Director Darren Aronofsky (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, THE WRESTLER) is not a subtle filmmaker.  His films often feel like they're pounding, pounding, pounding their audience into submission, with deliciously all-too-human horror that confronts the viewer in such a way that forces them to either love the film or hate it.  There's really no in-between for an Aronofsky film.  His body of work could probably best be described as typically divisive.  His latest effort, the psychodrama BLACK SWAN, is no different.  The thriller, starring Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a ballerina up for the role of the Swan Queen in SWAN LAKE, a production under the control of hard-line artistic director Thomas (a brilliant Vincent Cassel), starts by recalling countless earlier ballet-centric films, notably THE RED SHOES - a film which can't help but be invoked by the mere mention of a powerful ballet director and a struggling dancer - and ends with notes of body horror, psychological melt-down and the destructive impulse that drives its obsessed central character toward perfection and destruction.

Nina strives for perfection as a dancer, and is selected for the role because the White Swan should be a technically perfected part, but Thomas still has his doubts about her turn as the Black Swan, who he envisions as a bit more loose and wild than Nina ever allows herself to be.  Enter the rivalry of another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), much more sensual than Nina's perfected technique would ever allow.  Nina may lose her part, Lily and Thomas may be conspiring against her, and she may or may not be transforming, quite literally, into some horrific thing.  Aronofsky has utilized the thematics of the ballet SWAN LAKE to create a real-world mirroring of its central conceit: two sides of the same coin, dooming one another, and only because they are one and the same, and it works perfectly as a horror film.

Something tells me, though, that this may end up becoming a major issue, as horror can most certainly be used as a derogatory term when it comes to the world of ballet.  It's a largely insular culture, with its aficionados holding strong aesthetic opinions of good and bad that comes with the territory (all artistic and critical communities are the same in this regard), and I don't think they'll be too pleased with the actual presentation of ballet in the film (indeed, James Wolcott's review makes this point for me).  It's a backdrop, and not the show, and even Natalie Portman's year of training for the role doesn't really make much sense considering Aronofsky's film (and the horror/thriller genre in general) is more concerned with intimacy and brooding intensity - a point the film's many close-ups of Portman's gaunt face and leaner, more bruised and calloused frame hammers home more efficiently than any medium shot of the dancing going on around them ever could.  In reality, the close-ups of her body never had to be the real Portman, but, just as it did with Mickey Rourke's scarred torso in THE WRESTLER, the fact that it is only serves to add to the visceral impact the shots have in conveying the physical impracticalities of such a demanding lifestyle on a biological level, let alone the strain it can have on the psyche.

Given the obsession the film has with Nina's strictly-governed and routine-driven existence becoming unraveled by her awakening to her own desires and her growing sensual self-awareness, there is naturally a strong sexual element to the relationships Nina forms with both Thomas and Lily, with each offering some new and thrilling experience that could end up dooming her chances at being a successful dancer.  This sexual awakening is accompanied with both horror and pitch black comedy.  Thomas, perhaps unprofessionally, but with a point nonetheless, in an attempt to drive the point home to Nina, who just can't stop being perfect, asks a male dancer point-blank, "would you fuck this girl?"  In another scene Nina wakes up and starts to masturbate, and just as she reaches arousal, with her back arched and her stomach down, she looks over and sees her mother sleeping in a chair next to her bed.  These scenes serve to shock us and make us laugh uncomfortably.  They are uncomfortable scenes in a film filled with discomforting thoughts and uncomfortable relationships that shed light on the whole absurdity of the assumptions various characters make about one another, specifically concerning sexual desires and inclinations.  Even the assumptions made about Lily are horrifying to hear coming out of Nina's mouth - especially when we find out the truth behind the night in question.  They may as well all be losing their minds.

In many ways, BLACK SWAN is a culmination of Aronofsky's body of work to date, one in which his primary concerns of psychological and physical trauma are perfectly married into a perfect vehicle.  THE WRESTLER with more darkness, or REQUIEM FOR A DREAM with more sympathetic identification.  And, like his much-criticized but underrated work THE FOUNTAIN, he is again here obsessed with doubles, and features many a fantastic shot by frequent collaborator Matthew Libatique that features multiple mirror images of Nina.  The motif is blunt, much like the parallels between the story of the ballet SWAN LAKE and the film, but it hits and it sticks, and it has stayed with me since I first saw the credits roll all the way back in September.  This is Aronofsky's masterpiece.

I feel like I haven't successfully conveyed anything about the supporting actors or their roles, but I also don't feel that it's necessarily important that I do.  As fantastic as Barbara Hershey is as the domineering ex-ballerina mother (an important stock character in ballet films), or as much fun as Winona Ryder is as the aging ex-lead ballerina whom Nina is replacing, the film is really only concerned with Nina.  Even Lily and Thomas are extensions of the almost entirely subjective view we are provided by Aronofsky as a window into this story.  We feel for Nina because she is a classical tragic figure, marching toward an end as inevitable as any the rest of us can expect, albeit one with a much better soundtrack.


Blurbs: Special Edition

I've been gone a long time, I know.  But here I am, and I'm back.  Sorry for the all-too-long hiatus.  In any case, I figured I'd start back with something light, quick, and hopefully interesting, a new entry in my "Blurbs" series, where I give brief thoughts, reviews, etc, on a lot of things I've seen recently, but don't have time to devote to full-lenght pieces (though I may come back to some of them in the future).  Without further ado, here's a new, extra-long installment of Blurbs:

13 ASSASSINS (Takashi Miike, 2010)
I caught this one in Toronto, and I've been thinking a lot about it since then.  It's definitely as bombastic and over-the-top as any other Miike film, but in a more traditional mode of filmmaking.  Stylistically, it plays exactly like a classic samurai picture, mirroring in many aspects the films SEVEN SAMURAI and SANJURO, as well as any other post-60s film that features an individual or group of samurai nobly defending peasants against the evil advances of a violent and immoral enemy.  Still, there are touches of trademark Miike the provocateur in the film, including a sequence which sees the samurai defending the town by having a herd of bulls charge at the invaders with dynamite strapped on their backs.  And, yes, he still finds some way to include a naked torso-woman in the proceedings.  Things aren't nearly as strange as all that, though, and Miike has made what is probably his most mature film to date, a real, first-rate classic that finally marks his arrival above the cult following he has held for the past decade.  13 ASSASSINS is memorable, fun, thrilling and inspiring filmmaking of the very first order.

THE ILLUSIONIST (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
Another Toronto selection, this is the follow-up to Chomet's feature debut THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE.  Based on an unproduced script by legendary filmmaker Jaques Tati, THE ILLUSIONIST follows a magician growing slowly irrelevant by a world less-inclined to believe in magic, and becoming more and more enamored with rock-n-roll, which slowly takes over as the main draw to many of the venues he has been playing for years.  Like TRIPLETS, THE ILLUSIONIST is a film of quiet charms, with minimal dialogue (and much of that is muffled and incomprehensible) that focuses all of its attention on the visual imagery and the dazzling art of the film.  There's a moment near the end of the film when the protagonist stumbles into a dark movie theater while chasing his clothing on a runaway rack, and for a brief moment, he shares the screen with Tati's projected image within the theater (a real film clip, not animated).  This single sublime demonstrates what is really the most important thing about Chomet's film: it's ability to touch its audience is admirable in an age when most directors, animators included, would rather shock thrill or titillate.  Truly this is one-of-a-kind filmmaking.

DUE DATE (Todd Phillips, 2010)
This film had a huge build-up because of Phillips' previous success with THE HANGOVER (which, at the time of my writing this, is the most-viewed on-demand movie ever).  Audiences were particularly excited in seeing that film's break-out star, Zack Galifianakis re-team with the director, though it seems the film they got wasn't as amazing as they were hoping (see also: reactions to Judd Apatow's FUNNY PEOPLE).  So goes the saying about expectations, etc., etc.  I, on the other hand, was pleasantly surprised that Phillips had made a different type of road movie from THE HANGOVER, particularly since he was already lining up to shoot a sequel to that one anyway.  Robert Downey, Jr., plays the straight-man to Galifianakis' annoying idiot.  Neither character is particularly likable, though when pressed I'd have to say Galifianakis gets my vote for the one I'd be more likely to kill  myself.  In what is essentially a remake of John Hughes' PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, we watch as the ever-bitter Downey begins to take a liking to the schlub who keeps getting him in these awful situations to begin with, and it does feature some winning performances.  Downey is incredibly mean-spirited here, much more so than Steve Martin's character in PLANES, and that's saying a lot.  If there's one thing that keeps this film from being completely successful, it's that the character dynamics are so in-tune with previous ideas of how these personalities should clash (thanks to other, better films), that we just can't identify with either character, let alone both.

"G" MEN (William Keighley, 1935)
I'm an unabashed fan of pretty much everything that James Cagney ever did.  He's one of my favorite Classical Hollywood actors, and he's never as much fun as when he's playing a bad guy with a heart of gold.  I'd never seen "G" MEN, Warner's post-Code gangster picture, though I'd been meaning to for years.  Finally, I caught it on DVD about a month ago.  It's really quite fantastic.  In an effort to make a gangster picture, with one of their top stars, Warner Brothers decided they would cast Cagney in a trademark role, but with a twist so as to not upset the censors: Cagney would be a reformed gangster who helps bring down his former associates when he joins the newly-formed FBI.  A lot of the Warner contract actors are here, including Robert Armstrong and Margaret Lindsay, who played tough-as-nails and strictly by-the book Jeff McCord and his sister Kay, respectively.  Keighley's direction is superb (he also directed one of the best adaptations of Robin Hood with star Errol Flynn, and collaborated with Cagney again on the prison drama EACH DAWN I DIE), as is the crisp cinematography of the legendary Sol Polito (THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, 42ND STREET).  I loved this one.  Definitely check it out if you can.

THE WICKER MAN (Neil LaBute, 2006)
I honestly think this is one of the most misunderstood films of the past ten years.  While not terribly good, it's nowhere near awful, and is compelling not only for Nicolas Cage's leap off the deep end performance, but also because it's one of the weirdest films I've ever seen, from beginning to end.  Loosely taking its cues from the original British film and the novel it was based on, LaBute crafts what is essentially a broad genre farce, though played completely straight.  I think this is also the problem a lot of people ran into with LAKEVIEW TERRACE: we're not entirely sure what his game is.  It's such a departure from traditional filmmaking in its tone and execution that it seems like he's often just fucking with us.  Indeed, I think with THE WICKER MAN, he was just fucking with us.  Cage plays a detective from California summoned to a tiny island off the coast of Washington to search for a missing little girl, and uncovers a lot of weirdness when confronted by the modern-day, femme-centric bee-farming pagans that leads to a lot of questions about LaBute's long-accused misogyny (though I think this is mostly him joking about his perceived disgust with females).  In any case, by the end of the film, in which Cage dons a bear suit and goes around punching women in the face and kicking Leelee Sobieski into a wall, the only reading that makes sense any more is that this is a personal satire, as well as an affront to his critics.  He finally gave us "the essential Neil LaBute anti-feminist screed", and we hung him out to dry for it.  Kind of brilliant, actually, and it essentially freed him up to make whatever he wanted from there on out, even if the films weren't that great in the end.

MACGRUBER (Jorma Taccone, 2010)
A pretty smooth film for such an absurdist and sporadic comedy.  Based on the SNL sketch that mocks MACGUYVER about two decades too late, Will Forte leads the charge as the title character, a moronic special-forces type that is utterly clueless about his actual job, but nonetheless succeeds in the end.  The jokes range from the inspired to the merely silly, but there is hardly a minute that passes that doesn't contain at least one gag that had me chuckling.  It's odd that this one got such bad word of mouth (I know I didn't go see it theatrically because of it), because it's actually the funniest film SNL's been involved with since WAYNE'S WORLD 2 all the way back in 1992.  Oh well, now I know, and I'm glad I've seen it.  Immature, yes.  Funny, also yes.  Great cinematic art, well, no.

BABY FACE (Alfred E. Greene, 1933)
The inimitable Barbara Stanwyck stars in this pre-Code picture about an attractive woman who uses her feminine wiles to work her way all the way to the top.  After, quite literally, starting in the basement of a building as a bartender, she begins working at a bank, and goes floor-by-floor to the top, using her looks and sexuality all of the way, though she ultimately realizes this power and financial security will never bring her happiness.  This portrait of unabashed willpower wrapped up in sex and evocation still holds on to its power today, mostly due to Stanwyck's powerful performance as a woman who gains everything only to realize she is still vulnerable.  Thrilling, miraculous stuff.


Review: BURIED

Spending 90 minutes watching nothing but Ryan Reynolds alone onscreen may not sound like your idea of a good time, but let me assure you, his new film, BURIED, which I saw while in Toronto, is an excellent high-concept suspense film that will keep you on the edge of your seat for its entirety.  Director Rodrigo Cortez has crafted a one-man show that is smart, inventive, visually stunning and which, given his very literal constraints, allows the main actor room to turn in an impressive and completely unexpected performance.

Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a truck driving contractor in Iraq who wakes up in total darkness, buried alive, with no idea how he is supposed to get out.  When he comes to, the film begins, and for the first few minutes, we are all alone in the dark with only heavy breathing and panic setting in.  Then, there's the sound of a Zippo, and a flicker of light.  Flashes of the coffin and the person in it slowly come into focus for us once the lighter remains lit for a longer stretch of time.  There is nothing but Paul, the coffin, the lighter, and a cell phone he discovers laying next to his body.

From this predicament, Paul tries every conceivable trick: calling his employers, calling his wife, calling the FBI, and each time he is met with further frustration.  And then people actually start answering their phones and they are even less help than no answer would have been.  The film plays with these moments a lot, with the bureaucracy of the situation showing through in a lot of them.  How does an HR office worker react to a call about someone who works for them buried in a coffin?  How about the hostage "negotiator" who is barred from contacting or negotiating with the "terrorists" who have captured the victim?  These questions are mired in layer after layer of sweat and dirt as Paul maneuvers through them all.

Rodrigo Cortez's direction (he was also editor) is superb.  During the Q&A in Toronto, he revealed that they actually built seven coffins to shoot in and around so they could get all of the angles - not entirely unlike the boxing rings built by Scorsese for RAGING BULL in order to provide different psychological mindsets - and it works to great effect.  There's a particularly memorable shot looking down on Paul as the camera just lifts up and up and up, with the sides of the coffin rising for what seems like forever, which puts us right in the moment of helplessness and hopelessness that he's feeling right at that second, buried god-knows-how-far beneath the earth on top of him.

One last thing I loved about the movie: the lighting was all natural.  No lighting rigs were used to illuminate the scene, only a lighter, cell phone or whatever else was being used in the scene at the time (Cortez did note that, sometimes, when the lighter was off-screen, they had three of them lit so they could generate enough light to make the shot effective.  Still, the flickering is real, the darkness is real, and Ryan Reynolds effectively keeps us in suspense for the full run-time of the movie.  BURIED is a high-concept one-man show that is entertaining and worthwhile.


Review: LET ME IN

It's always a shaky proposition remaking a film that was considered by many to be an instant classic upon its release, but that's exactly the task director Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD) decided to undertake with his latest film, LET ME IN, which isn't so much a remake of the Swedish film as a re-adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel (and his subsequent screenplay adaptation) LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.  Reeves' new film stands wholly on its own, though as a consequence of its being adapted so closely from the same source material there are many similarities in dialogue, certain sequences, and even mood.  This isn't to diminish the American film in any way in regard to the original, and I'm simply making mention of the inevitable comparisons many will make (over and over again) between the two films.  I don't really think that's fair to Reeves, or to his actors, or to anyone involved in LET ME IN, which is on its own a superbly crafted film that, though it may tell a tale some may be familiar with, will nonetheless be many viewers' first exposure to all the film(s) and novel have to offer.

The film tells the story of Owen, a bullied kid who lives at home with his mother, who recently separated from his father.  They live in an apartment complex in New Mexico, and he spends a lot of time on his own, either in his room, or on the playground in the courtyard, sitting in the snow imagining his revenge on his tormentor at school, who derisively calls him "little girl."  He spies a girl moving into the complex one night from his window, and things move from there, with them gradually growing closer despite Abby's insistence that they "can't be friends."  Owen undoubtedly finds Abby a bit odd - she smells funny, never wears any shoes, and solves his Rubick's Cube in a day - but he seems to be inexplicably drawn to her as well.  Later in the film, we learn a lot more about Abby, and a little more about Owen as well, especially in his relationship to what Abby is and his need to be protected.

What struck me most as I watched the film almost three weeks ago in Toronto was the overall tonal shift Reeves made in transporting the film's setting from Sweden to New Mexico.  The cinematography is certainly more stylized, with a much darker lighting set-up than I expected, and that leads to the film feeling much more sinister in its implications.  Toward the end of the film, the relationship between Abby and Owen is much heavier than the one shared in the original by Oskar and Eli.  This has to a lot to do with some added nastiness about the actual nature of killing people and drinking their blood than we've seen before.  In a particularly memorable change in sequence, Abby's reveal to Owen features a full-on attack scene that poses questions about what exactly constitutes a monster, and the morals faced when you learn someone you are close with may be something entirely different than what you imagined.

But the surprises don't end with the simple additions of gorier scenes and different kills, although one such sequence does have a rather fantastic camera maneuver in it as we are stuck in a car that is crashing over a snow-filled bank off the road.  The film also offers some fantastic performances by its young cast members, who are full-fledged actors, and not mere "child actors."  Chloe Moretz once again proves she is every bit as amazing as she has been hyped to be, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is no slouch either.  As Abby and Owen, they are every bit the onscreen pair as Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson were in Tomas Alfredson's film.  There is certainly something sweet and endearing going on that is conveyed even through the very thick, sad atmosphere brought to the film by their adult counterparts.  They are the perfect balance between knowing adulthood and ignorant youth, and perfectly show us a couple of children who are, literally and figuratively, old before their time.  I haven't even gone into the performances by Richard Curtis and Elias Koteas at all, and they were fantastic as usual.

The film drew me in with its similarities and by the end it left me in the same sense of wonder and suspense I had when I finished LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, which I will make no secret of being my absolute favorite film of 2008.  This is no small feat, and it's one that Matt Reeves pulls off by being unwaveringly faithful to the source material while still taking stylistic risks that American audiences may not necessarily be prepared for, and which serve to form additional layers of depth to a film many people already enjoyed in its first adaptation.  Think of it like a companion piece about the same people and with the same themes and tones, but with slightly different viewpoints.  It really is quite fun and interesting in its own right.

I also want to single out the score by composer extraordinaire Michael Giacchino, that demonstrates a very nimble approach to scoring a film of this nature, which could come off as a very, very heavy-handed experience.  Instead, he toys with creepy choirs while never going full-blown "HEY!  THIS IS SCARY!!!" style, and he never rubs anything in for too long or keeps a theme going far past the time the music should have died down.  Like his amazing overture at the end of CLOVERFIELD - notable because it was the only score in the film, over the end credits - he has given us a series of compositions that perfectly evoke mood and theme while never intruding upon the space the film needs to properly breathe.

Of course, I could go on and on about the many, many similarities between LET ME IN and its inspiration, but that's not what I want to do.  You can surely find that out there on any number of straight-up review and fan sites, and most of them will probably tell you it's not as good as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and not to bother.  But I just can't do that.  LET ME IN is its own thing, and it doesn't deserve to be diminished in a climate that produces untold hours of absolute dreck every single week.  To say that something isn't as good as something that is near-perfect is to say absolutely nothing about it.  But to perhaps show how it made me think and react, which I hope to have done here, is to encourage others to give it a chance.  It may make a believer out of you that all remakes aren't necessarily bad.  After all, there were how many versions of the Dracula story in the past century?  And at least a dozen of them are more than worthwhile.  Regardless of all that, LET ME IN remains the tender, horrific and very poignant vampire film that LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is, and that means that it's totally unlike any other film to come out of the current vampire craze.


TIFF 2010 - Midnight Madness, first three selections

Toronto is a very user-friendly major city.  The entertainment district encompasses a large section of downtown, but most everything is easily walkable.  From the Southernmost point in which there are hotels in the area, the furthest theatre takes maybe 45 minutes by foot.  It's really quite convenient for a film festival.  There are tons of films playing - somewhere around 300 - and most look like they would be worth my time if I had it to spare.  The most anticipated portion of the festival's programming before I got here - the always promising Midnight Madness selections at Ryerson Theatre - have held up to my expectations.  Today is Monday, and I've only seen three, but they have so far been fantastic and completely unique in many ways in the world of genre filmmaking.

Friday night saw the world premiere of James Gunn's SUPER, an absurdist, ultraviolent, completely irresponsible real-world superhero film starring Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page.  The film plays a lot with convention, including the responsibility a hero has to not kill the people he's constantly beating to a bloody pulp, but throws it out the window for sheer insanity.  The third act's super dark tone doesn't quite work with the lighter absurdity that comes before it, but it does help the audience swallow all of the bludgeoning with a wrench that happens earlier in the film, as well as the uncomfortable eroticism of being, essentially, raped by Ellen Page, after one of the filthiest, dirtiest lines of dialogue I've ever heard in a film.  Anyone who knows Gunn's work with Troma, or his previous film, SLITHER, has an inkling of what to expect, but this is one difficult flick to take stock of, even by his gratuitous standards.

Saturday night's BUNRAKU, by first time filmmaker Guy Moshe, is a completely unique, wholly original experience that I swear to you is completely unlike anything you've ever seen before.  Imagine a pop-up book filtered through Hollywood noir and Hong Kong action filmmaking, and you have a bit of something to work with.  SIN CITY through the eyes of Yuen Woo Ping, but with the cinematography of DICK TRACY.  In a world where guns are outlawed, all disputes must be settled with fists, and there's lots of dispute settlin'.  This will be an interesting film to follow through to a release, because it defies categorization.  There are moments of such amazing choreography and stuntwork that it's mind-blowing, but then you remember that it's a highly stylized and streamlined narrative that features some really challenging moments of suspension of disbelief.  Wonderful film.

The third night's selection saw Midnight Madness get creepy, with Brad Anderson's (THE MACHINIST, TRANSSIBERIAN) new film, VANISHING ON 7TH STREET.  The premise is classic TWILIGHT ZONE set-up, with a darkness spreading and the majority of a city's citizens disappearing with only their clothing crumpled on the ground where they stood.  Shadows play an integral role in the terror of the film, organic entities that are attempting to grab up the remaining living souls, who have all wound up together in a neighborhood bar being kept lit by a back-up generator.  Hayden Christensen, who I've given plenty of crap for his acting on a lot of occasions, turns in a pretty strong performance, rediscovering the promising chops he showed back before he was cast as young Darth Vader.  Thandie Newton's character is a bit one-note, and John Leguizamo's conspiracy-theorist movie theater projectionist is a standout, but he's given too small a role.  Honestly, this is one creepy film that, much like Anderson's SESSION 9, utilizes its dark atmosphere to stunning effect.  A possible sleeper if it's released wide in the U.S.

The next few nights have some promising fare - John Carpenter's THE WARD and James Wan's INSIDIOUS bring the creepy some more before things get shaken up with RED NIGHTS and THE BUTCHER, THE CHEF, AND THE SWORDSMAN, which I will sadly miss.  In any case, MM is really a highlight of the festival for genre fans, as well as anyone looking for something truly outside the box.  I haven't written the last of my thoughts on these films here.  Look for more in the future.


Essential Listening 02 - "Maybe I Know"

note: I originally wrote the following article for the website SceneSC.com for an (at the time) ongoing column in which I would discuss songs and artists I loved and spotlight the intermingling of music and imagery.  The column never really came to fruition, so I'll be reproducing the unused articles here so they may see the light of day.

This is the greatest pop song ever recorded.
Let that sink in a moment, because I’m dead serious.  Greatest.  Ever.
Recorded by Lesley Gore in 1964, “Maybe I Know” isn’t her most well-known single (that would be “It’s My Party”) or her most haunting (the magnificent proto-fem statement of self-reliance “You Don’t Own Me”), but it is Gore at her absolute best; a distilled essence of innocence, maturity, love,  forgiveness, pop-power and teenage wonder.  Try to listen to this song and not feel something - it’s impossible!
Gore’s singles are interesting in that they form a sort of narrative, following Gore’s innocent teen protagonist from first broken heart to independent woman, all on vinyl, and all within two short years.  “Maybe I Know” falls right in the middle of this story, an epic in which she’s stung by Johnny and Judy, steals her boy back, and eventually proclaims her identity outside of relationships.  She’s the original riot grrrl.
The formation of her personal identity is forged in the first run of the chorus, right up front, in which she proclaims, “Maybe I know that he’s been a-cheatin’ / Maybe I know that he’s been untrue / But what can I do?”  She’s still vulnerable, but learning.  She’s trying to find the answer outside of the traditional pop-identities shared by women at the time: predominantly the feeling that they’d die without a man to make them whole.  What crap.
In 1964, Gore performed for the T.A.M.I. SHOW, a concert film edited together from performances at two separate concert events, and her versions of “Maybe I Know” and “You Don’t Own Me” are particularly memorable.  She exudes energy, smiling, swaying, and really belting out the songs.  I’ve included the video below for you to check out.  The T.A.M.I. SHOW film is one of the key documents of American pop music, and was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006.  For those interested in the full film, there are also performances by James Brown (one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen), The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson and Chuck Barry, among others.  It is available on DVD.
Back to the song: make no mistake, this is all Gore’s track.  Her performance is flawless, and the music is classic mid-60s girl-group pop.  Gore’s voice is one of the most memorable in all of American popular music, distinct and mature, and completely unwavering.  The song starts out all bouncy horns and soaring vocal, and over the course of 2:35 minutes, it trancends time and space, then brings us back to Earth again.  The experience of listening to “Maybe I Know” is always magical, ethereal, and completely jaw-dropping - it is never any different - and it brings me to my knees every single time.  “What can I do?,” indeed.


Essential Listening 01 - "Where The Wild Roses Grow"

note: I originally wrote the following article for the website SceneSC.com for an (at the time) ongoing column in which I would discuss songs and artists I loved and spotlight the intermingling of music and imagery.  The column never really came to fruition, so I'll be reproducing the unused articles here so they may see the light of day.

I think my Facebook friends are already tired of me going on and on (and on and on) about just how good this song and video are, and about the perfection of the duet by Cave and Minogue, from subject matter to its final execution, but dammit, I just can’t get enough.  This song is something like a religious experience - best experienced by yourself and then shared with others continuously throughout the rest of your life.
In the mid-90s, Cave came up with the idea of doing a full album of murder ballads, which had been a staple on every Bad Seeds album since From Her To Eternity in 1983.  Originally conceived as a joke - a sort of over-the-top “obvious” record, meant to be taken ironically - the resulting release is nonetheless a treasure trove of material.  In addition to this haunting and oddly romantic song, there’s also the rambunctious barnburner “The Curse of Millhaven” and the devastating, violent and explicit reinterpretation of the essential murder ballad, “Stagger Lee”.  But I digress.
“Where the Wild Roses Grow” is the song that makes the album, linking all of the songs together with Cave’s usual semi-crooner persona from this era in his career, the romantic who only sees heartbreak and loss around every corner.  Telling the story of a courtship that ends with the man killing his beloved by the riverside after determining she was too beautiful to ever grow old (and also from the point of view of the confused spirit of the deceased, Elisa Day), the song treads some truly disturbing ground, mostly because it’s such a damned gorgeous composition.
As a fan of both Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, the sheer logic of them recording together has never quite made sense (I could do a whole other bit on Kylie album “Fever”, but that’s another beast altogether).  But apparently, they had a thing for one another.  There’s a rather amazing little short edited together over on YouTube that tells the story of this pairing (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFezNxypDK4), and it’s fascinating just to hear the pair of them discuss the song and its legacy.  I highly recommend it.  
But back to the task at hand.  Cave and Minogue’s vocal delivery, surely some of the most amazing to exist in all pop music, is perfection; lightning in a bottle.  It’s awful and beautiful and romantic and ugly in only the way a Nick Cave song can be.  That this album of songs about ugliness, greed, lust and, yes, murder is a prelude to the heartbreaking and tender follow-up The Boatman’s Call is evident in this very song.
And then there’s the video, which is based on painter John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia”, depicting the scene in Hamlet when Ophelia drowns herself in a river.  In the video, of course, Cave is constantly kneeling over his deceased love while she lay in the spot where the wild roses grow.  Visually, it’s all soft-focus photography on the gorgeous Minogue, and harsh shadow for the murdering Cave.  It sends shivers down my spine constantly.


Masculinity Under a Microscope - Writ Large, preliminary thoughts on VALHALLA RISING

I recently - and finally - caught Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn's breathtaking new film, VALHALLA RISING, via Video-on-Demand service.  Following the pagan warrior One Eye as he accompanies a band of crusaders in their journey to the Holy Land, the film plays out like an odd mixture of brooding uber-masculine Viking epic, with the pacing of a Terrence Malick venture and a dash of 70s Herzog/Kinski madness.  In scope, beauty, and pure brutality, I can't say I've ever seen anything truly like it.  It's not any one thing, but a mixture of things, and a pure, unadulterated work of imagery and poetry.  VALHALLA RISING is definitely not for everyone, but then again, few films are.

The film begins with a sequence depicting One Eye's enslavement to Scottish pagans and the constant hand-to-hand fights he competes in for their sporting pleasure.  After being introduced briefly to this situation, and the leaders of the clans discussing the coming Christians marauding the land and massacring the pagan tribes if they don't convert, One Eye escapes in a bloody rage, murdering the party that is to transport him to his new owners and heading off on his own, with the young Are - who fed him in captivity - in tow.  It's not long before they come upon the Christians, freshly off a massacre, and still sitting in the area where they killed another clan of heathens.

Instead of either side attacking the other, and thinking they could use a great warrior like One Eye on their side, the Christians invite One Eye to join them in the Crusades as they take back the Holy Land and fight for riches and the Lord.  Soon they are journeying across the ocean, and it's at this point the film becomes an increasingly spartan filmmaking exercise; the dialogue all but ceases to exist for long stretches, and the imagery really takes over even more than it had already.

One Eye also has some sort of ability to see events in his future, tinted a bright, bloody red, which makes you wonder if that's how he sees the world - through that blood-red hue.  He also carries a bit of a mystical quality about him in that he seems to be able to speak through Are, who constantly answers questions asked of One Eye and makes remarks on behalf of him.  This plays out to much stranger effect in the last half hour of the film, when the fates of the party and the events that lead to them play out.

The crew finds land after drifting for days in a fog that seems to have descended upon them for fateful purposes, but it's not Jerusalem, and is filled with lush greenery.  Once their party is attacked, two things become apparant: they are in fact in the New World, and are under threat from "primitives" and their pagan companion has brought them to Hell for suffering and death.

The contrast between One Eye and the Christians' reactions to their ultimate location is interesting to consider: One Eye is a warrior, a non-convert, and for him, death can only lead to his place in Valhalla, and some sort of Hell isn't really an option as long as he fought the best he could and died while fighting.  But the Christians think they've been corrupted by the pagan, this viking One Eye, and they blame their plight on him, descending into madness, sodomy, murder and, ultimately, their own deaths.

VALHALLA RISING is enigmatic, ethereal and difficult - having seen it twice now I'm still processing most of my thoughts on it.  It's completely unlike any other viking epic I've ever seen, and the cinematography is some of the most gorgeous I've ever encountered.  During the film's final two acts, slow-motion photography is employed to an extreme, giving the impression of characters walking through sludge to get to their destination.  The movements, the expressions on their faces - they're all highlighted in various forms of suffering, coping and acceptance.  The essence of VALHALLA RISING is in these final scenes: masculinity, under a microscope, on a large scale.  What it says to you - that's the interpretive part.


The Life Of The Mind

All of this INCEPTION talk has been enlightening and refreshing, and not just in a Facebook status update "that movie blew my mind" sort of way.  I'm still a bit on the fence about it, personally, and though I do have some small problems with it, I tend to fall much more squarely on the side of having liked it.  The story of a dream heist is too good for me to pass up, given my interests in crime dramas and my own concerns with the nature of memories and how they shape our lives and those of other people.  Despite whether or not I like the film or not, the discussion surrounding it justifies its existence on some level, even if you, like many others, find talking about the movie more fun and enlightening than actually watching the film itself.

Of course, as a natural outgrowth of all of this, I've gone back again and again to thinking about dreams and reality and the nature of cinema altogether.  As many blogger, commentators, and others have pointed out, a movie is not entirely unlike a dream, in that you enter a fantasy world, usually via a surrogate's experience, and exist within the imagination of the filmmaker for the time you're watching the movie.  It's a point the Davids Lynch and Cronenberg have made over and over again in their films.  Below is a brief discussion a few of my favorite films concerned with reality, dreams, perception and memory.  (Oddly enough, BARTON FINK doesn't make it in here.  I just liked using that reference as a title.)

TOTAL RECALL (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)
Arnold Schwarzenneger plays Quaid, a regular guy who dreams of taking a trip to Mars - where he may or may not have been before.  In order to get there, he opts for an implant in his brain that will give him the memories of his amazing, romantic, spy-themed vacation.  During the course of the procedure, something goes wrong, and he awakens suddenly with very concrete memories of a huge conspiracy that has gone down, and has been covered up by having his brain wiped.  All of the pieces begin to fall into place, and before long, we're transported to Mars for real (maybe), and Quaid begins to lay waste to his enemies as he unravels their dirty deeds one by one and helps the "mutants" of the colony reclaim their humanity and rights.  Adapted fairly loosely from a Phillip K. Dick story, TOTAL RECALL has aged remarkably well, mostly thanks to pulp-auteur Paul Verhoeven, who infused the story with enough stunning visuals and ridiculous adventure (and that camp humor that anchors all of his films) to make the film stay fresh through repeat viewings.  The movie is fairly non-commital as to which parts of it are fantasy and which are reality - the potential is there for several different interpretations - and that's one of its many charms.  The dreams in TOTAL RECALL are also structured pretty literally, if they're dreams at all, and though they're fantastic images, there's nothing really hallucinatory about them as they're all based in some sort of physical reality that is easily interpreted as only being slightly outside the realm of possibility.  In other words, the dreams are normal science-fiction worlds.  Verhoeven is less interested in the perceptions of reality, though, than he is in examining the effects of memory on these perceptions (a common trait among all the best dream films.)

MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, 2001)
In one of the great fractured mind performances ever put on film, Naomi Watts plays Betty / Diane - a mash-up of two personalities, real and imagined - an aspiring actress freshly arrived to Hollywood to live out her dream of becoming a star.  Lynch is not a director to shy away from surreal imagery and unexplainable and disturbing themes.  His films are maybe best described as being the aesthetic kin to fever dreams, most definitely in the cases of ERASERHEAD and LOST HIGHWAY.  To this day I am still freaked out by the oddly creepy homeless man behind the dumpster of Winkies, a typical diner, and the build-up that leads to his reveal.  That sequence begins with a discussion of dreams, and a fear of a particular nightmare becoming reality, in which Dan (played by Patrick Fischler, who is well-known to television fans from his stints on LOST, MAD MEN and dozens of guest spots on other shows) finds a monster behind the dumpster that kills him.  I won't give away what does happen, but there is indeed a monster to be found, and its relevance in the reality of Watts' character later in the film is as puzzling and mystical as it is profound and, in some ways, moving.

The NIGHTMARE films have always had a firm grasp on the wild and weird world of dream and nightmare imagery, even as they had varying degrees of success at making those worlds interesting, fresh and scary for the intended audience.  In NEW NIGHTMARE, original director and series creator Wes Craven returns for the first time in a decade to the characters and the world he forged in the seriously creepy and remarkably dark A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.  Heather Langenkamp returns as herself as Nancy in a story that sees the child-murderer and, at this point, demonic Freddy Krueger attempting to break through from the celluloid world of dreams into the real world by attacking his oldest nemesis Nancy, who is, of course, Heather.  If all of this seems too convoluted to worry about, don't worry, it's not, though describing it to someone could induce headaches in all parties involved.  This is one of the most fun meta-excursions into films about films about dreams and all that jazz.  Robert Englund has some of his best lines as the character, and the 'reality'-based make-up for Krueger is truly frightening.  I wish they had just followed this film up (with Craven behind the scenes) instead of rebooting it into a soul-less, humor-less excursion into boredom and wasting a solid performance by Jackie Earle Haley as the new face of the franchise.

SHERLOCK JR. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
The portion of this film in which Keaton, playing a projectionist in a movie theater, falls asleep while showing a film and dream himself into the movies themselves is inarguably one of the most famous movie sequences ever, silent or sound era.  Never lacking in imagination, Keaton's dream world flashes from the film he is screening to a crowded city street, to the mountain ranges of the West, and then to the African plains as he is surrounded by Lions.  This may be one of the first such instances drawing the parallel between the nature of dreams and the nature of film itself, though it's certainly not the only silent-era film to do so.  There are more amazing evocations of dreams in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, and Carl Th. Dreyer's early sound film VAMPYR, which features proto-Lynchian imagery and disjointed editing techniques to specifically and subtly cause an uneasiness in the viewer.


THE KILLER INSIDE ME's Disquieting Charms

Casey Affleck's portrayal of Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford in Michael Winterbottom's THE KILLER INSIDE ME is probably the single most amazing performance I've seen this year.  It's a total embodiment of a horrible character that's as memorable, disturbing and thought-provoking as Daniel Day-Lewis was in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but more subtle and unassuming.  Lou Ford, much like Robert Ford, is the perfect role for the younger Affleck, and it continues a string of amazing performances in low-key, provocative dramas since his appearance in brother Ben's masterful GONE BABY GONE.  His performance is the center of this film, with all of its menace and traditional noir overtones radiating outward from the essence of the unnameable evil that surely exists in Lou.

The film is without a doubt one of the creepiest and most disturbing movies to come out this year, which is surprising considering the unusually high number of creep-fests unleashed on audiences in the past few months  (SPLICE, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE).  But creepiness aside, I find myself constantly returning to it as a purely unforgettable viewing experience.  I can't shake it - it's under my skin, and it's going to stay there.  Everything about it is pitch-perfect.

Adapted from what is probably the rowdiest novel I've ever read (the passage where Lou describes beating his girlfriend's face as being like hitting a pumpkin is the most graphic thing I may read in my lifetime), Jim Thompson's blacker-than-black noir THE KILLER INSIDE ME, this is a film that, quite literally, pulls no punches on its audience.  From the opening, which is full of gorgeous retro-styled freeze-frames and features the haunting use of Little Willie John's version of "Fever," it's obvious that Winterbottom has crafted an altogether different sort of film than what we're used to seeing for an American audience.

The film has been attacked for its ultraviolent murders (see my previous write-up: "Strange Bedfellows"), which are brutally realistic, but they work to great, sickening effect, but which mostly feature the women Lou Ford ostensibly has feelings for on some level.  Affleck brings a quite menace to these scenes, and his innocent, boyish features may contain the key behind some of the critiques lobbed at the film.  After all, how can someone so nice, even as purposefully nice (and in some moments of pitch-black humor, extremely biting) as Lou is.  In some ways, the "nice guy" persona is played off much like in the television show DEXTER, which also concerns a cold-blooded killer that is intent on keeping people off his tracks, but Lou isn't really likable, so this may not be an entirely apt analogy.

For me, the scene that most singularly makes the film is right as Lou delivers the final blow to Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a prostitute who is probably the only person Lou actually cares about in the film (though the killer inside him definitely does not).  After punching her repeatedly in the face, at which point bone is visible through her gored and broken skin, he tells her not to worry, "it'll all be over soon," and then he delivers a few more crushing blows as she falls over onto the floor, being beaten to near-death before the arrival of Elmer Conway, his second (and main) target in the planned double-murder that sets the film in motion.  Still, after having her skull pounded like so much flattened steak, it's the fact that, in both book and film, Joyce still has that compassionate, loving look in her eyes.  Only moments beforehand she had been planning to run away with Lou after stealing a load of cash from Elmer's father, but even as her dream is slowly fading from her reality, along with her life, she just can't believe that Lou is doing this to her.  It's an absolutely chilling point to make: no one believes Lou capable of such things, even those he is doing them to.

But back to Affleck, who really makes this scene tick.  He's cold, calculating, and goes about the savage beating in a very methodical way.  Lou's detached from what he's doing at this point, and it's only when he sees Joyce's eyes that he offers solace in the only form he can: assurance that he's going to end the pain soon.  That brief exchange allows Lou to break through the killer, and I think it's probably the only time in the entire film (and the book) that he realizes that he actually does care about this woman on some level.  And then he kills her.  Brutal stuff.  That, in essence, is THE KILLER INSIDE ME:  Haunting, unflinching, and ultimately unforgettable.

It's difficult to say why this film got under my skin.  Maybe it's my deep love for the Noir genre, and for Jim Thompson's creation.  This is by far the best and truest adaptation of his work, even counting Stephen Frears' THE GRIFTERS.  I can't stop thinking about Affleck.  I can't stop thinking of his first, second and third murders (his gut-punch and head-kicking of his respectable girlfriend/fiancee Amy Stanton is just as brutal as that of Joyce).  I can't stop thinking of how he seems just like a nice guy, but with a seriously dark urge that he is helpless against.  I don't mean that the killer part of him is entirely separated from his conscious, just that it makes up the majority of a completely subdued personality that he doesn't let out in public.  Logically, he knows he probably shouldn't kill people - after all, why would you cover it up or care about how you're perceived - but that doesn't stop his own logic that people have to die.  "No one has it coming," he tells the teenage boy in his jail cell right before killing him, "That's why nobody can see it coming."  In the case of Lou Ford, that is 100% correct.


Strange Bedfellows: A Double Feature of the Grotesque

I love when films come along that are deemed immoral or have claims made against them that they glamorize violence and really serve no purpose.  This just reinforces the reasons for these films to exist: to push boundaries, make people uncomfortable with what they're seeing, and to provoke thoughts about what exactly are the roles that violence (in all its forms) play in our day to day lives.  While this may be evident in the discourse a film like THE KILLER INSIDE ME is having with the moral assumptions within every day society, being set in reality, and completely subjective in its point-of-view of a seemingly normal man who does unspeakably horrible things, it is also useful to understand that violence and its role in society has long been the territory of the horror film, and that Tom Six's THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, for all its over-the-top shock value, is a perfect example of what power the visual realization of horrific circumstance on film can have on an audience, and how important it is that such images exist to provoke and disgust.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME, director Michael Winterbottom's dark noir adaptation of the pitch-black novel by Jim Thompson is the stronger of the two films in question, but with the pedigree behind it, that's not terribly surprising.  We're given small-town Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (another absolutely spell-binding performance by Casey Affleck), who appears normal, and even knows and explains to the audience how he's appearing normal, to everyone around him, but who nonetheless has the impulses of a psychopath, and who isn't afraid to act on them when need be.  As Lou descends into an ever-growing spiral of sexual assault and murder, mostly in order to preserve his innocent status, the film forces the audience to experience his acts in the most visceral manner: explicitly, visually, and unflinchingly.

Winterbottom has never been a director to shy away from utilizing the medium's advantage of being able to give physical life to something that otherwise could only be imagined.  From the literal visions of Tony Wilson in 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, to the explicit sexual relationship catalogued in 9 SONGS, and the very visual representation of adapting an unadaptable work (more successful than even ADAPTATION) in TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY, he is consistently one of the most confrontational directors for an audience to enter into a discourse with, specifically designing his films to provoke and push the viewer into places they may not be comfortable in, but which nonetheless serve to make them think about what they're watching.

The scenes in THE KILLER INSIDE ME that leave everyone so disgusted and puzzled as to just what the film is supposed to be telling us are the scenes in which Lou Cobb brutally murders his lovers, who he may or may not actually have any feelings for, but whom he nonetheless must kill in order to satisfy his need for personal survival.  The first murder in particular, of the prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba), who Lou seems to regret his actions toward the most after they are complete (though he analytically decides there was really no other option), is exceptionally disturbing.  As part of a plot to get personal vengeance while also making a little money, he repeatedly beats Joyce in the face, her skin eventually giving way and exposing some of the bone underneath.  While this is definitely brutal enough, what I think most people find most repulsive is the desire for Joyce to kiss her lover and attacker one final time, and the fact that he does it.  The fact that all of this happens just after they've had sex so he could say goodbye to her only compounds this disgust.

But what does it all mean?  I think that, aside from attempting to tell us about society at large, these scenes are meant to get us thinking about how we process violence on a personal level.  What is more disturbing: to see this woman brutally murdered by the man she loves, and who apparently loves her on some level alien to those of us without a psychological disorder, and that she continues to love him despite his faults and the fact that she is very well on her way to death, or that we can watch countless action films where hundreds of people die and not feel anything at all about whatever brutal ways they meet their end?  I think both are equally disturbing, and neither is more condemnable than the other.  In fact, I think that both serve very visceral purposes for the viewer: thrills that are meant to provide some sort of release, whether it's one of disgust, or one of some sort of vindication.  Maybe both at the same time, and in varying levels.

Before getting into THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, I'd like to address something that has been said of both films: that they are in some way misogynistic fantasies.  I don't know that this is necessarily an incorrect assessment of the films in some way, though I feel it oversimplifies and disregards a whole lot of other things the films are interested in or seek to provide some sort of insight into.  To simply say that a film is demeaning to women completely disregards the fact that sometimes the demeaning portrayals of certain acts toward female characters may come with the intent (and I think very easily noticeable) to deliberately make the audience feel disgust at the ways in which these characters are treated.  Why are women treated this way on film?  What advantage would a filmmaker have to simply make a film that absolutely does not care in any way about its female characters?  Is it the responsibility of the filmmaker to curb the possible or supposed interpretations of how "cool" some behavior may or may not be to the audience?  To the latter, I think absolutely not.  To the rest, I think these are things that must be considered at all times.

People lobbing accusations of completely pointless existence at THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE seem to be missing a bit of the point: the film is much more interesting if read as a companion piece to a film implicitly interested in showing violence to its audience like THE KILLER INSIDE ME (or HOSTEL, or A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, or anything else).  Rather than dwelling on the fact that the victims are women, which is important, and which I want to discuss a bit more shortly, assume for a moment that you are shown the actual "violent" scenes of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE.  Well, for one, they're completely antiseptic medical scenes, and in most cases you can find more graphic representations of surgical procedures on any number of television hospital dramas.  Aside from a few incisions, the most violent scenes involve gunplay and a couple of instances of physical altercations during escape attempts. This is actually pretty standard fare for any number of films.  Second, four of the six victims in the film are male: two abductees, same as the women, and two police officers in the climax.  That the women get the worst treatment, in that they form the second and third portions of the centipede, is kind of a hollow argument, in that it's all pretty horrible, no matter where you are in the warped creation.

In any case, I think that the key to what THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is about is in the pivotal performance of Dieter Laser as Dr. Heiter, a stock mad-scientist with a diseased mind character.  Laser's interpretation is chilling, in that Heiter enjoys what he's doing more than anyone logically could, and is obsessed not with killing people, but in furthering the field of biomedical surgery.  It's a concept that is interesting in its implications, given not only that Heiter is of course German (and the ties to actual biological questions infamous Nazi doctor Mengele posed and attempted to answer), but that we are, as a society, constantly attempting to find ways to prolong and save lives by forcing our bodies to accept foreign biological elements (i.e. - another person's body parts) into our own ailing frames.  Arguably Tom Six's twisted little horror film is more interested in bio-ethics than in creating any sense of horror at all, though it definitely succeeds on that level as well.

The key to understanding these films (and any others like them), I feel, lay in attempting to understand ourselves within the context of what we're watching.  And while you can certainly find them to be murky, problematic, or in some cases completely non-existent, it's at least a more worthwhile exercise to think about why we are shown what we are shown than to simply dismiss it as something that shouldn't be shown to begin with, for any reason whatsoever.  There may very well be no moral compass at work within a film like THE KILLER INSIDE ME, and certainly there is less of one to be found in THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, but that doesn't discount what they may tell us about our own sense of morality, or the world we inhabit, and who we inhabit it with.

In Dreams: Thoughts On and Discussions of INCEPTION

I saw INCEPTION, Christopher Nolan's mostly brilliant new film, on opening night this past week, and was thoroughly entertained.  I think he may be popular cinema's most consistently interesting auteur of what I like to call the "Thinking Man's Blockbuster."  And while I may not be a fan of every single choice Nolan makes, I find all of them interesting, especially his missteps and what they may tell us about his films more than what actually works in them do, and the discussions they lead to in the online world.  (Though you shouldn't really be surprised if you frequently read my blog, I feel it's actually necessary to point out that there are really big spoilers below, and on most of the links I'll provide, so if you have some fear of such things, please make note of this now).

For instance, there's some hullabaloo currently happening in the film blogging network that has sparked some serious and refreshing debate.  The argument centers mainly on two things:  first, that INCEPTION's "dreams" don't actually operate in the strange, illogical way that real dreams do, and second, that there's no emotional connection to any of the characters (or emotional logic to the supposed revelations they have) during the course of the "mechanical" plot (see Jim Emerson's thought-provoking discussion for an overview and to join the fray, especially comments by long-time contributors to the discussion Matt Zoller-Seitz and Christopher Long for the most interesting threads of debate).

What strikes me most about the discussion are the comparisons being lobbed about to other dream movies, amid the denial of total fans that the movie isn't "about" dreams at all.  This is a point I agree with, and mostly feel that if anything, the entire movie and all of its mechanics are a McGuffin for working through Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) hang-ups about his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard).  Arguably, everything we see in the film is a construct of Cobb's imagination, a perpetual dream state that he either got lost in during his own experimenting, or by choice over the guilt of what he may or may not have done to his wife.  The flip side is that there's actually a layer of reality in all of this, which I don't ascribe to, and which I'll get into in more detail later on.  What is fascinating to me is that a lot of the criticisms of Nolan is that he is too literal in his dream-world.

As many have pointed out, the dreams within INCEPTION aren't really dreams at all, but literal constructs of an architect, who is out to deliberately fool the subject's subconscious into not realizing it's under attack and having a normal dream state.  Well, given this, why would dreams appear to the audience of the film appear to be anything other than that?  There's absolutely nothing in the film to suggest that the dreamer is privy at any time to the knowledge that they're dreaming, and who knows what his dreams are like while he's wandering around inside of them?  Aside from the "Mr. Charles" episode, which actually does play out a bit like a surrealist dream state of lucid and conscious dreaming (I'm thinking of the sudden appearance of rain outside the hotel as water starts hitting the faces of the dreamers in the above level as the van is under attack), appropriating incidents from the previous reality into the current dream state.  Think of this like every time you awake with a jolt from your leg falling off the couch, or have to go to the restroom after waking up from a dream in which you were about to, etc.  I think this sort of interplay between "real" dreams and constructed dreams works fairly well within the rules set up by Cobb and Ariadne (Ellen Page) at the beginning of the film.  Why some of these rules are disregarded by the end of the film is exactly why I think the entire film is a dream state of Cobb's making.

The biggest thing that stems from the ending and its implications:  not only does the top continue spinning, but there's absolutely no reason it should fall.  Upon going back over the film in my mind, I've discovered this really is the only outcome, and the biggest clue is the top, Mal's totem, itself.  In an early scene, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is explaining the concept of a totem to Ariadne, and says that it should be a personal object that grounds its holder to reality, and which only the holder should know the specifics of, in order to avoid being unable to distinguish the dream from reality, and potentially becoming stranded in their subconscious.  So where is Cobb's totem?  We only ever see him with Mal's top, which at the point it becomes handled by him, has been compromised.  This can only mean one thing, really:  Cobb is trapped in a dream state just like he fears Mal was (and really, does this mean that maybe Mal actually left the dream world for real and the idea that spread in his mind was that dreaming was reality?)  Or, was Mal even real at all?  Is Cobb simply dreaming a better existence than what he may have had outside in "the real world"?  I don't know that I can answer any of those questions, but they're certainly interesting things to ponder.

Going back to my original thoughts about the dream mechanics and how literal they are, the utter disregard shown by Cobb at all times for these rules, from constructing dreams of his wife from his memories to the risks he takes by delving into Limbo on, apparently, at least two levels in order to save Saito (Ken Watanabe), also shows that the film's reality is also a construction of Cobb's: if he's dreaming, then the rules can change from moment to moment whenever its necessary to progress the lie he's telling himself, no matter what the lie may or may not be or mean to him personally or the audience watching the movie.  While this may be sloppy storytelling mechanics, I think it definitely makes a case for the dreamworlds within INCEPTION to be a bit more dream-like and transient than they may appear at first glance, even with the presence of an architect that builds them into labyrinthine constructs meant to trap the dreamer and keep them from discovering the truth that they are, in fact, dreaming.

I don't want to seem like I'm lavishing too much praise on the film, though.  I do think that there are some extremely imaginative sequences, including all of the shifting- and zero-gravity stuff with Arthur toward the end of the films and the concept of actually creating stable dream states (which is what most of the critics seem to have problems with, acceptably so, I'll point out - not everyone has the same interests).  But, as with all of Nolan's films (including both Bat-flicks, despite my assumed "fanboy" status), I have some problems of pacing and the existence of far too much exposition in dialogue form rather than simply utilizing film to do what it does best: show us what we need to know.  I also think that its similar psychological territory to that certain earlier-this-very-year DiCaprio thriller, SHUTTER ISLAND, is too much to ignore.  They would certainly make very interesting viewing partners, even if one were only interested in dissecting strengths and weaknesses between the two.

What all of this means to the current discourse, I can't say just yet.  I know that I'm genuinely interested in the back-and-forth this particular film is providing for us all, and I'm looking forward to being able to discuss the similar (and dissimilar) parts of INCEPTION and any number of "dream"-related films that have already been brought up in context: TOTAL RECALL, eXistenZ and any number of Cronenberg films, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, etc, etc, etc.  In parting, I'll leave you with this thought: is a film that sparks so much debate and academic/professional interest really that bad of a film to begin with?

For further discussion and context, check out my friend Julia Rhodes' very positive review of the film over at California Literary Review, where she shares some similar but slightly different thoughts and responses to mine, as well as Jim Emerson's previous essay on Nolan's film THE PRESTIGE, again on his ::scanners:: blog.


IRON MAN 2: Exactly As It Should Be

Reading all of the online articles posted about it, you'd think this Summer blockbuster season was populated by a bunch of really awful films being released on a very well-informed and comparably underwhelmed movie-going public.  I don't think it's nearly as dramatic as all that.  Sure, there have been tons of really bad flicks, buy what month goes by in theatrical releases when that isn't true?  What really bothers me, though, is that aside from the actually pretty bad and disappointing movies, there is one really big one that everyone is describing as a huge letdown:  IRON MAN 2.  I don't get it.

IRON MAN 2 is exactly the film it should be, especially when taking the first film into consideration along with the rules of the sequel.  We had a largely-uknown hero get his due from the audience, in a light, much more character-centric take on the superhero genre, that featured some really amazing special effects, and a charismatic star turn from Robert Downey, Jr.  The sequel is bigger, has more action and more special effects, features more quips and one-liners from its star, further establishes and expands the mythos and world of the Marvel films, and is a really fun ride, even if it does do a bit of wandering.  But these are all things that seem to cause problems for people.  A major complaint is that it has too much going on.  I disagree.  I think that, for its aims, it may actually do too little.

This time out, Stark is being attacked by a vengeance-obsessed Russian (Whiplash/Mickey Rourke, who I'll get to a bit later), an arms-dealer competitor hungry for the Iron Man tech (Justin Hammer/Sam Rockwell), the government and, by extension, the military, and his own body, which is being slowly poisoned by the very technology that's keeping him alive.  On top of all of this, though, this second film is also the set-up for the next two years of Marvel releases, teasing Captain America and Thor with weapon cameos, nods direct and indirect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and most of all, setting up Tony Stark as an integral part of this universe.  That's a lot of stuff to cram into a two and a half hour run time, and Favreau does a pretty good job of getting it done, especially considering the fact that it's fun and engaging.

The whole film plays a bit loose, and if it seems to only get its story going about forty minutes in, well, it should.  Stark is a loose character, always a bit flighty, and I really enjoy the fact that, unlike most big superhero flicks, it doesn't always feel like he has some sense of duty.  He's got an ego the size of Texas, easily, and he thinks he can get away with anything.  Some of the best parts of the movie have nothing to do with anything other than Tony being Tony: genius savant, ladies' man, egoist.  Just the sight of him eating a hangover donut in the Iron Man suit after an out-of-control party and showdown with his best friend, or his perfect interplay with Pepper Potts, or his completely devastating and quite funny showdown in a Senate hearing is enough to keep me coming back for more.  This allows the film some much-needed room to breathe, which is what a lot of these pictures lack.

I also felt much more acclimated to this style during the second time I watched IRON MAN 2.  It flows a lot better than I thought it did, and even the final battle doesn't seem like as much of a let-down in how brief it is.  I think I initially suffered from what a lot of people who saw it did: high expectations.  The difference is that now I've seen that it in fact met all of my expectations, and perhaps even surpassed them.  It's not a disappointment in any case.

As for the film doing too little with certain things, it just feels a bit too small.  Whiplash is an interesting character, but we get too little time with him.  I wanted more of his bloodlust.  It's also a shame that he doesn't end up with ties to some of the super-villains that I know are coming up in the future films (AVENGERS and, hopefully, IRON MAN 3).  I also think that there could have been some more time spent on S.H.I.E.L.D.  We're introduced to Black Widow, but what's her role in the organization?  She has some really great scenes, but the character is held back too much.  Nick Fury's two scenes are played mostly for comic effect and to set up the next films, but he's still a mystery.  But, maybe I'm alone here.  I did, after all, think that Peter Jackson's KING KONG could have used an extra ten minutes or so.

In any case, I think IRON MAN 2 is perfectly fine as a sequel.  It's not a well-oiled machine, but it has to be understood within the context that Marvel isn't attempting a single franchise here.  If the focus were only on Stark/Iron Man, the film would probably have been greatly streamlined.  The film, however, doesn't have any particularly deep flaws aside from a bump here or there.  As a Summer blockbuster, it's exemplary.  It's exactly what it should be, if not what I expected the first time around.