Category Archives: Other

Review: Inception

Christopher Nolan seems to be a fascinated filmmaker.  Fascinating, too, but he absolutely has some key themes and ideas that he wants to explore in his films.  The most prominent, at least at this point in his career, seems to be order.  The notion that people can impose order on their world figures strongly in Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight as subtextual themes, but it’s essentially the text of Inception.  Perhaps not the result of applying order to chaos, but of applying the logic of design to the inherent illogical state of dreaming.

Inception is, fundamentally, a heist film with a strong emotional core.  The layers that Nolan adds are in many ways literal layers, and it’s to his credit as a writer that the film never becomes so obsessed with the gee-whiz novelty of it’s concept that it gets in the way of telling that story.  Yes, confusion can set in, but for a movie that takes place largely within the subconscious, it’s layered in about as straight-forward and logical a way as possible.

Does this make sense?  It seems like a paradox for a dream to be easily understood, navigated and even manipulated.  Yet these aren’t random subconscious dreams; they’re painstakingly designed.  By an architect, no less.

Still, even in a logically structured dream, the chaos of the subconscious can’t be controlled.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb appears to be intent on preventing that, much like Leonard in Memento or Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight, but it appears as though Nolan doesn’t think order can be imposed where it isn’t already present.

Story aside, however, Inception is engrossing and astounding.  The cinematography is absolutely beautiful, taking pleanty of time with it’s shots; when they’re composed with such detail and purpose, there’s no sense at all in quick-cut editing.  The action scenes are unlike anything seen since The Matrix, and the visual effects are state-of-the-art.  It’s difficult to really overstate how great Inception looks.  It was shot and edited with purpose, and holds your attention like few films can.

But all that aside, Inception does need to be more than just an intriguing story and spectacular visuals.  In science fiction, your concept is only as good as the characters who have to navigate it; at the end of the day, the audience needs a reason to give a shit about what happens.

Performances are, in general, solid.  There’s really no glaring errors in casting or performances, save some occasional overacting by Ken Watanabe and perhaps too much exposition required by Ellen Page.  But the core of the story, Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard, excels.  Both deliver stirring performances, and give the film the weight it needs.

So with all this working for it, what more can be said about Inception?  It’s a rare film; one that looks like it cost the $200 million that Nolan required to see his vision come to life.  It’s surprisingly ambitious, and surprisingly ambiguous.  There’s a lot for the audience to wrestle with, and it practically demands repeat viewings.

Review: The Lookout

The Lookout – 2007 (Dir. Scott Frank)

The Lookout is an easy movie to really like, but not quite love. For one thing, it’s a really smart film; no, it’s not really breaking any ground in it’s story (it’s about a bank robbery in a small town), but how it tells the story is very sharp. It also boasts some great performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jeff Daniels. Having a solid script, nice visuals and great actors is one thing; but making them all elevate the material is another. And that’s where the intelligence of the film comes into play.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is disabled. Gordon-Levitt’s character suffers from brain damage caused by a car accident in the years before the action of the film; he has amnesia. In the hands of a less tactful writer and director, this could be a recipe for disaster. In the hands of a less capable actor, too, this could come across as embarrassingly patronizing. Instead, it serves to make the film better. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is sympathetic, but never pathetic. The audience feels his frustration, but he’s never given a free ride because of his handicap. If anything, his disability makes the film’s antagonist (Watchmen‘s Matthew Goode) seem more cruel, rather than Gordon-Levitt more innocent.

The film also takes it’s time, and allows us to get to know the characters. Scenes run, if anything, a little too long, rather than a little too short. The film feels longer than it’s 99-minute runtime, but that’s an asset more than a burden. The camera isn’t afraid to linger on a shot. Bu it’s the strength of the acting, even smaller parts, that does the heavy lifting here. Gordon-Levitt, Daniels and Goode all turn in stellar performances. Deputy Ted doesn’t have much screen time, but Sergio Di Zio turns makes them work. Likewise, Greg Dunham’s brief performance as Bone is menacing without being over the top.

The Lookout, the first feature written and directed by Scott Frank, does wear it’s influences on it’s sleeve. The snowy small town setting and menacing henchman recall elements of Fargo, and the amnesia angle reminded me of Memento, but the film stands on it’s own merit. And frankly, if you’re going to borrow liberally from anyone, it may as well be Christopher Nolan and the Coen Brothers. Regardless, it’s a very strong film and a worthy entry in the canon of contemporary crime films.

B+

Review: A Serious Man

Originally printed in Mayday Magazine, March 2010

Before I review A Serious Man, I feel that I should disclose two important personal facts.  The first is that I’m a huge fan of the Coen brothers.  That’s not too extraordinary; it’s hard not to at least respect the Coens for the quality and originality of the bulk of their work. I’ve encountered few people who don’t love at least one of their films.  I’d certainly argue they’ve made no less than three modern classics (Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men), and even if they haven’t, their reputation is, at least in my opinion, deserved.

The second is that I’m not Jewish and have had very little interactions with Jewish culture. And while seeing A Serious Man may not necessarily require a working knowledge of contemporary Jewish culture, it certainly helps if you do.

A Serious Man is a dark comedy about the existential crisis of Professor Larry Gopnik (he is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a veteran stage actor making his first major onscreen appearance).  Larry’s wife wants to leave him.  His son has started smoking pot.  His daughter is apathetic towards him at best.  He’s facing a serious moral dilemma at work.  When he seeks religious guidance, he winds up with less comfort than he started with.  All in all, the early 1970’s are a pretty bad time to be Larry.

And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.  The film piles on misery after misery in what should be one of the best weeks of Larry’s life; his son is about to have his Bar Mitzvah and Larry appears to be in good position to gain tenure at his university.  From there, however, a number of mild inconveniences escalate and escalate.  Some of this might be Larry’s fault, but we’re never given quite enough information to know for sure.

Is a rebellious child the fault of a parent? Is divorce the fault of an emotionally absentee partner? A Serious Man doesn’t show enough for the viewer to move beyond basic assumptions. Then there are events where Larry could not possibly be at fault; these, too, add to his plight.  Larry just has a lot of terrible things happen to him with no particular explanation why.

This is a common theme in the Coen’s work, but it’s presented differently here.  In their most beloved film, The Big Lebowski, few pleasant things happen to The Dude; yet this never seems too apparent because The Dude and his friends are engaging and likeable characters and the film leans quite heavily on the ridiculous.

While objectively A Serious Man never really stretches plausibility, only a few characters seem truly amiable.  Larry, though certainly not a cruel man, is a far cry from the likeable everyman.  He has a few scenes where he’s a doormat to a frustrating degree.  Still, I found myself growing sympathetic toward his fruitless search and ever-growing list of questions without answers.

That said, I don’t think the film blindsides it’s audience with misery. When you know what sort of darkness to expect, it comes as less of a surprise.  I wasn’t taken aback by the degree of suffering Larry endured during the film. At the same time, I was taken aback by the overall tone of the film: A Serious Man never revels in Larry’s pain, it simply presents it.  While the Coen brothers have made films that make a few laughs at the expense of it’s characters, I don’t think A Serious Man is one of them.

Ultimately, the Coen brothers have constructed a well-made film. They know their craft, and their writing is generally very sharp and the film is technically very good; they know how to get great performances out of their actors and the film is well-shot and well edited.  In particular, the film boasts a very strong performance by Michael Stuhlbarg, who to my surprise actually did not earn a Best Actor nomination for his work.

The question with A Serious Man isn’t “is this good?”, but “is this worth seeing?”  That’s a vital distinction to make, and I’m actually not sure what side of the fence I fall on.  Philosophically, there’s a fair bit to grapple with.  The film’s central question is “why do bad things happen to good people?” and the film never really tries to answer the question.  Or rather, if they do, they give such vague responses as “it’s all about perspective” or “just because, and who are we to question it?”.

Perhaps the journey the viewer takes is meant to mirror Larry’s, but ultimately, it’s a film that’s easy to admire but hard to love.

B

Scott Picks Ten: My Favourite Films of the 00s

I have enormous difficulty ranking movies.  Partly because I love as many of them as I do, but partly because I just can’t compartmentalize them like I want to.  I also seldom see ten that I really love because I’m lucky if I see ten total in any given year.

That said, I’m pretty quick to be able to name a movie that sticks with me from any given year.  Here’s ten of those, plus some honorable mentions

2000 – Memento (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
Memento, in my opinion, will long be considered the strongest debut film of any filmmaker in the 21st century.  It’s a hyperbolic claim, sure, but it’s kind of hard to overstate how good Memento is.  It’s ambitious premise and plotting are more than just gimmicks; the power of the film is essentially embedded in them.  It speaks volumes about Nolan’s chosen form that nobody has really tried to replicate it; Charlie Kaufman even considered abandoning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind once he saw Memento because he felt it could never measure up.
But that aside, it’s still an incredibly strong film in nearly all regards; the performances are excellent, and there’s no significant missteps in pacing or tone.  It’s a very dark film to be sure, but the ending knocked me flat on my ass when I first saw it.  I’m not sure any twist ending since comes close, and neither does any movie released in 2000.
Honorable mentions? Almost Famous, Gladiator, Amelie

2001 – Monsters Inc. (dirs. Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, David Silverman)
Monsters Inc. is a movie that will probably forever make me smile.  The voice cast is perfect, comic timing flawless, and it’s sense of imagination never falls back on taking the easy way out like too many animated movies do today.  Monsters Inc. sticks out because I’ll never miss a chance to watch it, which isn’t something I can really say for other movies released in 2001.  And thanks to Pixar’s refusal to rely on soon-to-be-dated pop-culture jokes, it’s still as fresh now as it was back then.  It’s not a big “prestige” movie by any means, but it’s entertaining from start to finish and it was my constant choice for Pixar’s best until recently.
Honorable mentions?
Moulin Rouge!, AI: Artificial Intelligence, The Royal Tennenbaums

2002 – Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze)

Adaptation is something of a kindred spirit with Memento; both work against the traditional filmmaking formula, and both have their story strengthened by breaking with tradition.  But Adaptation has a lighter side and when one breaks through the meta-film elements, it has a lot of heart.  Nicolas Cage’s performance is especially noteworthy, as it defies his oft-mocked over-the-top hamming reputation by being simultaneously understated and ridiculous; he even manages to get a few heartbreaking scenes in there.  By being equal parts.. well, equal parts nearly everything, but never abandoning the idea that the characters make or break the story, it works.
Honorable mentions?
28 Days Later, Gangs of New York, Panic Room, Catch Me If You Can.

2003 – American Splendor (dirs. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)
Finding an entry from 2003 was a tricky one until I saw this one on my DVD shelf.  It’s actually not my copy, but it’s been there so long it may as well be.  A trend I’m noticing is that my favourites of this decade seem to play with traditional cinematic structure, or at least work against genre conventions.  American Splendor is part documentary, part biopic, and part comic book adaptation.  And it’s a hidden gem.  I originally planned on going with Kill Bill as my 2003 pick, but while Kill Bill celebrates genre films, American Splendor occupies a fairly unique place.  Paul Giamatti’s performance is terrific, and it balances the documentary and dramatic better than any film I’ve seen before by drawing attention to a character – and I mean that in every sense of the word – with stories worth telling.
Honorable mentions? Kill Bill, Finding Nemo

2004 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
A lot has already been said about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it’s a complex movie that can be examined from philosophical, aesthetic, and even scholarly perspectives, but what keeps it from just being an intellectual exercise is how grounded it is in it’s characters.  Yes, the screenplay goes into places that folks like Terry Gilliam or Philip K. Dick would be familiar in, and Michel Gondry offers some fairly bizarre images to match.  But then you also have an incredibly understated performance from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in her best work to date.  It also has some pleasant surprises in Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst.  And like Memento, it’s never content to just be an exercise in non-traditional filmmaking; Gondry and the cast deliver when it really counts.
Honorable mentions? Collateral, The Aviator, Sideways, Shaun of the Dead

2005 – Match Point (dir. Woody Allen)
Match Point is one of those movies that has managed to stick with me despite only seeing it once.  It’s economical, tense, and relies a lot on mood and music.  And to my great surprise, it’s a Woody Allen movie.  I’m someone who hasn’t seen a great deal of Allen’s films or even feel compelled to, but probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in a world where Woody Allen never decided to make a movie.   Woody Allen’s best-loved films generally aren’t thrillers, and they’re also generally not about upper-class Brits and the terrible things they’ll do in the name of reputation, but Match Point is.  I still find that Scarlett Johannson is a fairly inconsistent actress, but she’s excellent in this one, and the film looks fantastic.  Is it one of Woody Allen’s best?  That’s a matter of debate to be sure, but it manages to be an incredibly involving film in it’s own right, even if it’s not a kindred spirit with Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters.
Honorable mentions? Brick, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The 40-Year-Old Virgin

2006 – Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
2006 was a hard year to narrow down to just one.  Even just within my own tastes, I found that there was a great heist flick (Inside Man), one of Scorsese’s best mob movies (The Departed), and a terrific Christopher Nolan character study/thriller (The Prestige).  So why Children of Men?  A few reasons.  The first is the overarching story: the film drops you into a devastated world with no real explanation as far as how that happened; the hook (women are inexplicably infertile and mankind is at most 50 years from extinction) is strong enough alone to be intriguing, but by asking questions and giving no answers, it becomes captivating.  There’s an enormous problem facing the world, but they’re damned if they can solve it.  Second is how effectively it narrows a plot that’s on a global scale down to just one character.  And the third is how well it tells his story.  The film’s guerilla-style handheld shots and long takes make it hard to not get involved, and the performances keep the film grounded in human drama, ensuring the film’s plot never veers too far into science fiction to keep from being taken seriously.  It’s fundamentally rooted in it’s characters and performances rather than the sheer volume of despair in it’s world, and that makes it great rather than simply bleak and technically impressive.
Honorable mentions? Inside Man, The Departed, The Prestige

2007 – Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)
I feel as though all David Fincher’s award nominations and Oscar buzz for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were essentially consolation prizes for how little buzz and recognition Zodiac received.  Because Zodiac is easily a better movie in nearly all regards.  It has help; the Zodiac killer story is among the most fascinating true crime stories in American history.  But even with some assistance from reality, it takes a special talent to make scenes about handwriting analysis interesting and engaging.  But the real treat is when the film shifts into thriller territory.  While the scenes of the murders are often tense, the most intense scenes are the ones where the tension and fear felt by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character are dictated not by onscreen violence, but by careful editing and well-chosen camera angles.  It sounds boring, but the results speak for themselves; the film is incredibly tense, even if you can’t figure out why until after the fact.  While Panic Room is the most purely entertaining film Fincher has made, Zodiac remains his best.
Honorable mentions? Once, Sunshine, No Country for Old Men, Juno

2008 – The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Noticing another trend?  I like movies with strong characters and performances.  And why not?  Objectively complex special effects alone don’t make movies interesting beyond the initial viewing experience and the behind-the-scenes DVD features.  I love movies where the special effects are in the service of characters, but The Wrestler had no special effects to speak of.  Just a character.  It’s essentially the Mickey Rourke show, but his performance was justly rewarded.  Darren Aronofsky slips in some truly beautiful moments and some achingly broken ones.  It’s not the only performance-driven, low-fidelity movie of 2008 – it has a kindred spirit in Rachel Getting Married – but it resonates most.  It’s a movie that I can’t shake from memory and though it’s flawed, flawed movies are often the most memorable.
Honorable mentions? The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, Wall-E

2009 – Up (dir. Pete Docter)
It speaks great volumes about Pixar that their biggest screw-up was Cars.  While Wall-E accomplished the unenviable task of making a love story about robots warm and resonant, Up takes the ambition and heart of Wall-E and applies it to a deeply human story.  As firmly planted in fantasy and adventure serials as Up is, it’s an incredibly smart movie in how it handles that.  It never overplays it’s emotional hand, despite having a stacked deck.  It’s the strongest argument against the “animation can’t compete with the real thing” made to date.  When I saw the movie, the film’s most heart-wrenching scene (a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together) was narrated by a loud woman sitting near me, and the scene still managed to be as powerful as every film critic had said.
Honorable Mentions? Adventureland, Coraline, Zombieland, District 9

Review Michael Clayton

As promised a week ago, my review:

Like I said earlier, I’ve now seen all but one Best Picture nominee from 2007.  I remember being a little surprised by it’s nomination (although really shouldn’t have been, given that this would be George Clooney’s third dramatic picture to get significant awards attention, along with Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana).  Mainly because it looked like something that’s been done before.  And technically it has.  The plot reads like something out of a Grisham novel – Attourney uncovers conspiracy/cover-up, does something about it.  It’s familiar territory of the last two decades or so, particularly in the earlier 1990’s when six John Grisham legal thrillers were released within four years.

So yes, the story’s been done before.  But the way it was told in Michael Clayton is what makes it what it is.  In general, I find most movies entertaining.  This is probably why you’ll never see a grade lower than a C+ on this site.  It needs to really miss the mark and actually bore me for that to happen.  But when a movie surprises me; catches me off-guard with even something as small as the framing of a shot or a small scene with perfect chemistry, that’s when I really perk up.

Michael Clayton starts off strong by beginning near the end of the plot and then going back and showing the events that lead up to it.  It’s a device that can very easily backfire, but when it works, it can result in some of the best moments (if not movies) in recent memory.  While it doesn’t lead to a devastating reveal like in Memento, but it makes the linear story more powerful as a result.  The scenes that start the film are great as is, but Writer/Director Tony Gilroy’s choice is one that makes the story, when told in full, that much more gripping.

As for specific scenes that grabbed me, Tilda Swinton’s Oscar-winning performance consists almost exclusively of the best scenes in the movie.  Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy deserve a good deal of credit for her best scenes.  The film as a whole is equally well-directed and paced.  While it feels like a long movie, it’s two hour runtime seldom drags.  Clooney’s performance is up to his established standard, but the supporting cast is what makes it work as well as it does.  While it is fundamentally about the title character, the supporting cast is in general just more impressive.  Tom Wilkinson’s performance is very powerful, and in the hands (well, voice) of a lesser actor, the monologue that opens the film would sound foolish, but Wilkinson nails it.

Other standout elements include James Newton Howard’s score and the overall look of the film.  The subject matter is harsh, and the film itself has a cold tone to it.  While it’s not overbearing, it keeps the tone consistent, and when paired with Gilroy’s direction, it makes for a very consistent visual result.  But it’s by no means a flawless film.  While repeat viewings (and I intend to have a few) may reveal more to it, I found that the subplot concerning Michael’s family were a little superfluous, and somewhat confusing given how things wind up ending.  It tallies up to about five minutes of the whole film, but it felt a little out of place.  Any sort of character depth given to Clooney by them is ultimately overshadowed by the journey that the main plot takes him through.  They’re not bad scenes, but their function in the overall narrative is unclear.

But all the same, it’s a compelling story that’s told incredibly well.  And really, what else can I ask for in a movie?  It’s easy to dismiss it as just another legal thriller on paper, but on screen, it’s hard to ignore.

A-