Monday, August 30, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

In 2009, two directors of distinction decided to adapt beloved childrens' books. Spike Jonze tackled Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are with (to me) quite favorable results. Detractors, on the other hand, felt that Jonze's too-clever-by-half stylistics tainted the book's magic. Wes Anderson, purveyor of what you might call a dry offhandedness, decided to oversee Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, another fondly recalled diversion. Dahl's stories are beset with pitch black humor, often grisly circumstances, and comeuppance. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fine example, and its initial film adaptation, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY captured the twistedness quite well. I've yet to see Tim Burton's recent re-do.

Anderson's 2009 FANTASTIC MR. FOX, I'm happy to say, is very successful. I have not read the original book extensively. Those who have say that Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach have taken many liberties. If that is so, I am blissfully unaware, and free to enjoy the patented eccentricities we've come to expect from Anderson. The off-kilter, random obersvations are just as prevelent in this animated film as in any of the director's previous films. Cute foxes and a rollicking storyline do not sideline Anderson's odd style, not even a pinch.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a rather charismatic animal. He is prone to interrupt everyone else during a toast, dissect the vaguries of the English language, charm the birds out of the trees (or chickens out of coops) when he wants to. He's dapper, sly (but of course), and filled with confidence. When his plans fail, he remains optimistic, even as, in a bleak moment, he plans his own suicide.

He's also very self-aware. For all of his polish and panache, he continually states that essentially, he is a wild animal. He may try to go straight, taking a job as a local newspaper columnist and such, but his nature will overtake his bids for domestic and societal legitimacy. He will return to his wily ways and devise plots to snatch chickens, turkeys, ducks, and even fermented apple cider. He can't help it. It's who he is. Felicity, his wife, (Meryl Streep), is longsuffering but supportive as she and her family again and again find themselves in peril because of her husband's antics. She offers some cold honesty, "I love you, but I shouldn't have married you."

Mr. Fox's son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is your classic misfit, entirely unsure of his place in the fox or human landscape. He underachieves at virtually everything, including a cricket-like game at which his father had been a local champion. When Ash's cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) arrives for an extended stay, Ash's apparent inadaquacies are only magnified. Kristofferson is an expert at martial arts, does yoga, meditates. His demeanor is positively Andersonian. Oh, and so is Fox's lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray) who warns Fox not to move into a new tree home that is located near the compounds of 3 fearsome local proprieter/farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, the latter of whom is considered the meanest man around. Bean, as voiced by Michael Gambon, will prove to be quite the ruthless, vindicative sourpuss as he engages in all-out war with Fox and his compadres after his compound has been pillaged more than once.

The screenplay is your standard 3-act. Ideas are introduced that are not so random as to not become vital to the plot near the finale. In order words, the old, "if you introduce a gun in the first act you gotta shoot somebody in the third" applies. But woven into this story are rich vocal performances. Clooney, in particular, just hits the gas with his lively portrayal of the title character. He without apology infuses some of his own persona into the character, often as a means of spoofery. The deadpan work of Schwartzman and others fits well into Anderson's canvas. If Dahl was still with us, I think he would appreciate this film, honestly. It may be different than the source, with a healthy dose of the oblique, but the mordant humor is still intact.

The stop-motion animation, a painstaking process of moving each piece a millimeter or so for each frame, is as old school as the film's use of old Rolling Stones songs. In other words, typical Anderson. I loved it, by the way. Even just watching the foxes' hairs bristle in the breeze is enjoyable. This is no Rankin-Bass fest, but its retro stylings are so perfectly matched to the attitude. It worked wonderfully for me.

Also, common in Wes' movies, we get titles on the screen announcing characters, how much time has gone by, what will happen next. This is an animated family film, suitable for just about any audience, but of course it is the adults with a bent for the unusual who will have the most fun. Is the patented pretension toned down? Not a bit, happy to say, including a sequence where a band plays a jaunty little folk song that is interrupted by the lead singer's father, Bean. He berrates his son for bad songwriting. I loved this movie.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Nic and Jules are longtime marrieds and loving parents. They have 2 teenagers: a son, Laser, and a college-bound daughter, Joni. Nic is a physician whose unstinting perfectionism carries over from the OR into the home. Jules is someone who's never settled into a career, rather trying different businesses, usually related to gardening and landscaping. They are 180 degrees apart, but unified in their determination to run a healthy household. They actually have family dinners at the dining room table and are very involved in their kids' lives: questioning choices of friends, reminding them of the importance of hand-written thank-you notes. It's positively Ossie & Harriet, aside from the fact that Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are lesbians.

Co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko's THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT is a clear-eyed study of a modern family. The fact that the parents are the same sex is, not entirely incidental, but not the focus of this movie, either. This story could have been told with the more traditional hetero scenario. Would it have been as entertaining and sharp? In the right hands, sure. Cholodenko has explored the dynamics of homosexual (HIGH ART) and hetero (LAUREL CANYON) relationships before, with equal clarity and insight. While sexual preference may inform modes of living, human decency and depravity may not be dictated by what happens in the bedroom, or the mind. The director's characters live and sound like real folks, too. They're not afraid to be downright unlikable at times. Certain characteristics may seem like cliches and stereotypes, but cliches and stereotypes are based on real human behavior. Like the fact that Nic, who has virtually solely supported the family's upper middle-class lifestyle, is prone to nit-picking and judging others who haven't achieved her level of fastidiousness. How ironic that she tells her laissez-faire partner to "stop micro-managing" her.

Marriages and families weather all manner of seasons when they're together for awhile. We observe Nic and Jules' unmistakable affection for each other, but the years have also brought those buried tensions to the light, little by little. When Paul arrives on the scene, it's as if the dam bursts. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is a hip, pushing 40 restauranteur who, a few decades ago, donated some sperm because he felt that he was helping mankind. His seed would be used by both Nic and Jules to father the aforementioned kids.

The process begins when Laser prompts his sister to call the sperm bank to try to locate their mystery biological father. The teens meet Paul, but keep this a secret from their folks. Eventually, Paul will be having dinner with the entire family, gradually becoming more involved in their lives. For 3 of them, it seems to be a good thing. Joni thinks Paul is way cool, as he grows organic produce in his own garden and uses it at his even cooler California bistro. She admires his laid-back vibe. Laser isn't as impressed, finding his long-lost paternal unit a bit self-serving, but eventually seems to dig him. Paul even offers some fatherly advice to the kid. This is a big surprise to himself, as Paul has never thought in those terms. Is he entertaining the notion of settling down after years of a footloose existence, having casual sex with his restaurant hostess, etc.?

Paul's greatest influence will be on Jules, however. She grows closer to him after he hires her to landscape his disgrace of a backyard garden. He talks to her like a peer, never bitingly or condescendingly like say, Nic tends to do. Jules has been the victim of neglect, too, as any stay-at-home spouse of a Busy Person tends to feel. This can be a dangerous scenario and indeed, unwise decisions are made that will send ripples through the happy family. Nic never warms to Paul, perhaps rightly sensing that he is a threat, an "interloper". Well, she does have one brief warm moment with the guy after she learns he likes Joni Mitchell ("you don't find many straight male Joni Mitchell fans")and has excellent taste in wine (she drinks a bit too much), but it's short-lived after she makes a heartbreaking discovery minutes later. The family will have crises and a long road to healing.

I've made THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT sound heavy, but mainly it's a comedy. Much of the humor comes from the recognition of personailities, the curt Type As like Nic, the ultra casual never-grew-ups like Paul, the could-give-a-crap teens like Laser. There are also some deliberately engineered gags here and there, and that Mexican gardener working with Jules should be studied closely by actors seeking to use their expressions and body language as effective tools for humor.

The strengths of this film, however, lie in the perceptiveness. The script is masterful, not wasting a moment as we spend time even with minor characters, like the boy who forever plays Scrabble with Joni but does not seem interested in anything more but friendship. All of the characters are well written and even better acted. Moore and Bening are powerhouses of thespianship. They make it look very easy, their seamless personality shifts, their use of eye contact to maintain the power of a moment, the choices they make. Absolutely fine work. Mia Wasikowski and Josh Hutcherson are real finds, too, playing Joni and Laser, respectively. They're not some hack screenwriter's idea of how contemporary teenagers act, but people you get to know. Ruffalo turns in another impressive performance, perhaps his best since YOU CAN COUNT ON ME. In fact, Paul seems like a sibling of that film's rootless Terry.

Guiding it, of course is Cholodenko. She makes it all seem so natural, so organic (pardon the pun). We grow used to hanging out with these people. We get frustrated with Nic's eternally pissed-off demeanor, even hate her at times, but we grow to understand her anger. We also want to lash out at Jules for her poor choices, but understand how they can happen. We don't feel the gears of a carefully orchestrated script grinding, never once. That also means that things will be unresolved, charcaters left out in the cold. Just like life.

You'll notice I haven't spoken at length about the characters' homosexuality. Neither does the movie. I was quietly astonished as I reflected on this movie. For all of the "alternative" culture depicted in THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, this film has an undeniably conservative message: fidelity, longsuffering, family, hard work, maturity, character, these are the things that win out in the end.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Talk Radio

I guess enough years have passed to admit that I once wote a short story called "Dead Air". It's one of those early embarrassments that is best left to brown in a musty desk drawer. Written for an undergrad assignment, my shamelessly unoriginal story focused upon a radio talk show host, a "shock jock" who spewed left-wing venom nightly to a rabid gaggle of listeners. A really nasty guy, at least on the air. Was it just an act, a fittable persona, a contrivance? One night, an elderly former mayor (or some sort of local politician, can't remember, and I don't feel like pulling the thing out) is his guest. He's invited on to provide conservative counterpoint, and he's everything the jock is not: dignified, careful with his words, a good listener. They begin to spar. The guest never raises his voice. Just as the debate hits some sort of stride, the old man expires, right in front of his microphone. Silence. Get it, "dead air"? The host is aghast, pauses, then in an instant rethinks his whole schtick and m.o. He delivers a heartfelt closing speech that, even as I wrote it, rang entirely false. The End. The story was as trite and unconvincing as its protagonist. Not especially well drawn or thought out.

"This story reminds me too much of TALK RADIO" one of my classmmates in the critique circle stated. I had just seen director Oliver Stone's 1988 film adaptation of writer/star Eric Bogosian's play the weekend before, so she was partially right. I also largely based the central character of "Dead Air" on several of the radio personalities I was listening to at the time: Neil Rogers, Steve Kane, Jack Cole, Stan Major, that bunch. I additionally heard snippets of then-new Rush Limbaugh at that time, but even with a strong stomach, I found him tough to take for very long (and I was a die-hard GOPer in those days, too).

It was no wonder that my creativity at that moment was colored by TALK RADIO, with its incisive script, intense performances, and nimble direction. About the latter I must first address: this is some of Stone's finest work. His camera is always hyperactive in his movies, but here it moves with a fluidity that suits the action, mostly confined to a studio. That inherent claustrophobia is an asset here, as the story itself becomes a tightening vise all the way to the finale. Stone's moves never seem flashy or self-conscious. The director and DP Robert Richardson have a real handle on converting the theatrical to the cinematic, in my opinion. A play-to-film with a high degree of faithfulness to its source can tend to be static. Not here.

Bogosian adapts his play, but this movie is also based on a real life radio personality named Alan Berg, who in the 1980s was murdered in his own driveway by a some right-wing whack jobs he irritated with his show. Bogosian's character is named Barry Champlain, and he's a left-wing whack job. At least, that's how he comes off on his show, and people love it, can't turn it off. At an appearance at a basketball game, he's confronted by a fan who interrogates him, and he correctly diagnoses her situation. "You need me," he says, going on to explain how his antagonism to her (apparently) entire belief system and very being is necessary for her to even get out of bed in the morning. She requires a yang to his yin, or something. Can evil exist without good, and vice versa? If she had nothing to be outraged by she'd likely cease to have purpose. Isn't life a constant fight?

That's how Neil Rogers' fans were. I profiled him here last year. I listened regularly in the late 80s/early 90s. You'd hear the same voices week after week, calling in to express their disgust with his "offensive" views, his outrageous comments and caricatures. Champlain does the same thing, firing the imaginations of his Dallas listeners with barbs against the Establishment, minorities, hate groups. He truly is the equal opportunity offender. Most just enjoy the theater; others take it too seriously. Why else would someone send a swastika flag wrapped around an animal carcass to him?

Maybe that's part of the joke, too. Barry can't be sure, and neither can his station's management, led by a perpetually frustrated GM (Alec Baldwin, winning in a smallish part). The tension is even thicker as there is interest from a company in national syndication for the program. While a rep (John Pankow) hangs around and listens, though, Champlain begins to unwind, perhaps to his doom.

TALK RADIO keeps most of the action in the studio, wisely. In a way, watching this film is like attending a cerebral wrestling match. Champlain is in his element in the relative safety of a high tech fortress, never face to face with his opponents, er, callers. His probable spinelessness would observe an avoidance of "real life" confrontation, but in this manufactured radio world, the gloves are off. "Hit me," he repeatedly goads his audience.

Who is real, here? Are the callers just manufacturing trouble (like the host, hmmm) because they're bored and/or addicted to the program? Are the disagreements over political philosophies, religious views, the Constitution just excuses to fill some fractured innate desire to fight? A lack of contentment with self? The same thing that drives individuals to fight wars? That's what I've always gotten from these types of shows. It's only gotten more intense and polarizing 20 + years after TALK RADIO, with irritants like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Randy Rhoades, and others. Thoughtful discourse does not get the ratings, the advertising dollars. Why be articulate and logical when inflammatory words and barnyard grunts (remember The Mort Downey Jr. show?)can be expressed? Even if it is all just pretend. I enjoyed the scene in Woody Allen's CELEBRITY, where we go backstage of a tawdry talk show. At the caterer's table we hear good natured banter: "The skinheads take all the bagels!" from the other guest, a Jewish man.

But the controversy gets out of hand for Barry Champlain. With each call, his self-destruction becomes more complete. Show business, sure, but the showman is cracking. The corporate types notice, and worry for their Deals, their revenue. Let the wild animal growl, but keep him on the chain, dammit. It can't hold him anymore. The gestating tsuris affects his attempts at relationships too, but the movie keeps its wild but unwavering eyes fixed right on Barry, who eventually does have to leave the building and walk to his car.......

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

HOPA Power!

Even if this is fake, it's still very funny......


http://thechive.com/2010/08/10/girl-quits-her-job-on-dry-erase-board-emails-entire-office-33-photos/

Monday, August 9, 2010

eXistenZ


I, like so many viewers, was really pissed when I found out that Bobby was merely having a dream. You remember Dallas, that nighttime soap from the 70s/80s? Is there anything lazier than for a writer to concoct then pull the rug out from everything you've invested hours in watching and say, eh, it didn't really happen? Viewer outcry was in overdrive when Dallas pulled that trick. Far fewer people saw the unfortunate Emilio Estevez vehicle from '86, WISDOM, but it had a similiarly insulting conclusion. It's as if the creators don't have the convictions to allow their characters some development, or, oh terrors, harm. The "it's only a dream" is like an escape chute for the writer, letting him or her off the hook lest we hold them accountable.

What of the unique television program St. Elsewhere? The final episode revealed that everything that came before was merely the busy imagination of a child staring into a snowglobe.

On the other hand, when we watch TV shows and movies, we're doing just that. Gazing into a made-up landscape. Why should we get annoyed when we find that it was all a dream, or someone's musing, or a game?

I've been there, and I'm sure you have. Speaking of games, David Fincher's THE GAME had a finale so inane and insulting I was practically spitting blood in disgust. Who do these filmmakers think they are? Do they view us with such contempt that they feel they can invert all that is coherent and logical in the name of art? Artistic license?

Well, of course they can! You did read my review of INCEPTION, right? But not all reality twisters are created equal, or armed with the same agenda. But it's only a movie, every time.

Today we'll look back at director David Cronenberg's wacky 1999 eXistenZ, a cinematic tease that continually plays with the idea as to whether what we see is really happening or merely a simulation, part of some elaborate game. We're never quite sure, but that is the point here. But, is it worth your time to be toyed with?

Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of my favorite actresses, plays Allegra Geller, mistress extraordinaire game designer. She's lauded as the most brilliant mind in her field, in the world, even. She works for a corporation called Antenna Research. While showcasing her latest creation, "eXistenZ" at a seminar, a would-be assailant tries to bump her off with a weird looking gun. Does he work for the rival gaming co., Cortical Systematics? She survives the attack and before she can blink, she's on the run with Antenna employee Pikul (Jude Law). As they flee, we learn how these elaborate games are played, and what sorts of ports and drives they fit into.

Allegra's "bio-port" or pod is a cavity in the spine into which the game is inserted, via an umbilical cord. In this future society, virtual reality is achieved without separate external hardware. If you're familiar with Cronenberg's previous work, this scenario sounds like something that fits comfortably with the sort of grotesqueries seen in THE BROOD, VIDEODROME, SCANNERS, and CRASH, an audacious NC-17 picture that I'm sure I'll get around to reviewing. Just thinking about that one makes me want to race for a shower, but...

Allegra discovers at some point that the eXistenZ program has been damaged; the only copy is within her and when her "umbycord" is injured, the game is compromised. She convinces Pikul to get his own bodily bio-port so she can inspect the damage. In order to do this, both will be part of the designer's game. This requires surgery performed at a gas station run by a guy named, appropriately enough, Gas (Willem Defoe). Pikul is reluctant for fear of becoming paralyzed by the procedure.

But are Allegra and Pikul already part of the game? Journeys through Chinese restaurants and video game stores only add to the riddle. Wait, Pikul is constructing a gun out of the bones of his disgusting meal; a gun that looks similiar to the one Allegra saw the business end of at the film's opening! We're never sure what is "reality" and what is "eXistenZ", right to the end. Familiar territory abounds: double agents, double crosses, the questioning of sanity. This also being a Cronenberg movie there will be discussion and examination of medical pathology, icky special effects, and a sexual undercurrent to everything (shades of his 1975 SHIVERS). You can observe the way human anatomy is used here, often as a device of some sort, and perhaps draw some conclusions about fetishism that may or may not echo CRASH.

The nasty element of computer viruses plays into it, too. At various times, Allegra and Pikul are victims of infected bodily ports and consequently, their perceptions shift accordingly. How and why did they end up back at that ski lodge? Is the game ridden with viruses? Or is it just their (players) scrambled minds?

eXistenZ came out just after the much higher profile THE MATRIX, another film, as you might recall, that wondered if life as we perceive it wasn't just an illusion. Around the same time, other films like DARK CITY and THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR played with intriguing ideas of time shifts and alternate dimesions. Cronenberg's flick did not find a big audience, though a sizable cult may exist. While most of his films are distinguishable from anything else produced, this one remains a blah curiosity. The messages are not particularly profound, or anything Aldous Huxley didn't foretell years before. Or any of the great 20th century sci-fi writers.

Or, perhaps the creators wonder who is playing "god" in this world. Do we create our own world, or exist in one that was created? To me, it seems like Cronenberg is always examining this idea: what or who created what or was it evolved? Are drugs (the pharamaceutical kind or otherwise) responsible for the reality? Since our brains naturally produce various neurotransmitters which filter our reality, what is the gateway for what? Someone harvested the drugs, of course, but they become deities themselves. What's your drug of choice? Does it define you? Is it pleasure? Technology itself? This idea of a supreme being? What incepted (aha!) our perceptions? This movie marginally develops these ideas.

Still, one being their own game console is a fascinating notion. It's just a shame that one's own imagination is no longer enough in the world of eXistenZ. Or, perhaps it is the catalyst that drives further exploration. Finding one's way to the light, the upper level, the reality (INCEPTION, again!), is the trick. Ask any gamer who's spent hours and days obssesed with the next level about that. I've met some who seem to still be lost in the vortex. But who's to say I'm not some simulation in their game? I'm pinching myself right now, but I don't know....Maybe we are living in some snowglobe, or matrix, or dream, or game, or...

Friday, August 6, 2010

New York Stories, Part V

....moves back in, sadly. And "shoebox" is precise; the dimensions, no joke, were about 12' x 7' in this bedroom. A wall had been erected straight down the middle of the former room, but only one doorway remained, so when you entered, you either went left (his side) or right (the other guy). The other guy also watched TV well into the evening. WWF if he recalls correctly. To say the partition was paper thin is to be most generous. He missed Astoria greatly.

It had only been a little over a month since he'd lived in the Washington Square hovel, previously on the other side of the unit in a MUCH bigger bedroom, but complete turnover had occured. All new residents. One new couple occupied the middle bedroom down the hall. At the risk of sounding derogatory, these folks was white trash. But as our guy always tries to be affable, and he got along with them just fine. Until. One night our guy was looking through the frig and noticed some of those Budweiser King Cans. Now, our guy never had a taste for Bud, as its maltiness and hoppiness were the very essence of liquid mediocrity (being generous again), but that night he was craving nonetheless. He had also had roommates before, and knew the rules about refrigerator goods that he had not purchased. Just then, the guy on the other side of the wall walked in. He saw my dilemma. "Go ahead, they won't mind," he stated, referring to the white trashers. After all, he knew them far better. Our guy grabbed a can and killed it in 2 minutes. As crappy as it was, it still hit the spot. He went to bed.

Upon returning from work (details of which to be described later) the following evening, the couple was waiting in the hall, obviously quite miffed about something. You know the rest. The shoebox neighbor was either very misinformed or a trouble maker. Our guy explained the scenario, but there were no smiles or apparent understanding. He promptly went out and got 'em a sixer to heal the wound. He felt like he was back in grade school. This mistake ensured future reception that was as chilly as the damned beer had been between our guy and the couple. It was all like a bad movie line: Trust. No. One.

Actually, something similiar had happened the year before while he was working in Atlanta. He was working late one night when that Wendy's Frosty appeared to him yet again; it must've been there for a week. Assuming someone had either forgotten it or not longer cared, he partook. He found himself in the boss' office the next day, being interrogated as if he had committed something heinous. If you saw the look in the Frosty owner's eyes as she glared at him from one seat over, you would not be remiss in thinking so. Ridiculous. Maybe growing up an only child had contributed to his evident thoughtlessness.

His plight in NYC never improved. His money had just about run out and the cash flow coming in was not sufficient. It became unbearable. He would spend his work and free time alike just feeling miserable. The city is great when you have money and time; he had little of both. He miscalculated the whole notion of living there. It was so odd, he thought, falling to such depths as to be placing a call to a Waldenbooks back in Florida(!) to see if they were hiring?! How desparate! He was standing near the Virgin Megastore in Times Square as he placed the call! Something was very wrong. Maybe he wasn't giving it a chance, but funds and patience were running out.

Later that day, wandering about Manhattan, he saw a place called Lois Lane Travel. He barely knew what happened when moments later when he found himself standing with one way tickets back to West Palm Beach. He was a little sad but knew it was the right thing to do. When he returned to the apt., his shoebox neighbor informed him that he was going to watch the Macy's balloons being filled with helium for the annual parade in a few days, would he like to join him? It sounded cool, all right, but it was too late. Our guy would be home for Thanksgiving. But our time machine needs to back up a bit before the journey home, to re-examine his experinces at work with not only a psychotic Yankees fan pharmacist, but also none other than Frank Oz. Until next time...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Warriors

"They tore down the screen!" Chris relayed excitedly on the playground. I never forgot those words or his breathlessness as he described his experience seeing 1979's THE WARRIORS. He had just moved from New York City to Florida and was filled with tales of big city excitement. The best, though, had to be of an angry movie theater audience bolting from their seats and tearing the screen to pieces. Even as a 5th grader, I was skeptical. But only for a few days. In the New York Times and other periodicals, there were accounts of how director/co-writer Walter Hill's gritty little picture was inspiring real life violence. Over the years, I've read even more stories of how restless viewers felt compelled to start trouble right in the theater. Sort of like an uglier version of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, I suppose. How bifurcating it can be for an artist: you are guilt ridden over how your creation incited destruction, yet possibly exhilirated that it inspired so strong an emotion. Most things we consume are barely felt, and soon forgotten. But where is the responsibility line? Is the onus on the creator or the audience?

I've never forgotten THE WARRIORS. Seen it many times, though never in the theater (I was only 10 when it was released). My success with sneaking into R-rated movies back in the day was varied: a snippet of ANIMAL HOUSE here, a scene or two of THE JERK there. THE WARRIORS is a vivid journey through the sleaze and ugliness of late 70s NYC (regular readers will note that this has been a theme of my posts lately). The plot is simple: a messianic gang lord named Cyrus calls a meeting one night in the Bronx. In attendance are several gangs from around the city, groups with names like the Furies and the Lizzies. Cyrus states that he desires a consolidation of the gangs into one superpower that the NYPD and even the Mafia can't match. But like in real life, there is an element that resists such unity (even criminal) and a member of the Rogues pops a cap into Cyrus before he can finish his manifesto. The assassin acts quickly and points a finger at the Warriors, his accusation spreading like a virus through the crowd and city. The Warriors find themselves marked and must somehow survive the long trek back to Coney Island. As a tagline might go, "it's gonna be a long night."

You might imagine the trouble the Warriors have. Not only are all the other gangs after their hides, but also the police. It's quite a distance between the Bronx and the decaying, rusty C.I. The rival gangs all seem to have a theme; one are dressed like New York Yankees and wield bats. Their face paint and demeanor perhaps reminds one of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. This entire film might even be in a similiar vein-a cautionary examination of rampant violence and lawlessness. I'm not sure what Hill intended with this movie. It can be taken as some sort of parable or just at face value. With the latter, I think you're on safer ground. This is an effective mood piece, designed to evoke a sense of anxiety and vicarious thrill.

It's violent, all right, but not with the sort of bludgeoning we see lately. The fights and gunplay are as cartoonish as the characters who, here, as in other Hill pics, are more types than real people. Each represents an emotion, a character flaw. The zenith was in Hill's THE DRIVER, where the characters didn't even have names. Mainly, it's a man's world. Brooding, laconic males who communicate through violence. Witness Chuck Bronson in Hill's HARD TIMES. Real discussions don't happen. The patter is usually brief and filled with bravado. 48 HOURS certainly demonstrated that. Women, on the other hand, never have very strong roles, though they are also not just rag dolls to be pulled along. The Warriors' Mercy is a tough broad, just like McCoy in STREETS OF FIRE.

The real star here is Hill, a director who has been consistently underrated. His style is meticulous and energetic. THE LONG RIDERS, the 1980 Western, was as stylish as anything of that era. His orchestrations of mayhem and the colorful backdrops upon which they play out are tangible. THE WARRIORS was shot on location, and it often feels like you're on the dolly track along with the cameraman. Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo does great work here. Those long-ago patrons who itched to get up and bust something would agree. Who said moviegoing was passive?! As electric as that scene might've been, I'm content with enjoying this cult item in the safety of my own cave.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Inception

It really takes quite a bit to get me engaged anymore. The older I get, the less patience I have for offerings afforded by the media, fictional or otherwise. It's not just for films. When you observe the same tired patterns in human actions, history repeating itself, thought processes stuck in neutral, it gets old. Hollywood gossip. Celebrity behavior. Actually, Hollywood and Washington are becoming less dissimiliar all the time. This is why my interest in politics, for example, has all but evaporated. It never changes. The same partisan bickering, the same bureaucratic breakdowns, the same compromises, the same vitriol. As a society, we seem more interested in being divided and close-minded and insular than looking for solutions. This discussion is a whole other ball of wax, but it fits here, I think. I'm still monitoring things in the news, to be aware of the insanity, but it's becoming like a daily (and, yes, necessary) dose of a vitamin that, at best, tastes like vanilla and at worst, smells like raw sewage. I need dynamics, progression in what I take in. All else is masochism, and a sweet waste of time.

For this reason, even watching sports has become tedious. While one can marvel at the occasional feat that breaks a record (or even the laws of physics[this is relevent to this movie, hold on!]), ooh and ahh at the heroicism of the athlete, mostly it's just the same damn thing to me. How many times can I get my blood pressure up over an interception or double play or goal? Seen it all before. Hard to get excited anymore, even with sudden death playoffs and the like. This is why the arts and science are my favorite subjects. There is potential for something new, not just the same old scenarios. There are Possibilities of new ground being broken, new neural pathways to be forged.

But art also can become stagnant, especially in Hollywood. The continuing rash of remakes of old television programs and films are clear testament to that. Imagination, thought in general, seems to be in want. For every Breaking Bad or Mad Men, two uncommonly good contemporary entertainments, there a dozen DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS or Rookie Blues or virtually any reality show. Big scale Hollywood effects films have also become increasingly dull; it seems with each million spent, the yawns became more frequent for me. As much as I admire director Christopher Nolan, whose films have challenged me, fascinated me, and sometimes knocked me out, I watched the INCEPTION trailers with weary eyes. It reeked of another loud, over-the-top orgy of destruction and half-baked philosophy and metaphysics. The world certainly didn't need another MATRIX clone.

After being wildly entertained for a very quick seeming 2 and 1/2 hours yesterday, I can happily state the Nolan is one of the few exceptions in Tinseltown. Mega budgets have not dulled his creativity. After all, Aronofsky had a non-existent budget and created Pi! But, having the $$$ at his disposal has actually allowed a full bloom realization of a script Nolan had been tinkering for about a decade. While INCEPTION is not perfect, it is an exemplary entry in the sci-fi genre. I was dazzled and intrigued like crazy.

A lot of ink has already been spilled over this film, which, at the time of this writing, seems to be another blockbuster for Nolan. It is a complex brain teaser that has been fitted as a caper/heist pic, presumably to make the film easier to digest and follow. You might say it's OCEAN'S 11 meets PRIMER or eXistenZ, odd as that sounds. INCEPTION actually has elements of many films, including ones as diverse as ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and HEAT, all of which apparently saturated Nolan's cranium from years of film obsession. Rather than feeling like rip-offs or gratuitous or clumsy homages, these inspirations (or, er, "projections", for those of you reading who've see this movie) are ingenious backdrops. INCEPTION, distilled to its most bare bones plot synopsis, is about various experts who can enter others' dreams to extract or plant ("incept") ideas. Ideas, as the characters state more than once, eventually define you. You might imagine that the corporate world would be very interested in such skills.

To wit, a mogul named Saito (Ken Watanabe) recruits Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former dream architect who leads teams literally into subjects' dreams via sophisticated equipment to find information locked into the subconscious. Saito himself plays subject to audition Dom and co., to see how effective they are. The audition is a disaster, but the CEO nonethless seeks Dom's employ, but instead of extracting info, he wants to incept a thought into a rival's brain. The rival is a guy named Fischer, who has just assumed the mantle of his deceased father's company. Saito seeks to have the dream team germinate an idea in Fisher's head: break up the company. Fisher will thus become less of a marketplace threat.

I mentioned that Dom is a "former" dream architect (someone who creates the intricately detailed dreamscape in which the team carries out their heists) because he's having a few difficulties which compromise his work. Namely, his obsession with his deceased wife often distracts and sabotogues the task at hand. She'll show up and wreak havoc, including even killing someone (at which point the dreamer either awakens or goes deeper into a dream limbo) or otherwise disengage the directive. The backstory of Dom and Mal (Marion Catillard) is somewhat involved and poignant. As the film progresses, we learn that the couple spent a lifetime in the deepest levels of dreamstate, and upon returning to reality, well, that's where it got sticky. Mal lost all sense of reality for various reasons, and it leads to tragedy. That horrible event, as well as all the other moments in their courtship, are replayed as Dom hooks himself up with the dream equipment every night to do experiments. His 2 young children also figure prominently into this scenario, yet another element of INCEPTION that recalls DiCaprio's earlier head bender, SHUTTER ISLAND.

A college student named Ariadne (Ellen Page) discovers what Dom is doing. She is recruited as a replacement architect for the aforementioned new assignment, and her sense of the three dimensional, the possibilities of the dream world, provides some of the movie's trippiest and best moments. She is clearly the genius for this job. Dom teaches her the rules (such as they are) about dreamscapes and why anonymous passersby in these dreams may suddenly turn hostile. She'll, in the process, also discover how unstable Dom really is, and how his demons can be catastrophic for all concerned, including other dream team members Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who does research on the dreamer subjects; Eams(Tom Hardy), a mildly eccentric "forger" who can assume various appearances within the dreams, and Yousep (Dileep Rao), the chemist who concocts a tranquilizer that works long enough for the team to carry out their business.

The whole notion of time is vital to the plot of INCEPTION. We learn that one minute in the real world equals several in the first dream layer. As you go deeper, that number multiplies. I would have loved to have been present for the script conferences on this movie. I can imagine the heady discussions and arguments, how to keep everything straight and (somewhat) logically airtight. This film had to have been a nightmare for the continuity department.

A growing consensus regarding INCEPTION is that for all of its brilliance, cleverness, and excitement, it ultimately leaves one cold. We don't get a real emotional connection, the critics write. As well, the protagonists are amoral, no one to root for. I don't really agree. I would've liked more development of Dom's relationship with Mal, as what we do see sometimes comes off a bit dramatic and theatrical. There are moments when we do get right there and feel their pain; DiCaprio and Cotillard do their best. We never see Mal's life, her personality before her consciousness is turned inside out, never know how she was. There would be higher emotional stakes if we had, in my opinion.

That last point led one critic to state that INCEPTION was "too busy being awesome to be great". I agree that many of the "great" films are about people, fleshed out individuals we grow to care about. But I think of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, as I'm sure Nolan did as well. I consider it a great film about ideas. We do learn a bit about Dave Bowman, but it's not about him; it's about no less than mankind. Kubrick's characters were dehumanized at various points, not always developed the way Stella Adler or Lee Strasburg might've liked. Perhaps ideas enough do not make a film great, but to dismiss INCEPTION because it is bereft of emotion is hasty. Do I consider Nolan's movie "great"? Maybe not in that film snob way I praise IKURU and THE RED SHOES, but you've heard about those apples and oranges, yes?

As for our "heroes", I am far more interested in flawed, complicated souls than white hatted do-gooders. The entire mission of this team is essentially in the name of corporate espionage. As timely as ever! But never fear, dear viewer, the better of human nature is victorious towards the end. At its core, INCEPTION is somewhat warm, human, not cold or cynical at all. And the debate over whether that top keeps spinning in the final scene, I believe, will rage through Starbucks franchises worldwide for years to come.