Haiku Review

Ev’ry August film
reviewed in haiku form. (And
you thought drabbles short!)

I can’t even remember what gave me the idea, but the other day I started writing haiku-sized reviews of films I’d watched, and before I knew it had written one for every film from August. So, in what may or may not become a new regular feature, I’m going to share them with you. You lucky, lucky people.

Technically a haiku is more than just the 5-7-5 syllable structure most people know: it should be about nature, and (to quote Wikipedia) “the essence of haiku is ‘cutting’… often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.” Obviously these haiku have nothing to do with the first of those conditions; as to the second, well, it comes and goes. At times, I’ve tried; others, less so. Hopefully none are just 17-syllable sentences split in three. Nonetheless, I don’t promise poetic quality with these.


Contagion
Gwyneth Paltrow eats,
whole world at risk of grim death.
Scares ’cause it could be.

End of Watch
Cops film selves, sort of.
Inconsistent P.O.V.
undermines reel-ism.

Inherent Vice [review]
Pynchon’s comedy
filmed by P.T. Anderson.
Laughs for weed users.

Interstellar [review]
Two-Thousand-And-One,
A Space-Time Anomaly.
Mainly, spectacle.

Justice League: The New Frontier
Uncommon premise
raises expectations, but
promise is squandered.

Life of Pi [review]
Tiger on a boat:
CG extravaganza!
Better than the truth.

Monsters: Dark Continent [review]
Genre transplanted,
but soldiers pose same quand’ry:
aren’t we the monsters?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
This: way the world ends —
not with a bang or whimper,
but a love story.

Shallow Grave
Danny Boyle’s debut.
Cold cash leads friends to distrust
and dismemberment.

Sherlock Holmes (1922) [review]
Moriarty v.
Barrymore. Gillette-derived
slight Sherlock silent.

Shivers
Amateur work by:
biologist, kills neighbours;
Cronenberg, upsets.

Space Station 76 [review]
Groovy future fun,
undercut by theme of frac-
tured relationships.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Epic history,
too personalised for some.
Piqued insight abounds.

Stranger by the Lake
French gays have the sex
with a killer in their midst.
A slow-burn beauty.

The Theory of Everything [review]
Eddie Redmayne won
awards, but the film’s heart is
Felicity Jones.

The Thing (2011) [review]
Under prequel’s guise,
computers doodle a mere
Carpenter rehash.

The Haiku Review may return next month. We’ll see how things go.

The Millennial Monthly Update for August 2015

After last month was all centennial, because I reached 2015’s #100, this month is millennial, because I made it to 1,000 Films in a Decade Eight Years and Eight Months.

More on that soon, as well as all this:


Shallow Grave#103 Space Station 76 (2014)
#104 The Thing (2011)
#105 Shallow Grave (1994)
#106 Sherlock Holmes (1922), aka Moriarty
#107 Life of Pi (2012)
#108 Contagion (2011)
#109 Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
#110 Interstellar (2014)
#111 End of Watch (2012)
Stranger by the Lake#112 The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)
#113 Inherent Vice (2014)
#114 The Theory of Everything (2014)
#115 Monsters: Dark Continent (2014)
#116 Shivers (1975)
#117 Stranger by the Lake (2013), aka L’inconnu du lac
#118 Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)


  • As you may have noticed, this month I reached my 1,000th film. More about that here.
  • Before that, there was a countdown — with pictures! Thrilling stuff. It’s archived here.
  • As #1000 was 15-hour documentary The Story of Film, it took over a few extra slots in my schedule. If I’d been watching regular-length films instead, August’s tally would be four or five films larger.
  • No WDYMYHS films this month — just The Story of Film adding more ideas for future iterations!


In October 2014 I commented that, at best, “one of 2015’s last films will be #1000”. Hahahaha, how times have changed! “One of 2015’s last films”? Oh no, dear sir (“dear sir” in this instance being “me 11 months ago”) — there are still four months of 2015 to go!

In fairness to past-me, the three previous occasions on which I’d reached a #112 (2007, 2010, 2014) were all in November. It just continues 2015’s extraordinary run, though: this month, it passed 2013 to become my fourth most successful year, even with four months still to go. #118 is further than I’ve ever reached by the end of October, never mind August.

As for this August in itself, a tally of 16 makes it the 15th month in a row to reach double figures. It easily passes the August average (previously 10.57, now 11.25) and is just above 2015’s rolling average (currently at 14.75). It’s the third month this year to reach 16, and the fifth ever, which makes it part of a five-way tie for my third highest-tallying month ever. It’s also the 10th month in a row to best the same period a year ago, when August 2014 totalled 15. That may be the end of that though: September will have to be my second highest-totalling month ever to beat its 2014 counterpart. Of course, if I can keep up my current pace — and without a schedule-hogging behemoth like The Story of Film to stand in the way — that’s not an impossible expectation.

Last August, I pointed out how inaccurate August was for predicting the final tally… but then used those inaccurate predictions to spot a new pattern and offer a revised prediction. Which, naturally, I completely obliterated: having predicted a final total of 115-120, I reached 136. Nonetheless, there’s no fun in offering no predictions — and I’ve been remarkably consistent with my viewing this year, actually — so here we go regardless.

To be honest, whatever I forecast is good news. Four more months of my ten-film-minimum goal has 2015 becoming my best-ever year before the end of October, and a final tally of at least 158. If my rolling average of 14.75 holds I’ll make it even further, to #177, and if I can continue my year-on-year monthly increase (with, as mentioned, September being the greatest challenge) then I’ll pass #178. I’ve been forecasting a finish in the 170s ever since February, so, to be honest, I’ll be a bit disappointed if I don’t make that. And all of these numbers are slight increases on their counterparts from last month, so perhaps #180+ isn’t out of the question…



The 3rd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
It’s a toughie this month — lots of films I really enjoyed, including five I gave full marks to. Five! (If you were going to look to see which, know that I haven’t posted reviews for four of them yet.) But the one that most surprised me, and created the strongest emotional connection to boot, was Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Conversely, not many poor films this month. That said, there were a couple I found to be below par, but none felt like they squandered their potential quite as much as Justice League: The New Frontier.

Space-Set CGI That Looked Most Like Models (Pleasingly)
Space Station 76.

Space-Set Models That Looked Most Like Reality (Pleasingly)
Interstellar.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
It always helps give hits a boost if someone else promotes a post. In August, thanks to a tweet by the film’s producers, the most-viewed post was Space Station 76.


Ben-Hur (1925) A Silent Film Review @ Movies Silently
For her 200th silent film review, Fritzi has penned a “mammoth” about the first feature-length adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel, including a comparison to the more-famed 1959 adaptation. “Mammoth” is the word: by my quick count it clocks in at over 12,000 words! I confess I haven’t even read all of it yet, but I think we can trust it to be worth every syllable.

The highest ranked feature length narrative film on Letterboxd for each year 2014-1920
An interesting way of looking at film history, shared by Letterboxd’s own Twitter courtesy of someone on Reddit who since deleted their name. The gallery can still be viewed here, though.

The Last Unicorn (1982) Review @ Cinema Parrot Disco
This month’s lesson is “don’t judge a film by its cover”, because The Last Unicorn looks like some dated, cheesy, little-girl-y crap, but table9mutant’s review makes it sound awesome, and there are lots of other pretty pictures to cement the point.

My Top 7 James Bond Opening Title Sequences @ Film Grimoire
Who doesn’t love a Bond title sequence? Here, Anna explains her top seven picks (in honour of 007, of course), and while I can’t say I agree with all of them (Quantum of Solace? No thanks) it’s still a good read.

My Top Ten Drew Struzan Movie Art Pieces @ Cinema Parrot Disco
What movie fan doesn’t love the work of Drew Struzan (even if you don’t know his name), the renowned poster artist who created enduring imagery for a host of ’80s and ’90s films, and whose style tends to influence at least one poster for every major movie still, even as they’ve moved on to nought but photo montage. Here, table9mutant takes on the tough job of selecting favourites from Struzan’s extensive oeuvre.

Peculiar opening credit text @ Dial M For Movies
Rhett Bartlett mounts a collection of opening-credit oddities, things “the film maker feels they must tell the audience” right at the start. My personal favourite is the first, from The Old Dark House: “We explain this to settle all disputes in advance…”

The Serpent and the Rainbow @ Vinnieh
The sad news of the death of horror auteur Wes Craven reached us yesterday, but this is an incidental tribute. A carry-over from last month, this write-up by Vinnie meant Craven’s true story-inspired tale of voodoo in Haiti really piqued my interest. It seems it was recently released on a poor UK Blu-ray, though a Shout Factory release is expected in the US early in 2016, which will no doubt be excellent.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) A Silent Film Review @ Movies Silently
The Wallace & Gromit spin-off’s spin-off movie opened to much acclaim here way back in February, but finally made it across the pond at the start of August. Here, Fritzi offers her typically irreverent take on why it really is a true silent movie. No, really.

Straight Outta Compton (2015) [Review] @ movieblort
It’s not an area of music I know much (read: anything) about, nor especially care for, but movieblort has me sold on why this biopic about the rise and fall of hip-hop group N.W.A. will be worth a look.

The Western Godfather @ True West
Bending the “articles from the past month” rule, but this interview — of Kurt Russell by Henry Cabot Beck — was too interesting not to share. In it, Russell reveals for the first time some of the truth behind the filming of Tombstone. The piece is nearly nine years old now, so I’m sure aficionados are well aware of its contents; but if you’ve not come across it before, it’s rather fascinating.



This is the last archive review summary. My dedicated effort to re-post all my old reviews began in July 2014, and 14 months later they’re finished. (After the reviews: what comes after the reviews.)


With all the reviews up, it’s now on to the rest of my unposted posts. More details in the first. (The one with the mop.)



Films I Hadn’t Heard of Before Watching The Story of Film
But Now Really Want to See

Mark Cousins’ documentary features somewhere north of 500 films. Kudos to anyone who’s seen all of them (especially if it was before the documentary came along and automatically became a checklist for some people). For us mere mortals, however, it’s a mix of ones we’ve seen, ones we want to see, ones we’re merely aware of, and a whole load of stuff we’ve never even heard of. The series also has a propensity to make you really want to see the films it features — not just ones you already knew you wanted to get round to it, but out-of-the-blue discoveries. So in tribute to the latter, I present this month’s highly personal (when isn’t it?) top five.

  1. Napoleon (1927)
    A cheat, because I have heard of Abel Gance’s 5½-hour biopic about the diminutive French general, but I’ve kind of ignored it because it’s hard for normal folk to see: Kevin Brownlow’s acclaimed restoration has never been released on any home format, only screening at festivals and the like (with two intermissions — one for dinner!), apparently due to some dubious copyright claim by Francis Ford Coppola. Shame.
  2. Cairo Station (1958)
    Cousins has a tendency to label films “the first great [insert name of place] film”, and I believe this was his pick for Africa; certainly for Egypt. Patrick Heenan in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers may seem to disagree, but he does concur that it has “visual brilliance”.
  3. Black Girl (1966)
    Another thing Cousins has a tendency to do is give away the ending of films he covers. I suppose the only way to examine a work’s full meaning or worth is to discuss it in its entirety, and any truly great film is going to withstand having its plot revealed. Indeed, it may only have been Cousins’ full explanation of Black Girl that made it so intriguing.
  4. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)
    And the same could be said of this Japanese documentary, which follows a former soldier as he attempts to find out the truth about what happened to some of his comrades during World War 2, and unearths some very, very dark secrets. Sounds to me like a film about a kind of paranoia being vindicated.
  5. Hyenas (1992)
    Three of these films are from Africa, which possibly says as much about Western awareness of African cinema as it does about the inherent quality of that continent’s output. This Senegalese comedy-drama explores consumerism in a way that apparently “brings human folly and cynicism into sharp focus”.

…and there are so many, many more. Whatever you think of the documentary as a whole (and opinions are certainly mixed), as a showcase for great cinema it may be unparalleled.


After three months where the new-style titles of these progress reports actually signified something, the parade of meaningless monthly update adjectives begins…

And I’ll probably watch some films and write about them, too.

Interstellar (2014)

2015 #110
Christopher Nolan | 169 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Nine months on from its theatrical debut, I’ve managed to remain remarkably spoiler-free about Interstellar, the ninth feature from director Christopher Nolan. “Matthew McConaughey lives on a farm and somehow ends up in space with Anne Hathaway,” is about all I knew going in. That and the somewhat divisive critical reception it had received, leaving what many had assumed could be an Oscar favourite with a disappointing tally of nominations (and its studio to have backed the wrong horse, resulting in Selma’s even poorer showing — but that’s a story for another day). I don’t consider myself a so-called ‘Nolanite’, but I have enjoyed most of his pictures (I didn’t love Inception as much as many, but still placed it third on my top ten that year), and found Interstellar to be no exception.

The story (beyond “the McConaissance spreads into space”) sees a near-future Earth where most of the crops have died and mankind is struggling to survive. The US government even pretends the space race was a hoax, in order to put future generations off attempting such innovations. Former test pilot Cooper (McConaughey) holds little truck with such BS, trying to raise his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (a memorable Mackenzie Foy), to be a mite more intelligent. During one of the many dust storms that engulf their community, strange pockets of gravity in Murph’s bedroom point Cooper to somewhere secret where some people he used to know are doing something secret that, ultimately, sends Coop into space on a mission from which he may never return. Murph is not best pleased.

More plot happens. Interstellar is the kind of film where you could get an awful long way through the story just trying to explain the setup. That’s a certain style of storytelling, and in its own way a positive one — a plot that is constantly moving and updating, rather than one that presents a basic setup, runs on the spot with it for a while, then wraps it up. The latter is how most narratives unfold, which is why reviews can so often summarise said setup and that’s fine. Nonetheless, Interstellar’s first act goes on too long, and could do with a good trim. (For an alternative view on why the first act is in some respects the best part of the film and needed more development, read ghostof82’s review. I don’t disagree, but I do think to give that area more focus would’ve necessitated a wholly different movie.) It’s important to set up Coop’s home life on Earth, as well as the near-future world from which the story springs, but all this could be achieved much more economically than it is here. This is a movie, not a miniseries: sometimes it pays to get a wriggle on. The whole film could’ve done with such a tighten, in fact, not just the sometimes-aimless first act and the flat-out overlong finale.

Flipside: maybe this is a “first viewing” problem. How many great films are there where, on the second or third or fourth viewing, you just wish it was a bit longer, had a bit more for you to see? Last time I re-watched The Lord of the Rings I was amazed how quickly they flew by, and that was in their extended form too. Yes, I’m now one of those people who thinks 12 hours of people walking across New Zealand countryside isn’t nearly enough. But I digress. I don’t know if Interstellar is one of those films that would end up with you wishing there was more of it, but if it is, well, there’s already some there.

Based on a skim through online reaction, some viewers would indeed love even more, while others would despise it. One thing I find interesting about this apparently diverse reaction is that you can find an abundance of negative/semi-negative comments and reviews by people who write such things, but nonetheless the average user scores on the likes of IMDb and Letterboxd remain high. Maybe it goes down better with (for want of a better generalisation) the wider audience than film critic/blogger types?

For many (though not all), criticism/acceptance seems to hinge on the aforementioned final act. Without getting into spoilers, then, “it’s too far-fetched” is one criticism I’ve seen. Of a science fiction movie. I guess it depends what you’re expecting. The rest of the film is grounded in realistic or plausible science, so when it really pushes at the boundaries of the unknown at the end, some people struggle to accept that. But the vast majority of what we see isn’t yet possible — it’s all made-up science fiction (albeit based on real theories and, in some cases, expanded from existing technology) — so what’s wrong with a third act that does the same but in a more extreme fashion? Because it is, at least in part, inspired by some genuine theories. (So much work went into the science that it merited a 50-minute documentary on the Blu-ray. Which I haven’t watched, so I suppose it might say it’s all poppycock. Considering the film has inspired at least two genuine academic papers, though, I’m inclined to say not.) I think it’s very much a case of “your mileage may vary”. For all the people who think it goes too far but only at the end, I’m sure there are just as many viewers who thought the ending was exactly as daft and/or reasonable as the rest of the film, depending on their tolerance level for sci-fi.

From a filmmaking perspective, there is surely nothing to fault. The visuals are incredible. As you’d expect, the IMAX footage looks absolutely stunning. Every time the Blu-ray reverted back to 2.40:1 I was a little disappointed. A sneaky part of me thinks Warner deliberately make these sequences look less good to ramp up the quality of the IMAX footage (I felt the same about The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray), but maybe I’m just being paranoid. The effects work is also sublime, once again demonstrating the awesomeness of modelwork for spacecraft and the like. The CGI vistas and space phenomena are nothing to be sniffed at either, mind. There’s also a particularly interesting featurette about how they created zero-G. Impressively, even in behind-the-scenes footage, where you can see the wires, it still sometimes looks like the cast are genuinely floating. (On another technical point, more than a few reviews complain of the sound design, specifically the music being too loud. Either the film has been remixed for home release or it just isn’t a problem on a home-sized surround sound system, because I had no such issues.)

A semi-regular criticism of Nolan’s work is the lack of focus on characters or emotion, often sidelined for an epic scope or tricksy narrative. Interstellar certainly has a… debatable climax, and it definitely has an epic scope too, but it’s also one of the most character-driven and emotional films on Nolan’s CV. In particular, there are strong performances from McConaughey and Jessica Chastain (as an older Murph); Anne Hathaway is largely understated, but slivers of emotion seep through when appropriate; and Michael Caine actually gets to do a bit of Acting in a Nolan film for a change, rather than just turning up as a wise old dispenser of exposition — though don’t worry, he does that too. One of the stand-outs for me was David Gyasi, getting a role that was subtly stronger and more thought-provoking than several of his more famous colleagues, and executing it with aplomb too. Similarly, the voices of semi-sentient robots TARS and CASE — Bill Irwin and Josh “he’ll always be ‘that guy from Dirt’ to me” Stewart, respectively — are highly entertaining. Apparently they were inspired by Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is another mark in their favour, though thankfully they’re not just a rip-off used for comic relief.

Interstellar is a “big” movie — it’s full of big ideas, a big scope, big emotions, big stakes (the entire future survival of mankind!) Some people love that kind of scale; others hate it. Whichever camp you’re in, a bad or good movie (respectively) can sway you away. It’s tough to say which of those Interstellar is with any degree of objectivity, because so many people have had so many different reactions, from outright love to outright disgust. I’d say it’s certainly not perfect: it’s too long, and the qualities of the ending are debatable for all kinds of reasons — not least that any sense of it being a twist (which is how it’s structured) is negated by it being eminently guessable 2½ hours before it’s very, very slowly explained to us.

For all that, though, I loved it a little bit. It’s a spectacle, but a thoughtful one. Even if it doesn’t develop those thoughts as fully or comprehensively as it could, and arguably should, it really tries. If a few more big-budget spectacle-driven movies could manage even that these days, we’d all be better off for it.

5 out of 5

Interstellar debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:15pm and 8pm.

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