The East (2013)

2016 #30
Zal Batmanglij | 111 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English & American Sign Language | 15 / PG-13

In this atypical espionage thriller, Brit Marling is a private security employee sent to infiltrate an underground activist group who are exposing the illegal activities of mega-corporations. Faced with the group’s honourable intentions vs. her employers’ indifference, will she go native?

Moral messages about capitalist evils sneak in none-too-subtly under the aegis of a spy drama, meaning your political leanings may affect how you feel about the film: dedicated right-wingers will grumble; lefties will nod in sage agreement. That aside, it’s a down-to-earth thriller, surely closer to what real-life secret agents do than any Bond or Bourne ever has been.

4 out of 5

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X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut (2014/2015)

2015 #96a
Bryan Singer | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA & UK / English | 12

X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue CutOne of the big stories in the run-up to this fifth X-Men film’s release last year (my previous review is here) was that returning cast member Anna Paquin, one of the leads in the original trilogy — certainly, she’s the audience PoV character in the first one — had been virtually excised from the final cut, her subplot deemed extraneous by director Bryan Singer, as well as screenwriter Simon Kinberg, who all but admitted he’d shoehorned her into the screenplay in the first place. Instantly, a director’s cut was mooted by journalists/fans, and almost as quickly Singer and co were on board. So that’s how we end up with The Rogue Cut, which probably has all kinds of bizarre connotations if you’re not aware Rogue is a character in the series.

It remains a bit of a misnomer even if you do, because it’s not like Rogue has a huge part to play. Her subplot is actually more of a showcase for Ian McKellen’s Magneto and Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman, as they rescue her (with a little help from Patrick Stewart’s Professor X) from an enemy-occupied X Mansion. From there, she takes over from Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) maintaining Wolverine’s presence in the past. In the cut released in cinemas, Kitty kept doing what Kitty was already doing, which is certainly a smoother way of handling things. Kinberg was right: this subplot feels like it’s been half-forced in, mainly to give the future-time cast extra things to do.

This sequence is not the only addition, however; I’m sure this release would’ve been perfectly adequately dubbed an Extended Cut or Director’s Cut were it not for the fan/media focus on the Rogue portions, which earnt it “The Rogue Cut” as a nickname before it was adopted as the official name. In total, the new cut is 17 minutes and 10 seconds longer, though I believe Singer said there were some deletions too, so it may be there’s slightly more than that. Either way, it’s tough to spot everything that’s been added. There are extensions littered throughout — according to the Blu-ray’s scene select menu, of the extended cut’s 44 chapters, 20 include alternate material (including the end crawl, thanks to a mid-credits scene) and two are all-newRogue being Kitty (though the theatrical cut only has 40 chapters, so I’m not entirely sure how that pans out). Most must be teeny extensions, however, and I look forward to Movie-Censorship.com doing a report so I can know all I didn’t spy. Apparently Singer and editor John Ottman discuss the changes quite a lot in their commentary track, but I haven’t taken the time to listen to that yet.

The bulk do come in the aforementioned “Rogue rescue” sequence that has given this cut its name. However, it’s intercut with some new material in the 1973 segments: Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) also visits the X Mansion, for a little tête-à-tête with Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Both have a knock-on effect later in the movie: having taken over from Kitty, Rogue is now present throughout the climax (not that it makes much difference, besides changing Magneto’s method of entry after he barricades them in), and a brief moment — a look, no more — between Raven and Hank in the past.

Oh, and Nixon says “fuck”. That must be new, because you’re only allowed one “fuck” in a PG-13 and I distinctly remember James McAvoy saying it.

So is this cut better? Well, no. Is it worse? Well, not really. It’s just different. On the one hand, here we have some extra fleshing out of Raven and Hank’s characters, more action for future-Magneto and Iceman, and a more decent role for Rogue — though her part still isn’t much cop, all things considered. On the other hand, it makes for a slightly less streamlined film, and the intercutting between past-Magneto retrieving his helmet and future-Magneto rescuing Rogue is built like it should have some kind of juxtapositional weight but, unless I’m missing something, it doesn’t.

Magneto and IcemanThe Rogue Cut is worth seeing for anyone who enjoyed the theatrical version — and, in terms of a copy to own, the Blu-ray comes with both cuts and more special features (though it loses all the extras from the first release, including a few more deleted scenes) — but, unless you’re a huge fan of Rogue or Iceman, it’s not essential.

As it’s fundamentally the same film, my original score stands.

5 out of 5

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

2014 #113
Bryan Singer | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

X-Men: Days of Future PastI think I’ve previously discussed my life-long love of the X-Men franchise, so I shan’t go into detail again, but suffice to say Days of Future Past has been one of my most-anticipated movies ever since the title (which is that of a classic and influential story from the comics) was announced. Thank goodness, then, that the final result doesn’t disappoint.

After two Wolverine-focused spin-offs and a ’60s-set prequel, Days of Future Past returns us to the world of the original X-Men movie cast — Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and all the rest. Only now it’s a future dystopia, where mutants are killed or imprisoned by giant robots called Sentinels. A gang of former X-Men led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) think they’ve worked out a way to send someone back in time to before the incident that incited this terrible future, so that they can stop it. The man chosen is — of course — Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Transported back into his 1970s body, Wolverine must find the younger Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), reunite him with an imprisoned younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and stop younger Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the inventor of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Throw in almost every other mutant who’s ever appeared in the extensive ensemble casts of the four previous X-Men movies, and you’ve got yourself an epic — reportedly the second-most-expensive film ever made by 20th Century Fox (after Avatar).

There’s an awful lot going on in Days of Future Past, which, if you want to dig into it, makes for quite a rich film. There’s the obvious need to balance major storylines taking place in both the past and the future, though the latter has been sacrificed to focus on the former — quite literally, in the sense that a subplot centred around Anna Paquin’s Rogue was famously deleted (leaving Paquin with high billing for a three-second cameo). There’s also the inevitable complexity of time travel stories — how do changes in the past impact on the future, etc. Men of Future PastBeyond that, there’s the characters: the younger versions are having to deal with the fall-out from First Class, which tore apart friendships and families; meanwhile, Wolverine is having to deal with a new level of responsibility and maturity — he is, almost literally, having to do for Charles what the professor did for him back in the first X-Men movie.

You wouldn’t think of an X-Men feature being an actors’ movie, and at the end of the day it’s not really, but there’s enough material for a quality actor like McAvoy to sink his teeth into. When we meet him Charles is a disillusioned drug addict, entirely different to the man we know from First Class and his future as Patrick Stewart. He’s forced to face his demons in every way possible: stopping his drugs, accepting his mutant superpowers, facing up to the man who did this to him, and the woman he raised as a sister but who turned on him… None of this is necessary to serve the blockbuster spectacle that the film also excels in, but it makes for deeper viewing than your average 2010s tentpole.

If McAvoy is the star, many of the rest of the cast do alright. As mentioned, Jackman has a bit on his plate as a one-time loner trying to become a teacher. Jennifer Lawrence is best served, the depth of her role no doubt bolstered by her Oscar-winning success elsewhere in the acting world. Although the original story also features Mystique as the antagonist, she’s far less conflicted: it’s a straight-up assassination attempt. The dilemmas that leave her torn between Xavier and Magneto are entirely an invention of the film franchise, but they make for a much more interesting story — it’s genuinely unpredictable what she’ll do and who she’ll side with.

Villain of Future PastNot everyone gets to shine in a cast this big, although pretty much everyone gets a moment. The future-set cast have the least to do, people like Halle Berry turning up to do little more than show their face, though Stewart and McKellen get a moment or two worthy of their talents. After he was the focus of the last film, Fassbender is slightly shortchanged here; but after McAvoy gave him essential support in First Class, Fassbender plays the same service here, informing Charles’ journey. Of the new additions, Evan Peters as Quicksilver (that’s the one who’ll also be played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets both laughs and the film’s stand-out action sequence, as he races around a room, literally faster than a speeding bullet, to save our heroes. Dinklage, on the other hand, is underused. As with Stewart and McKellen, the fact he’s an excellent actor brings extra layers to the little he does have to do, but if you want to see what he can really do you’ll need to get your Game of Thrones box sets back out.

For those that like their blockbusters explosive and adrenaline-pumping rather than character-driven, Days of Future Past doesn’t drop the ball. It kicks off with a mutant vs. Sentinel sequence that innovates with an X-Woman who can create portals. I’m sure this looked grand in 3D, with all that depth disappearing through the other side of the aforementioned gateways. The side effect for us 2D viewers is that Singer is a skilled filmmaker: he does the sensible thing and holds his shots longer, reigning in the fast cutting style of most modern action sequences. That’s essential in 3D, for viewers’ brains to get their bearings, but is a nice change of pace in 2D too.

Quick as a flash...Later, there’s the aforementioned ‘slow-mo’ sequence, and the grand climax, which offers more “fly something big around” antics a la First Class’ submarine, only considerably grander. Yet for all the spectacle, the final moments once again come down to character: what is Magneto prepared to do? What is Mystique prepared to do? Will anyone listen to Charles? And so on. Even the much-vaunted Marvel Studios movies tend to base their climaxes in slabs of ‘epic’ CGI crashing into each other; Days of Future Past does that for a bit, then brings the characters back into focus for the real final beats.

By all rights, Days of Future Past should be a mess. There’s too many characters, too many storylines, too many time periods, too much inconsistency in the continuity of the previous films to allow for a time travel-focused story. Actually, in the case of the latter, it’s used to straighten things out a bit: events we saw in The Last Stand are barely acknowledged and, by the end, are completely eradicated. As for the rest, well, turns out everyone involved actually knew what they were doing, in spite of the fears of some fanboys. Those who number certain characters among their favourites may feel ill-served by some cameo-level appearances, but for less wedded viewers, all the roles are well balanced.

Despite the all-franchise team-up, this is First Class 2 as much as it’s X-Men 5, and that’s only right — although it leaves the door open for more adventures featuring the future X-Men, their stories are probably all told. It’s already been confirmed that the next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, will be First Class 3, taking the younger cast into the ’80s and centred on MystiqueWoman of Future Past (Jennifer Lawrence being the third pillar of the past triumvirate, as they’ve already focused on Xavier and Magneto). While Days of Future Past does wrap up the majority of its threads (the open-ended ones are answered by previous films, if you want them to be), there’s plenty there to play with in the next film (and, perhaps, ones beyond that) if they want to… which they do.

But that’s for the future. For now, debate can rage over which is the best X-Men film. Personally, I’m just glad that we’re in a situation where there are three or four X-Men movies that are contenders for the crown of, not only the best in the series, but to be among the best comic book movies ever made. And as that’s the genre du jour, it’s an important title to hold. Whether Days of Future Past’s all-eras team-up can best X2 or First Class, I don’t know, but it stands alongside them.

5 out of 5

X-Men: Days of Future Past placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Super (2010)

2011 #71
James Gunn | 96 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

SuperIf Kick-Ass was the fantasy version of “ordinary man becomes superhero” then Super is the hard-hitting, suitably-silly, ‘real’ version. And it’s not often you get to describe a film in which God rips the roof off a house, reaches down with anime-inspired tentacles, slices open a man’s head and plants an idea in his mind — literally — as “hard-hitting” and “real”.

It stars The Office’s Rainn Wilson as odd diner cook Frank, whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a local drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Inspired by a cheap TV show starring Christian superhero the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) — and the aforementioned finger of God — Frank sets out to fight crime as costumed hero the Crimson Bolt. Researching power-less heroes at the local comic shop, Frank meets Libby (Ellen Page), whose equal weirdness leads to her helping him and becoming his sidekick.

Super seems ready-made for cult status. Not in the self-conscious way of something like Snakes on a Plane, but in the genuine way of a film that’s quirky and different. It’s a comedy, but one with brutally realistic violence and visions of demons and faces in vomit. Unlike Kick-Ass (the blatantly obvious point of comparison, not least because they were made and released around the same time), He's in your hoodwhich moves fairly swiftly into the fantasy of being a successful superhero, Super stays quite grounded. The ending allows itself to be a little more triumphantly heroic, but not far beyond the bounds of realism (unlike Kick-Ass).

It emphasises the likely real-life difficulties of being a ‘superhero’. Frank has to get out books on sewing to make his awkward patchwork costume; he goes out on patrol, only to find no crime whatsoever; when he finds out where the drug dealers are, he gets beaten up; other crime he fights include “butting in line” (or, as we’d call it on this side of the Atlantic, queue jumping) or car-keying; and half the people recognise Frank despite his mask. No mob-level gangsters played by Mark Strong here.

Realism is the overriding principle throughout, from characters to dialogue to acting to fighting to direction. Obviously Frank’s visions (the tentacles, the demons, the vomit-face) are extremely not-real, but as representations of his mental delusions thy get a pass. Gunn’s direction has a rough, ultra-low-budget feel, yet can be quite stylishly put together when it needs to be, suggesting he’s made a choice rather than isn’t capable of something slicker. It’s even more effective at making the film seem real-world than the usual Hollywood handheld-and-grainy schtick that passes for realism.

Gunn says that his film is “about the deconstruction of the superhero myth. Who is Spider-Man or Batman? We assume that they are heroic characters but, Messed-up heroesreally, they are deciding something is right and something else is wrong”. The psychology of superheroes has been a factor to one degree or another for decades now, not least the Batman films making the parallel between the hero and his villains, but the difference in Super is it’s not a parallel — it’s primarily the heroes who are messed up. The villains are criminals and quite nasty at times, but they’re mostly quite normal. They may deserve their comeuppance, but wisely — and interestingly — they’re not over-written or over-played to heighten them to the level of the psycho-hero. The Crimson Bolt is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, even more so than Batman in Begins or (of course) Kick-Ass. Those two are at least going up against the top of big organised crime; Crimson Bolt just faces a local drug dealer.

The heroes are disturbed even outside their chosen vocation: Frank has weird visions, odd catchphrases, extreme reactions to relatively trivial things; Libby is secretly ultra-violent, gets off on their costumes, etc. Gunn says the film asks if it’s “psychotic for someone to put on a mask and a cape and go out and battle what they perceive as being ‘evil’?”, but I don’t think it sets out to specifically psychoanalyse these people. Still, it makes clear how barmy you’d have to be to give the superhero thing a go yourself. That said, Gunn argues that “I don’t think [Frank] necessarily is crazy.Boltie Super is about a troubled human being and his relationship with faith, morality and what he perceives as his calling… I think that is part of why we gave him Ellen Page as a sidekick — because her character, Boltie, actually is insane. The Crimson Bolt is not doing what he does because he enjoys hurting people but Boltie is and that is the difference between the two of them. It starts to become a concern when you enjoy the violence.”

A great cast brings these factors out with ease. Wilson does deranged hero well, not overplaying the comedy side of it. Page is suitably hyper as Libby, capturing a particular facet of The Youth of Today perfectly (again). Bacon is a fantastic villain, not so much menacing or psychopathic as just… I don’t know. That’s almost why it’s so good: it’s hard to say where he’s gone with it. Also worth singling out is Michael Rooker, playing Bacon’s top henchman, Abe. It could have been quite a basic henchman part, but he makes it more with expressions and line delivery (certainly more that than the lines themselves). He’s the only one on the villain’s side who realises the Crimson Bolt might actually be a threat. You kind of want him to cone through in the end, to turn good and live; but he does his job, which is probably truer.

All-action climaxFor all its grounded reality, Super lets loose in the final fifteen minutes, creating a punch-packing sequence that’s the rival of any comic book movie. It’s emotionally-charged action, all the more powerful for its semi-amateur-ness and realistic brutality. It climaxes in a face-to-face between our hero and the villain which is as good as any you’ll find in such a film. Is it revelling in the extremity of its violence? You might argue it is, but I don’t think it’s celebrating its gore so much as the triumph of its hero. And that’s followed by a neat epilogue, which I won’t reveal details of but is a kind of ending I’ve been wanting to see for a while.

Between the comedy, the ultra-violence, the rough edges, the slick climax, the characters’ silly catchphrases, the well-worded climactic face-off, you could argue Super has an uneven tone. I would disagree, as would Gunn: “I agree that the structure and tone of this film is very atypical… I enjoy films that surprise me and which are not formulaic and take twists and turns that I do not see coming. My life doesn’t roll along to just one ‘tone’ — one day it might be a comedy and the next a tragedy”. I’ve said in the past and I’m sure I’ll say it again: I wish more po-faced dramas would realise this.

All the technical elements come together to support the film’s main thrust. There’s a great soundtrack, mixing some choice bits of score by Tyler Bates, finding the appropriate quirky tone generally but adjusting to an action vibe for the climax, with an obscure selection of songs that seem well-chosen but not too heavy-handed. As an example, it includes Good eggsa decade-old track by Sweden’s 2007 Eurovision entry (they came 18th of 24. Don’t laugh — we were joint 22nd). And, despite the low budget, there’s great special effects. The tentacles are the rival of any big-budget movie; the blood and guts are all gruesomely realistic, not filmicly censored or reduced or cheaply fake; handdrawn-style Batman “kapow”s (etc) are very effective. The title sequence, in a similar style as the latter, but with a dance routine, is also a ton of fun.

So, to the big question: is Super better than Kick-Ass? I’m not sure. Personally, I loved them both. Some people will hate both, perhaps for different reasons. Gunn acknowledges there’s a definite connection: “I understand why people keep mentioning Kick-Ass… but let me clear this up. I wrote the script to Super in 2003 and worked on it for a long time… I think that the similarities are apparent, but I still wanted to get this story out there. I think what works in our favour is that people think it looks like Kick-Ass on the outside but when they see it they realise that we are less cartoonish and maybe a little more unpredictable.”

I certainly agree that it’s to Super’s advantage that it’s quite different to a regular film; more uniquely styled than Kick-Ass’s mainstream aims. Indeed, as Gunn also says,Fight! “I think that so many movies today try to be everything to all people and I’m a little sick of it. Super is not for everyone. It is for some people.” And for the people it’s for, I think it’s exceptional. If you were to compile a list of the greatest superhero movies, I believe Super’s unique style and perspective — plus its excellent climax — would earn itself a place right near the top.

5 out of 5

Super is on Sky Movies Premiere from tonight at 12:15am, continuing all week.

Super placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

All quotes taken from an article by Calum Waddell in Judge Dredd Megazine #313.

* I first watched Super on the UK Blu-ray, where it runs 92 minutes thanks to PAL speed-up. The US BD (my second viewing) runs the correct 96. Image quality was better too, I thought, though if you’re considering a purchase do note it’s Region A locked. ^

Inception (2010)

2010 #69
Christopher Nolan | 148 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

This review ends by calling Inception a “must-see”. I’m telling you this now for two reasons. Primarily, because this review contains major spoilers, and it does seem a little daft to end a review presumably aimed at those who’ve seen the film with a recommendation that they should see it.

Secondly, because Inception — and here’s your first spoiler, sort of — also begins at the end. Now, this is normally a sticking point for me: too many films these days do it, the vast majority have no need to. I’m not convinced Inception needs to either, but it makes a better job of it than most. It does mean that, as the film approaches this moment in linear course, you know it’s coming several minutes ahead of its arrival, but for once that may be half the point.

As you undoubtedly know, Inception is about people who can get into dreams and steal ideas. Now they’re employed to get into a dream and plant an idea. This is either impossible or extremely hard, depending on which character you listen to. And that’s the setup — it’s really not as complicated as some would have you imagine. What follows is, in structural terms, a typical heist movie: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is the leader, he puts together a team of specialists, they do the heist, which has complexities and takes up the third act. Where it gets complicated is that this isn’t a casino robbery or betting scam or whatever other clichés have developed in heist movie history, Cobb and Arthurbut the aforementioned implanting of an idea; and so, the film has to explain to us how this whole business works.

The explanation of the rules and the intricacies of the plot occupy almost all of Inception’s not-inconsiderable running time. There’s little in the way of character development, there’s (according to some) little in the way of emotion. But do either of these things matter? Or, rather, why do they have to matter? Why can’t a film provide a ‘cold’ logic puzzle for us to deduce, or be shown the methodology of, if that’s what it wants to do? When I watch an emotional drama I don’t complain that there’s no complex series of mysteries for me to unravel; when I settle down to a lightweight comedy I don’t expect insight into human psychology; musical fans don’t watch everything moaning there aren’t enough songs; you don’t watch a chick flick and wonder when the shooting’s going to start. That is, unless you’re being unreasonable with you expectations.

The film centres on Cobb, it uses Ariadne (Ellen Page) as a method to investigate Cobb, and everyone else plays their role in the heist. And that’s fine. Perhaps Ken Watanabe’s SaitoBath time could do with some more depth, considering his presence in that opening flashforward and his significance to Cobb’s future, but then perhaps he’s the one who most benefits from the mystery. Some would like Michael Caine’s or Pete Postlethwaite’s characters to have more development and, bluntly, screentime; but I think their little-more-than-cameos do a lovely job of wrongfooting you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some say the same thing about Lukas Haas’ tiny role, but I don’t know who he is so he may as well be anyone to me. Cast aside, there’s not much humour — well, no one promised you a comedy. At best you could claim it should be a wise-cracking old-school actioner, but it didn’t promise that either.

To complain about these things being missing is, in my view, to prejudge the film; to look at it thinking, “this is potentially the greatest film ever because, well, I would quite like it to be. And so it must have a bit of everything I’ve ever liked in a film”. Which is patently rubbish.

The Team

Taken on its own merits, Inception presents itself as a heist movie, a big puzzle to be solved, with a team leader who has some of his own demons. Now, you can argue that his demons are revealed in chunks of exposition rather than genuine emotion, and that might be a valid criticism that I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with; and you can argue that we’re not shown enough of the planning to fully appreciate the big damn logic puzzle of the heist, instead just seeing it unfold too quickly as they rush deeper and deeper into levels of dream, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that either; and you can argue that some of the action sequences could benefit from the narrative clarity Nolan (in both writer and director hats) clearly has about which level’s which and how they impact on each other, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that either… but if you’re going to expect the film to offer something it didn’t suggest it was going to… well, tough.

And the film isn’t entirely devoid of character, it’s just light on it. All the performances are fine. DiCaprio is finally beginning to look older than 18 and better able to convince as a man who has lost his family and therefore most of what he cares about. EamesHe wants a way home, he gets a shot at it, and he goes for it. Him aside, it’s a bit hard to call on the performances after one viewing: there’s nothing wrong with any of them, it’s just that they’ve not got a great deal to do — the film is, as noted, more concerned with explaining the world and the heist. How much anyone has put into their part might only become apparent (at least to this reviewer) on repeated viewings. Probably the most memorable, however, is Tom Hardy’s Eames, which is at least in part because he gets the lion’s share of both charm and funny lines.

The plot and technicalities of the world are mostly well explained. Is it dense? Yes. Some have confused this for a lack of clarity but, aside from a few flaws I’ll raise in a minute, everything you need is there. Some, even those who liked it, have criticised it for the bits it definitely does leave out. How exactly can Saito get Cobb home? Whose subconscious are they going into now? What are the full details of the way the machinery they use works? The thing is, it doesn’t matter. None of it does. It would’ve taken Nolan ten seconds to explain some of these things, but does he need to? No. Do you really care? OK, well — Saito is best chums with the US Attorney General, so he asks nicely and Cobb’s off the hook. Sorted. It’s not in the film because it doesn’t need to be; it’s not actually relevant to the story, or the themes, or the characters, or anything else. Nighty nightApparently this distracts some people. Well, I can’t tell them it’s fine if it’s going to keep distracting them, but…

It’s fine. Because Nolan only skips over information we don’t need to know — precisely because we don’t need it. Should it matter whose mind we’re in? Maybe it should. But it would seem it doesn’t, because it’s all constructed by Ariadne and populated by the target anyway, and apparently anyone’s thoughts can interfere — they never go into Cobb’s mind, but Mal is always cropping up, not to mention that freight train — so why do we care whose brain they’re in? It seems little more than a technicality. And as for how the system works… well, we’re given hints at how it developed, and the rules and other variables are explained (for example, how mixing different chemicals affects the level of sleep and, as it turns out, whether you get to wake up), but — again — we’re told everything we need to know and no more. Because you don’t need anything else. It’s all covered. And if it’s as complicated as so many are saying, why are you begging for unnecessary detail?

And I have more issues with other reviews, actually. I think the desire for more outlandish dreams is misplaced. It’s clearly explained that the dreamer can’t be allowed to know he’s dreaming, so surely if they were in some trippy psychedelic dreamscape — which would hardly be original either, to boot — they’d probably catch on this wasn’t Reality. AriadneOn the flip side, this rule could be easily worked around — “in dreams, we just accept everything that happens as possible, even when it obviously isn’t” — but where’s the dramatic tension in that? There’s tension in them needing to be convinced it’s real; if anything goes… well, anything goes, nothing would be of consequence, the only story would be them completing a danger-free walk-in-the-park mission.

Much has also been made in reviews of the skill displayed by editor Lee Smith in cutting back & forth between the multiple dream levels, a supposedly incredibly hard job. And it is well done, make no mistake — but it also sounds harder than it is. Really, it’s little different than keeping track of characters in three or four different locations simultaneously; it’s just that these locations are levels of dream/consciousness rather than worldly space. Still no mean feat, but not as hard as keeping three different time periods/narrators distinct and clear, as Nolan & co did in The Prestige.

This isn't in the film...

Then there’s the final shot, which has initiated mass debating in some corners of the internet (yes, that dire pun is fully intentional). In my estimation, and despite some people’s claims to definitiveness, it proves nothing. Some have taken it as undoubted confirmation that Cobb is dreaming all along — the top keeps spinning! Mal said it never stops in a dream! — but I swear we saw it stop earlier in the film, so was that not a dream but now he is in one? How would that work? Others have suggested Cobb is in fact the victim of an inception; that we’ve watched a con movie where we never saw the team, and couldn’t work out who they were. Perhaps; but for this to work surely it’s dependent on a way that we can work out who they were, and what their plan was, and how they did it? Otherwise we may as well start picking on every movie and sayCobb considers the ending “ah, but characters X, Y and Z are actually a secret team doing a secret thing, but we never know what the secret thing is, or what the result of that is”. In other words, it’s pointless unless it’s decipherable.

And still further, the top doesn’t stop spinning on screen. But you can make those things spin for a damn long time before they fall over, if you do it right, so who can say it’s just not done yet? If it does fall over, eventually, sometime after the credits end, then that’s that, it’s the real world after all. Presumably. And that’s without starting on all the other evidence throughout the film: repeated phrases, unclear jumps in location, the first scene that may or may not be different the second time we see it…

Something’s going on, but is it just thematic, or is it all meant to hint that Cobb’s in a dream? And if he is, who (if anyone) is controlling it? To what end? I’m certain that those answers, at least, aren’t to be found, so, again, are the questions valid? My view — on the final shot, at least — is, perhaps too pragmatically, that it’s just a parting shot from Nolan: it doesn’t reveal the Secret Truth of the whole film, it just suggests that maybe — maybe — there’s even more going on. Maybe. And I’m not sure he even knows what that would be or if there is; Debatebeyond that the top still spinning as the credits roll is an obvious, irresistible tease. He wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to do such a thing Just Because.

Or there’s always the ‘third version’: that the top doesn’t stop not because it doesn’t stop but because the film ends. Ooh, film-school-tastic. Also, stating the bleeding obvious. I believe it was suggested as a bona fide explanation by one of Lost’s producers, and so is surely automatically classifiable in the “tosh” bin along with that TV series. Presumably it’s ‘deep thoughts’ like that which led to an ending that left many fans unsatisfied. But I digress. He’s right in the sense that the film doesn’t tell us, but it’s not an explanation of it in and of itself unless you want to be insufferably pretentious: it is ambiguous, yes, but it’s not a comment on the artificiality of storytelling or whatever. And if it is… well, I’ll choose to ignore that, thanks, because, no.

Bored now

I alluded earlier to flaws. If anything, the final act heist is too quick. With, ultimately, four layers of dreams to progress through, not enough time is devoted to establishing and utilising each one. It’s as if Nolan set up a neat idea then realised he couldn’t fully exploit it. They have a week in one world, months in the next, years in the next… but it doesn’t matter, because events come into play that give them increasingly less time at each level. Would it not have been more interesting to craft a heist that actually used the years of dreamtime at their disposal, rather than a fast-edited & scored extended Cobb and Ariadne at the climax. Oo-er.action sequence across all four levels? It makes for an exciting finale when they need to get out, true, but I couldn’t help feeling it didn’t exploit one of the more memorable and significant elements enough.

Indeed, at times the film operates with such efficiency that one can’t help but wonder if there’s another half-hour cut out that it would be quite nice to have back. I appreciate some have criticised the film for already being too long; it would seem I quite decidedly disagree. And not in the fannish “oh I just want more” way that really means they should just get hold of a copy and watch it on loop; I literally mean it could be around half an hour longer and, assuming that half-hour was filling the bits I felt could handle some filling (i.e. not the omitted bits I was fine with nine paragraphs back), I would be more than happy with that. I did not get bored once.

Still on the flaws: Mal (that’d be Cobb’s wife — I’ve been assuming you knew this, sorry if I shouldn’t have) is talked up as a great, interfering, troublesome force… Cobb and Malyet she’s rarely that much of a bother. At the start, sure, so we know that she is; and then in Cobb’s own mind when Ariadne pops in for a visit, but that’s why he’s there so it goes without saying; and then, really, it’s not ’til she puts in a brief appearance to execute Fischer that we see her again (unless I’m forgetting a moment?) And apparently Ariadne has had some great realisation that Mal’s affecting Cobb’s work, and Ariadne’s the only one who knows this… but hold on, didn’t Arthur seem all too aware of how often Mal had been cropping up? Does he promptly forget this after she shoots him? Mal is a potentially interesting villainess, especially as she’s actually a construct of Cobb’s subconscious, but I’m not convinced her part is fully developed in the middle.

On a different note, some of the visuals are truly spectacular. I don’t hold to the notion, expressed by some disappointed reviewers, that we’ve seen it all before. The Matrix may have offered broadly similar basic concepts in places, but Inception provides enough work of its own for that not to matter. But there is another problem: we have seen it all before. In the trailer. It’s a little like (oddly) Wanted. That comic book adaptation promised amazing, outrageous, impossible stunts through an array showcased in the trailer. “Wow,” thought (some) viewers, “if that’s what’s in the trailer, imagine what they’ve saved for the film!” Turned out, nothing. And Inception is pretty much the same. The exploding Parisian street, the folding city, the Zero-G corridorzero-G corridor, the crumbling cliff-faces… all look great, but there’s barely any astounding visual that wasn’t shown in full in the trailer. Is that a problem? Only fleetingly.

But it’s the kind of thing that makes me think Inception will work better on a second viewing. Not for the sake of understanding, but to remove it from the hype and expectation. I’ve seen it now, I know what it is, I’ve seen what it has to offer, I’ve had the glowing reviews and the lambasting reviews either affirmed or rejected, and next time I can actually get a handle on what the film is like. Which makes for an anti-climactic ending to a review, really — “ah, I’ll tell you next time”. Well, I can say this:

Inception is certainly worth watching. I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece — maybe it is — but I’m certain it’s not bad. I don’t think it’s as complicated to follow as some believe, but maybe that’s just because I was prepared to pay attention, and equally prepared to disregard the bits that aren’t necessary rather than struggle to fully comprehend every minute detail. It is flawed, though perhaps some of those I picked up on can be explained (in the way I’m certain some others I’ve discussed can be explained). The very first kickIs it cold and unemotional? Not entirely. Is it more concerned with the technicalities of the heist and the rules of the game than its characters and their emotions? Yes. Is that a problem? Not really.

At the very least, if only for all the reaction it’s provoked and the debate it will continue to foster, Inception qualifies as a must-see.

5 out of 5

Inception placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.

forever spinning

Juno (2007)

2010 #25
Jason Reitman | 92 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

This review contains minor spoilers.

Juno followed in the footsteps of films like Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine to be the token Little Indie That Could among 2008’s Best Picture nominees. It was also the highest-grossing film on the list, no doubt thanks to America’s abundant Christians thinking it was all about an anti-abortion message. I’m sure these conflicting facts (the indie-ness and top-grosser, not the Christian thing) say more about the Oscars’ nominating form in the past decade than they do about Juno.

Fortunately, there’s enough to Juno to allow it stand up for itself. The most discussed aspect is Diablo Cody’s screenplay, with its idiosyncratic slang-laden dialogue and accusations that every character speaks the same. The first is true, the latter is rubbish, and one has to wonder if whoever thinks it watched beyond the first ten minutes. Most of the film’s teenage characters speak similarly… in that they use the same bits of slang, have similar speech patterns, employ a similar sense of humour — you know, like groups of teenagers tend to. Their related adults speak broadly similarly, but also differently; the higher-class couple Juno chooses to adopt her baby to speak differently again — but none are pathetically “I am trying to sound different”-different like you can find in weak writing. It’s just natural. I struggle to see how anyone can honestly say that all the characters “speak the same” in a way that isn’t true to life. Perhaps Cody has generously made Juno and her fellow teens wittier and quicker than the real-life majority, but this is a scripted drama and that’s what happens to your hero characters.

Cody’s dialogue, and what the cast do with it, are the film’s standout aspects. It’s quite a wordy screenplay, so it’s good that it’s a joy to listen to. The realistic overuse of slang by some characters occasionally greats, but the plentiful laugh-out-loud beats more than make up for it. The “I wish I’d say that” quality in some of Juno’s responses to familiar situations quickly make her an identifiable, memorable and loveable character, expertly played by Ellen Page — lead roles like this and Hard Candy show she’s one to watch, and add another mark against X-Men 3 for wasting her talents on such an insignificant (in the film) part.

Every supporting part is equally pitch-perfect: J.K. Simmons’ endlessly supportive father; Allison Janney’s stepmom, granted a gift of a rant at an ultrasound operator; Jennifer Garner’s earnest, desperate wannabe-mother; Olivia Thirlby’s teacher-loving best friend. Jason Bateman redeems himself in my eyes from his not-Marc-Warren turn in State of Play, while my pre-judgement of Michael Cera (Superbad? Year One? They sound dreadful) is half erased by being good as an appropriate-but-still-niggling character (Mr MacGuff and Leah summarise it best: “I didn’t think he had it in him.” “I know, right?”)

The film’s success in America is slightly baffling, which is why I merrily attribute it to Juno considering an abortion and then turning away. There’s underage sex, swearing, numerous displays of teen independence, divorce, love of rock music and horror films… All that’s missing from a Middle American Mom’s worst nightmare is drugs (there’s no violence either, but we know them there yankees love a bit of that). The whole thing worries the boundaries of its 12 certificate, I’m sure (being a recent film, the BBFC explain/justify), not that such things affect its quality as a film.

The backlash against Cody’s screenplay had me all prepared to find Juno a samey, wannabe-cool and lacking experience, but it isn’t. It’s consistently funny, occasionally moving, and only infrequently irritating (usually when it comes across as stereotypically indie). As the comedy-indie entry in the Academy’s 2008 choices, its worthy of its predecessors, and I consider that praise indeed.

4 out of 5