Saturday, July 31, 2010


The business of dreams is tricky when it comes to cinema. Many filmmakers have tried, with varying degrees of success. I was intrigued when Christopher Nolan, director of the brilliant movies The Dark Knight and Memento, announced that his next project would be called Inception, and be a contemporary sci-fi action thriller "set within the architecture of the mind." He built up an extraordinary cast, wrote a wonderfully complex script (his first of original material since his debut movie, Following), and used his reported $160 million budget to create his world of dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams. He did these things to terrific effect, coming up with surely one of the best movies of the year, and probably the best movie of his career (only future re-watches will truly tell).

The star Nolan chose to lead us through his labyrinth was Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off the boat from his stint on the nightmarish Shutter Island. DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a professional thief in this future world (we're never given a specific date), who gets hired to steal people's ideas by venturing into their dreams. He so impresses one mark that he gets hired to attempt "inception", which instead of stealing is planting an idea in someone's mind, a very powerful tool in the world of business. Although his straight-laced partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, proving again that he's one of our best young actors) claims the job impossible, Cobb says it's not and takes the project. Nolan reminds us forcibly in this section of movies like Rififi (the model for "building a team for one last heist" kind of movies, of which Inception is certainly a part) and Dark City (a movie of shifting realities, both mentally and physically). Those two recently showed up in my list of favorite movies, so I found this a very good thing, since Nolan pays them respect and uses them to further his own movie, and not just steal from them.

To plant an idea, Cobb knows he must go deep into the psyche of the target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy, working with Nolan a third time). And he uses his team's collective talents to achieve this, Tom Hardy's suave Eames shifting into other people inside the dreams, Ellen Page's Ariadne building the worlds they inhabit, and Dileep Rao's Yusuf making sure that everyone is sedated enough to not wake up before inception is attained. Worryingly, Cobb's ex-wife Mal (La Vie en Rose's Marion Cotillard) keeps showing up, threatening his dependability inside the dream world. In this section, Nolan references M.C. Escher, Michael Mann, and the great Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service, all while creating a movie that is completely his own.

Nolan's been criticized in some corners for creating dream world's that happen too literally, as his critics opine that dreams are more fluid in reality, that there are too many rules that can't or wouldn't exist in the mind, and that Nolan's vision doesn't work abstractly enough to evoke dream states. I can understand that criticism, but since Nolan is not necessarily trying to evoke "reality", I don't see how it applies to this movie. Nolan's dream world really exists to serve as a framework for a big Hollywood action movie. Normally I'm let down by movies that have great concepts and then do nothing but devolve into action movies (The Matrix, for example, or a bit with the recent District 9), but I never felt Nolan let me down. His script stays smart, and has an emotional core in Cobb that many of his other works don't have. He can occasionally feel a bit of a cold director emotionally, and perhaps it's because of the abilities of his actors here, but I was always emotionally involved in the happenings as much as I was intellectually and viscerally engaged.

So despite being a mainstream director making big huge blockbusters, I feel that Nolan is among our most talented directors. He's been referred to as everything from "a new Kubrick" to "a talentless hack in the Michael Bay mold", but I feel his technical accomplishments married with his love of Hollywood cinema makes him feel more like a new Spielberg than anything else. He'll likely not share the "overly sentimental" criticisms that Spielberg has ridiculously endured, but he's a mainstream director making the highest quality big budget Hollywood pictures around right now. And as long as he keeps working with good crews (cinematographer Wally Pfister, working with Nolan for the sixth straight time, makes this the best looking movie he's given us yet) and great casts (I didn't even mention Tom Berenger, Ken Watanabe, and Michael Caine rounding out the cast of seven Oscar nominees), I predict that Chris Nolan will be around and giving us great movies like Inception for years to come, I'd like to see him try to top this one.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Art is storytelling

Despite what some fans of abstract, experimental, or surrealistic art will try to argue, all art is about storytelling. That doesn’t mean that all art is only about its story, just that no matter what the piece of art is, it’s trying to tell you a story. The story may only exist to evoke a single emotion, or may not exist in a standard issue plotted out sort of way, but things remain the same. I came to this realization only recently. I heard someone try to argue that art was not about storytelling. Although they were incoherent in their argument, it made me think about what a successful argument for that viewpoint might be, and I came to believe that one didn’t exist. Even Jackson Pollock’s splatter art is meant to convey things to us through a story of shapes and seemingly chaotic images.
Another reason I started thinking about this is because I started asking myself what an artist was trying to “say” with a particular piece of art I was observing (it was the work of Andres Serrano, such as the Metallica album cover he designed below, if you were wondering). I came to believe that any artist who is showing an audience something is trying to tell them a story in order to evoke whatever it is in that the audience that it evokes, and the method is through a story. Some types of art ask the audience, either consciously or unconsciously, to bring their own interpretation to the work, which is basically the audience filling in the blanks in the story on their own (which can sometimes make the piece more personal, if it’s done right). Landscape painters are telling us the story of the landscape. Monet was telling us stories of the water lilies. Picasso was telling us stories, not always ones I “get”, but they’re there somewhere. Stravinsky was telling us the story of the Rite of Spring. And so on and so forth.
Now, I suppose an artist could not be telling a story if they put out a piece (and when I say “piece”, it could be a painting or a movie or a bit of music or whatever) that was intentionally designed to not mean anything. But I think even in that instance, that’s a story. It would be the story that the audience was telling back to the artist with whatever their response to the piece was. The aspect of storytelling would still be there, just not necessarily put forth by the artist.

Anyway, this is just something I’ve been thinking about lately and thought I would share.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shutter Island

Of the three screen adaptations of Denis Lehane's novels, I think Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island lands in the top spot. Ben Affleck previously directed Lehane's novel Gone Baby Gone to great effect, showing his skills as a filmmaker and giving his brother Casey a terrific vehicle to highlight his ever growing talents. Lehane's Mystic River was brought to the screen in Clint Eastwood's multi-Oscar-winning film a few years before that. But Scorsese, our greatest living director, unsurprisingly outdoes the others, bringing a story of tremendous atmosphere, intrigue, emotion, and suspense for us to be enraptured by.

Leonardo DiCaprio again stars (his fourth straight turn as Scorsese's leading man), this time as Teddy Daniels, a WWII veteran and US Marshal sent to the psychiatric hospital at Shutter Island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient. They're introduced to Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), the presiding psychiatrists of the hospital, who only partially cooperate with Teddy's investigation. As Teddy and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) scour the facilities a little deeper, they can't escape the sense that they may not be able to get off the island. They dig into the many mysteries surrounding them, and Teddy, while still mourning the loss of his wife, fights to keep his sanity as everything around him seems pointed towards his impending doom.

Scorsese plays with the tragic mood of the picture in a way he's never dealt with before. I've heard that he said he wanted to film it like a Hitchcock movie, only like if it was made in modern times. So there are many shots with the fake feeling of the old back projection technology, as Teddy's riding along in a jeep at one point, for instance, it's quite obvious that he's against a screen projecting the image. But Scorsese has never been one to have showy techniques in his movies without reason. When he used period correct coloring processes in The Aviator, it helped put us in the time in a subconscious way so that Scorsese didn't have to always spell out when times had changed. And his use of different techniques here are also certainly with reason, but I will leave the reasons for you to discover and consider.

So Scorsese has given us another movie worth dissecting and analyzing, while not forgetting to give us talented actors at the top of their games, and actually giving us one of his few movies with a plot!

Friday, July 16, 2010


Humpday is one of those movies you get surprised by sometimes. My wife almost randomly added it to our Netflix queue, and as we were searching through our Instant Watch section one day we also kinda haphazardly picked it because it was short and sounded funny.

The premise is that two college friends, Ben and Andrew, who've gone their separate ways since school meet up again and when high and drunk decide to make a porno movie with each other and enter it into Seattle's famous "Humpday" festival of independent porn. They say that since they're two straight guys making a porno, it'll be more artistic than any other gay porn out there, because it's "beyond gay". How exactly it's supposed to be artistic just because they're straight is not something they can really articulate, but even when they sober up they stick to their plan. The comedy comes from misunderstandings with what Ben tells his wife Anna that he and Andrew are up to (although she's much smarter than he is and finds out, which adds to the comedy), and the boys' increasing determination/reluctance to carry out their plan. The movie keeps escalating the situation, and I had a feeling it wasn't gonna be the type of movie to shy away from the possibly gay content. As it turns out, in the final hilarious sequence, it's not the movie that's afraid of the gay content, it may be Ben and Andrew.

The movie is very low budget. At a time when Hollywood blockbusters are regularly costing $200 million, Humpday was made for less than $500,000. It has no stars, nearly no money, and we came across it almost by accident, but it was a terrific surprise to my wife and I how much we enjoyed it, and since it was so low budget and underseen, we sorta felt like we were making a discovery that not many others had made. And that's always a great feeling.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Spirited Away

My wife and I both love animation, and she liked when I had shown her Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro a few months ago, enjoying his inventive way of telling his story, as well as his attention to detail in the animation. I had kinda kept his Oscar-winning fantasy Spirited Away away until I thought I knew how she'd feel about it. After hearing her say that she loved Miyazaki's creativity, I knew she'd absolutely love Spirited Away. It's one of the most wonderfully inventive movies ever made, with Miyazaki's imagination running wild in one of the best movies of the decade.
Let's see, it starts out with our timid little 10-year-old heroine Chihiro in the car with her parents on the way to their new house. They take a wrong turn and end up at an abandoned amusement park. They begin to smell food and soon find a steaming buffet of all kinds of deliciousness. Hungry, but seeing no one around, Chihiro's parents dig into the food, but Chihiro refuses, insisting that they'll get in trouble. What follows is a fantasy of mind boggling invention. After Chihiro's parents turn into pigs, Chihiro meets the mysterious Haku, who puts her on the run from the villainous Yubaba, then sends her to the four armed Kamajii, boiler master for Yubaba's bath house of the gods. Chihiro ends up working for the bath house, serving the various spirits who come to relax and wash there. And I think that only covers about the first 20 minutes or so of this 2 hour animation joyride.
Like many of Miyazaki's movies, Spirited Away is about the coming of age of the central female character. Chihiro begins the movie as meek and almost cowardly, she doesn't even want to accompany her parents into the dark tunnel leading to the amusement park. But by the end, she is fighting to save the lives of her friends and defeat Yubaba's powerful spells and her hold on the citizens of this strange place. She begins on her journey from childhood into being a young woman, learning courage and purpose and the power of love. Chihiro may be Miyazaki's greatest character achievement, and the movie itself belongs alongside Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro as the masters three greatest strokes of genius.