Sunshine, or at least something a little bit more dream-like.  I'm okay with relatively mundane settings, but it feels like there should be more terribly out of place things like that train.  You've got this troubled guy's entire subconscious to work with, why not make some waves?

Even better, you could kill two birds with one stone by having weird dream projections showing up that give us a deeper insight into our characters.  If DiCaprio's wife is coming out of his head, what's to stop other people's personal demons from arriving and giving them trouble?  At least let us see some traumatizing clown from our subject's childhood.  I wanted to feel more Spirited Away and less action movie.  Obviously you can't just drop the action entirely, but you can find cool stuff to do here.

The synchronized kicks I was totally on board with.  I love the idea that in order to wake up from a dream you have to get that falling sensation because I know how readily falling in a dream wakes me up.  The same goes for death - right up until they changed that rule, I was totally in love with their system.  It was the sort of rules system I'd wished we'd gotten to see between Jacob and The Man in Black by the end of Lost.  Of course then they went and blew it all by changing the death rule.  I don't think they had to do that - instead of putting more on the line in the dream world and compromising your awesome system of rules, but more on the line out in the waking world.  That way, for every person that gets killed in-dream and wakes up, the task of inception becomes more harder, and we get drama that way.  If the cost of failure is essentially death (as it is for DiCaprio), we'll worry nearly as much about the character's survival without having to re-suspend our disbelief.

Whatever.  My original point there was that the kicks system was cool, and they got clever with how each level's kick was delivered.  The cue music was perfectly atmospheric, the elevator thing was priceless... basically everything about the kicks I liked.

I have one major technical gripe with the movie, and that is that all the cutting back and forth between dream levels was too quick for me.  Instead of going 4 seconds of falling van -> 4 seconds of elevator -> 10 seconds of snow dialog, I kept wanting to see bigger chunks on each level.  This way, I feel like we could have actually watched 500 Days guy in the hotel solve the various problems he was faced with, and maybe think about solutions along with him.  Instead, I felt like we just kept coming back to him doing some new random-ass thing.  I wanted to see him thinking, and larger chunks in each place would have let that process be more visible to us viewers.

Also, the snow level was just kind of random.

Alright, we're getting deeper here.  I haven't even touched the big gun issues yet.

As I said earlier, the movie basically comes down to DiCaprio dealing with his wife's death (and the other issue that I'll get to, I promise).  I felt like they handled this relationship well.  While I wish there were more bits in the film that felt like a slasher flick with Mal (the wife) as the villain who could be just around any turn, the actual characters were good.  As much as I complained about the lack of imagination in dreamscapes before, I thought the elevator trip through DiCaprio's memories was near flawless.  I would've liked to see multiple trips to this elevator to let the idea build and ferment, but I guess there wasn't time.  That seems to be one of the recurring problems with Inception:  there were so many ideas packed in that not many of them got room to breathe, even with a 2:20 runtime.

Back to the wife, there's that point at the end when DiCaprio is facing her down in limbo where he talks about how she's not nearly as complex as the real Mal, how she's only a memory, a facet of the complex woman who he actually knew and loved... I loved that bit.  I'd sort of already assumed this is what Nolan had been going for with her character, but it was a still a cool pointer in the direction he wanted us to look regarding Mal.

Speaking of limbo, what the hell.  That was by far my least favorite part of the film.  I didn't understand what it was, how you got there, or what purpose it served.  I guess the plot devices it created were important.  It let us look at that basic idea of limitless creation that comes with total lucid dreaming, and it set up the foundations for everything between Mal and DiCaprio.  Still, it was explained just awfully.  How did DiCaprio end up in the same limbo that he'd been trapped in with Mal?  Is there really just one, and if so, are we to believe that the two of them were the only ones who ever lost themselves there?  Then there's the whole deal with DiCaprio trying to find the Asian guy there which just didn't make any sense at all to me.  Why do you need that?  Just have the Asian guy not die, and you can have the same ambiguity in the end since DiCaprio has to go down into limbo to bring back the Scarecrow actor guy.  What's the point?

Which brings us neatly to the end.

I walked out of the theater with this huge grin on my face.  Joey and Danl followed me out the theater and to the bathroom where I promptly broke out laughing and exclaimed, "That was retarded."  I mean, as soon as you find out that the opening scenes are a dream within a dream, you have to see it coming that the whole movie could be set up as one big-ass dream.  I'm much more okay with this in a movie than on a TV show - if Lost had been a dream (or god forbid it turn out they were dead the whole time), I'd have been pissed.  But two hours examining that sort of reality question is fine by me.

So I think I did like the ending despite the fact that it bugs me.  Leaving things open for interpretation allows stupid kids like me to think about them for hours on end, which can be fun.  Joey thought just having the top fall over should have been how the film ended, and I agree that it would have been a fine conclusion a fun action piece about dreams and reality.  Certainly much better than most we get these days.

As is, I'm trapped between two opinions on the ending.  The first is that it was perfect.  It does so many things at once.  It lets you decide on which ending you like better - whether DiCaprio was in a dream the whole time or whether he got back to living his life at the end.  This doesn't quite work since the people who want the top to fall over are pissed that the top doesn't fall over, but it's perfect for those who like the idea of the whole movie being a dream.  It also plays into my favorite theme in the movie:  determining your own reality.  We see this a lot as everyone takes turns shaping each other's realities.  For starters we've got Juno creating dream worlds, the actual dreamers populating them, and DiCaprio sprinkling his subconscious all over everyone else.  Then there's the dreamers in the sedative guy's basement, DiCaprio and Mal's control over limbo, Mal's manipulation of DiCaprio once they're both back in the "real" world, etc.  At the end, we see DiCaprio ultimately choosing his own reality as he abandons Mal in limbo so he can return to his kids.  He makes the conscious choice to stop all this nonsense and just live his life.  In that sense, it doesn't matter whether or not the top falls over after the final cut to black.  The important thing is that DiCaprio decided for himself how he was going to live and went and lived that way.

I like that message a lot.

The other thing this ending does is make Carol Donelan super happy.  That is, it's commentary on watching movies within a movie.  One could argue that since we hear the top wobble just as the film cuts to black at the end, the top must fall over right at about that time.  Coincidentally, what else is happening just as the film cuts to black?  The film is over.  And just after a film engrossing as this one, you really do feel like you've woken up from a dream.  At least I do.  Having the film end on the wobbling of the top is this great nod at the way we take in films.  I can see the arguments either way about whether it's better for the plot to have the top fall or not, but this particular thing about the ending is great.

All that said, my other opinion about the end is that it's just trying to hard.  If you let the top fall over, you give us a satisfying conclusion to a fine story.  There's plenty of material to be discussed within the rest of the piece, especially if they'd taken the time to flesh everything out a bit more.  You can give us our real ending while still asking interesting questions.  I guess then you aren't going to get a bunch of free press post-release, though.  Probably less of a cult movie, too.

Critics seem to be just shitting themselves over Inception.  I definitely liked it a lot.  It's better than anything else in its same class that's come out in years.  The problem is just that there's so little coming out in that class.  So few movies are trying to be good and thought provoking rather than money makers.  Hell, so few good movies these days aren't based on some pre-existing intellectual property.  When someone comes along and makes a good movie with a budget that doesn't focus primarily on explosions, everyone freaks the fuck out.  I liked it, yes, but it was merely quite good.  It's just that quite good looks like solid gold when it's peers are a bunch of monkeys.

The monkeys also have bazookas.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ten Second Film Festival

It's exactly what it sounds like.  Here's the details:

The TSFF takes place on the 4th of July at The Soap Factory near Dinkytown, Minneapolis where I've been living this summer.  I was invited to spend the holiday with some people who were going, so naturally I tagged along.  Holy crap was it a good time.  All I want to do now is make ten second films all day long.  It was so worth the back pain caused by sitting on a plant.

The show's format was good.  There was a host, this big guy in a white suit and American flag top-hat.  He was funny, receptive to the crowd, etc.  Good at his job.  They'd apparently been taking submissions for a long time (maybe all year?), and they'd picked the best 100 to show.  These were divided into 10 categories, each shown consecutively along with an intro video.  They had names like "Mindless Violence", "Arthouse", "Documentary", and "Dance Off".  Then between the sets of 10 there were judges who chose a winner.  The winner got a silly trophy and lots of drunken applause.  The whole thing took about an hour and a half, which was a great length.

The best moment of the night needs some setup.  After the Documentary category, the crowd favorite was far and away this appropriately named film called Sticks.  Everyone was chanting "Sticks Sticks Sticks!" until the judges finally gave in and agreed to give it the prize.  Unfortunately, no one showed up to take credit.  People got upset, there was booing, etc.  It was bad.  So they had to give it to the second place winner instead.

Later in the night, another winner has just been announced, and again it's looking like a no-show.  Everyone's getting bored looking around, and finally this guy comes in like off the street and walks up on stage.  They try to hand him the trophy, but he waves them off.  There's some confusion, and this guy finally ends up with the microphone and says to the crowd "Hey, I'm the guy who made Sticks."  Cheers erupt, along with demands to give him this category's trophy.  So they did.  Awesome.

I noticed after the Documentary category that the best films tended to be documentary in nature, even if they didn't fall into that category explicitly.  I think capturing the perfect 10 second moment on your phone's camera just has more oomph to it than the other reigning formula of "one ten second joke".  Not that those weren't hilarious, mind you.

My favorite film wasn't either of those, though.  I wish I could find the video online, but alas, a description shall have to suffice.  It was called Puree, and it featured a bleak, white room containing only a blender full of water and goldfish.  A hand slowly moved onto the screen, reaching for the power button on the blender and getting closer... closer... CLOSER... and then a smash cut to black.  So perfect.

Looking around online, it looks like none of this year's films are online.  In fact, very few of them seem to make it up unless they're put there by their creators.  Still, here's one of my favorites:

You can see their whole youtube channel here.