Tuesday, August 3, 2010

July 2010

In Christopher Nolan’s latest cerebral action picture, the characters never stop explaining the numerous metaphysical miracles the film presents. Whether they are in a dream, constructing a future dream or planning a dream caper, the talk is all about the process. Unlike most sci-fi thrillers, where the setup is established and then the characters experience the adventure, this film is all about making the audience buy into the setup---if and when and why they’re in a dream and whose dream it is and why the dream must end soon and how they’re going to escape the dream. I didn’t mind being confused, but all the talking about it drove me nuts.

By the final act, or should I say dream, set in a Bond film-like snow-bound complex, I was so worn down by all the dialogue required to make a semblance of sense out of this plot that I slipped into a dream myself. Seriously. I’m not making this up. I nodded off for just a few seconds and then awoke remembering being in a Las Vegas casino. The “Inception” characters are not that lucky.

These dreams turn out to be way too much like a typical Hollywood action film. In fact, these really aren’t dreams in the way we’ve been trained to experience them in movies (see Hitchcock, Bergman, David Lynch for more realistic cinematic dreaming), where strange characters say strange things and logic rarely makes an appearance. In this film, the word “dream” is used as an excuse to play around with the laws of gravity and relativity.

An especially intense and anguished Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, an extractor who specializes in slipping into other’s dreams and stealing secrets from their subconscious. Taking on “one last job”---as all sincere cinematic criminals must do---with a promise that he’ll be reunited with his young children in the U.S., Cobb agrees to plant the idea in the mind of the heir to an energy conglomerate (Cillian Murphy) that he should break up the firm, a move that will benefit his competitor (Ken Watanabe). Immediately, for better or worse, the film puts the viewer in the position of rooting for the success of an operation designed to enrich a greedy corporation.

Cobb and his scientific team lay out a complex plot that includes deceptive play acting at three levels of dreaming, all taking place simultaneously while they and the target take a private jet on an intercontinental flight.

I never quite understood, despite lengthy explanations by Cobb and trusted sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), how the three different dream states were connected or who was picking the environment for these alternative realities. It also turns out that these dream weavers are equally skilled at handling weapons. Apparently, in this world of dream invaders, there are also dream security teams. The lesson to be learned is that you should never go to sleep without your team in place and a pistol in your belt.

To appreciate this film, I’d advise forgetting about trying to make sense of it and just enjoy the ride, letting the entire experience wash over you. Not that I could do that. Even putting the pesky details aside, you’re still stuck with the unending discussions of what the characters can and cannot do while in a dream. And, unlike most dream experiences, not a single long-forgotten high school classmate shows up.

The most promising plotline of the film involves Cobb’s late wife (played by the always interesting Marion Cotillard), who keeps popping up in the most inopportune times in these dreams. The movie is most alive when Cobb and his wife are engaging one another, a love-hate relationship that brings out the best in the actors. Their once and current relationship keeps “Inception” from being “Mission: Impossible, Part IV.”

Ellen Page, a 2007 Oscar nominee for “Juno,” as the dream architect with a very free-flowing imagination and Gordon-Levitt, best known for last year’s “(500) Days of Summer,” have the cool, unflappable attitudes down pat but never get a chance to evolve into individuals. The two rival businessmen turn out to be the most interesting characters in the picture, slyly played by Watanabe, who earned an Oscar nomination for “The Last Samurai” (2003), and Murphy, who was a bad guy in Nolan’s “Batman Begins” (2005).

Much like his Teddy Daniels in “Shelter Island,” DiCaprio’s Cobb is a hopeless, drifting soul whose life has lost its meaning after the death of his wife. Also in both films, the characters must emerge from dream-like states to gain any semblance of a normal life. DiCaprio seems to be trying too hard in both pictures, never coming down to earth as he did so well in “Blood Diamond” and “The Departed.”

Writer-director Nolan, who became Warner Bros. favorite son after megahits “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” (2008), creates some mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind visual in “Inception,” most of which can be seen in the trailer. Yet he never made me care enough about his dream world that I wanted to figure it out. When the good guys and the bad guys are indistinguishable, it’s hard to work up much emotional investment in the story. And when the rules of the game are impossible to follow, who wins or loses hardly seems to matter.

There’s been a ton of World War II resistance movies in the past decade, but not many feature a story as compelling or well told as the one in this Danish picture. Based on the experiences of a pair of real heroes, the film chronicles the efforts of a young hotshot assassin nicknamed Flame and his equally impassioned partner, a crumpled, unassuming Citron to disrupt the Nazi occupation of Denmark.

Thure Lindhardt as Flame and Mads Mikkelsen (the bad guy in “Casino Royale”) as Citron draw you into this story immediate as they seek out Danish collaborators and the occasional German. Ironically, the head of their resistance cell, the imperious Winther (Perer Mygind) keeps telling them to not kill Nazis, especially Hoffmann, the region’s Gestapo chief superbly portrayed by Christian Berkel (he played the barkeep in the brilliant tavern scene in “Inglorious Basterds”). But the moral clarity becomes much grayer as who and why they are killing changes and Flame starts getting conflicting information from a mysterious older woman (Stine Stengade) he takes up with.

Director Ole Christian Madsen, who co-wrote the film with Lars Andersen, never lets the action or the intrigue flag and constantly slips in foreshadowing clues as to the shifting moral dilemmas and confusing loyalties these passionate fighters face. Turns out, the politics of the resistance can be just as misguided and ambivalent as those of the enemy. In that way, and the manner in which he uses its locale (Copenhagen), it reminded me of “The Third Man” and how inseparable that film is from Vienna.

But even if you’re not into WWII actioners, the portrait of these two brave men, who sacrifice their personal lives and any hope of escaping, to make the Nazi occupation as unpleasant as possible for the Germans and their collaborators, is not to be missed. These complex, strong-willed nationalists are memorably brought to life by great performances by Lindhardt and Mikkelsen. “Flame & Citron” takes an old genre and breathes new life into it, bringing to the screen two of the most interesting resistance fighters of the war.

TOY STORY 3 (2010)
I’ve been thoroughly disappointed by so many acclaimed, highly recommended (friends with children clearly can’t be trusted) animated pictures in the past 10 years that I held out little hope for the latest Pixar “masterpiece.” My thinking was: Shouldn’t part threes of animated features go directly to DVD? Beyond appreciating the clever characters of the original, I hadn’t though much of the first two “Toy Story” films.

Yet right from the opening sequence, there was something different about Part 3. In a flashback fantasy, the imagination of a young Andy is working at full tilt, as he utilizes all his toys to provide a wondrous remembrance of childhood playtime. (Not to mention an appearance by the fondly remembered Troll dolls from the 1960s).

But those happy days for Andy’s classic toy collection are long in the past. Now, as he prepares for college, the toys sit idle in a toy chest soon to be abandoned. On the way to the attic, the garbage bag filled with the toys (save for Andy’s favorite, Woody) nearly lands in the garbage and ends up as donations to the Sunnyside Daycare Center.

The family of toys, led by spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), are welcomed into the daycare center by a deceptively comforting teddy bear (Ned Beatty) and a naïve, upbeat Ken doll (Michael Keaton), who immediately has eyes for Barbie (Jodi Benson). Who would have guessed? The back-and-forth flirtation between Ken and Barbie offers more out-loud laughs than 90% of contemporary Hollywood comedies.

The film shifts into high gear when the toys are stuck in the infants’ room and find themselves not so much played with, but abused in ever-expanding creative ways. When they complain to the boss bear, it turns out he’s more Mafia don than lovable scout leader. Just in the nick of time, Woody (Tom Hanks) shows up to help them escape the Sunnyside “prison.”

The film’s team of screenwriters is impressive---John Lasseter, director and co-writer of the first two “Toy Story” pictures; Andrew Stanton, co-writer of the first two; Lee Unkrich, who also directed, and Michael Arndt, an Oscar winner for “Little Miss Sunshine”----and their efforts top anything any of them has produced in the past. The script reminded me of the classic screwballs from the 1930s or ‘40s, so filled with funny one-liners and hilarious physical comic bits (Mrs. Potato Head’s missing eye, a giant baby doll, the Spanish mode of Buzz) that details of the plot are completely secondary. While Buzz and Woody remain the stars, the writers use every toy in the box and get laughs with all of them. Wallace Shawn’s Rex the dinosaur, John Ratzenberger’s Hamm the piggybank and, of course, Don Rickles’ Mr. Potato Head each have priceless moments and bring a world-weary cynicism to this fast-paced cartoon.

I wouldn’t categorize “Toy Story 3” as a dark film, but it’s not quite the usual buoyant amusement one expects from Pixar/Disney, which, for me, made all the difference. How could I resist a film featuring a despondent, traumatized clown toy, a pretentious hedgehog thespian and an all-seeing, evil clapping monkey?

I finally got around to experiencing this dark, over-amped David Fincher film and I’m perplexed. Not so much by the controversial film itself, which amounts to sophomoric pop psychology mixed with a Robert Bly lecture, but at its cult following among young men. I assume they are enamored of Brad Pitt’s macho, impossibly persuasive anarchist Tyler, but are they buying into the movie’s view that American males have become spineless sheep or its unrelenting assault on American consumerism and our work ethic? Or did they even notice.

“Fight Club” is a grungy, muddy looking picture, appropriately released near the eve of the new millennium, in which society is presented as a series of support groups filled with somnolent souls in bad need of receiving a right hook to the face. The film does offer some irony, as these men seeking to invigorate their mundane lives end up becoming robotic followers in Tyler’s army of malcontents.

I can’t imagine that there are many of you who have yet to see “Fight Club,” but still plan to at some future date. For those who still have it at No. 134 on their Netflix queue, I offer a warning that important plot turns will be revealed in the following paragraphs.

The set-up is promising as the nameless narrator (Edward Norton) becomes addicted to attending support groups, mostly for those who are ill or have lost loved ones, and meets the like-minded Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). Though they are clearly meant for one another---she’s a cynical bohemian seemingly living hand to mouth, he’s an insurance adjuster who is obsessed with accessorizing his condo---Norton’s character sees her as an intruder and attempts to chase for out of “his” groups. Then, returning from a business trip, he meets Tyler. Under mysterious circumstances, he crashes at Tyler’s dilapidated, off-the-grid house and together they create fight club, a secretive bare-knuckles amateur boxing group in which the goal is to get the crap beat out of you on a weekly basis.

As the spiritual leader of this group (and other groups that spring up all over the country), Tyler starts pushing members to engage in various dirty tricks in their jobs, a vision that quickly escalates into creating mayhem and violence. When Norton’s narrator begins to question the growing criminality and danger of the group, Tyler disappears.

This feverish nightmare keeps descending down the rabbit hole until it hits pay dirt: Tyler doesn’t exist; he’s but an alternate personality of Norton’s character, capable of realizing and saying everything the less aggressive part of him can only imagine. After this was revealed I went back and fast-forwarded through the previous two hours and, overall, the film holds together even knowing that Pitt’s Tyler is a figment of an imagination. Of course, it doesn’t explain how he has pulled off all these extraordinary, technically intricate scenarios (sophisticated explosives come into play) or how much of what we see him doing is just part of his imagination. Rarely has a director and screenwriter (Jim Uhles working from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) asked viewers to take such a ridiculous leap.

I disliked this film as much as I admired and enjoyed Fincher’s “Seven” (1995) and “Zodiac” (2007), both among the best film’s of their years. In many ways it reminded me of the director’s most recent and celebrated film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) in that he stuffed so much into the picture that there’s no room for the characters or the story itself to breathe. Pitt, Norton and Bonham Carter are sufficiently believable, but they aren’t real characters anyway, just symbols for all of us who have been crushed by a materialistic, self-centered society.

Maybe the only real human in “Fight Club” is the sad, desperate Bob (played by, of all people, the pop singer Meatloaf), who is Tyler’s most obvious victim in this misguided therapeutic session.

There’s a great movie to be made about the legendary offshore British radio station “Radio Caroline,” which challenged the dominance of BBC radio during the mid-1960s, but this isn’t it.

Writer-director Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Love Actually”) does a nice job of capturing the rebellious enthusiasm and uncompromising devotion to the music that fueled this illegal endeavor and inspired its listening audience. But the by-the-numbers battle with the British government (personified---actually caricatured---by Kenneth Branagh’s vindictive Sir Alistair Dormandy) and the soap opera entanglements of the boat-bound disc jockeys, the two main threads of the plot, are cliché throwaways, undermining the energy of the period music.

What entertainment “Pirate Radio” provides comes from the scenes of the DJs doing their shows, recalling those great early days of rock ‘n’ roll radio when the DJ’s musical taste, political commentary and ability to turn a phrase was just as important as the latest single from the Beatles, the Who or the Doors.

A slumming Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Count, a hot-shot American jock who is the unofficial leader of this ragtag group, and Rhys Ifans, who played the witless roommate in Curtis’ “Notting Hill,” as the mysterious, pretentious Gavin, keep this boat afloat while the central tale of Carl (Tom Sturridge), the godson of the station manager unflappable manager (Bill Nighy), sputters. Too much time is wasted on Carl’s coming-of-age search for a girlfriend and a father figure, but the script doesn’t have much else to offer in terms of plot.

Sad to say, but “Pirate Radio” most closely resembles a very long episode of “The Monkees.” Luckily it does have all that glorious music---over 50 cuts from the best of ‘60s rock (except for the Beatles, a catalog nearly impossible to license)---which probably saved it from going straight to DVD..

Another era’s music fuels this very familiar tale of disillusioned youths seeking salvation through rock ‘n’ roll fame. This pioneering all-girl punk band, thrown together by Los Angeles record producer Kim Fowley, launched the careers of rockers Joan Jett and Lita Ford and wannabe model/actress Cherie Currie before disbanding just three years after signing a record deal.

Michael Shannon, a 2008 Oscar nominee for “Revolutionary Road,” dominates the first half of the film as the profane, unpleasantly arrogant Fowley, who recognizes that pop music’s future is marketing not talent. He hooks up guitarist Jett (a brooding Kristen Stewart) and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and then assembles a band around them that eventually evolves into the Runaways. Fowley’s most calculated move is to “cast” troubled teen Currie (veteran child actress Dakota Fanning, now 16) as the group’s lead singer simply because he likes her look.

Fowley bullies her into a semblance of a punk shouter but also creates a self-indulgent drug addict who can’t handle her or the band’s overnight success.
The picture, based on Currie’s memoirs, never properly communicates how hugely popular the Runaways were in the late ‘70s. With hits “Cherry Bomb” and “Queens of Noise,” and selling overt sexuality on stage, the band headlined U.S. and world tours. If I didn’t know better, from watching the film, I’d have thought they were but a minor success. The film certainly doesn’t show anyone getting rich.

Instead writer-director Flora Sigismondi, whose background is in music videos, offers repetitive rehearsal scenes and rather tepid band behavior on the road, during which the soft-spoken Fanny struggles to make Currie’s downfall convincing. It’s also jolting when the soundtrack switches from the actresses performing the music in rehearsal to the actual recordings used during the film’s recreation of their live performances. That’s why most films about performers keep rehearsal scenes to a minimum.

I was impressed with Stewart, star of the “Twilight” franchise, who I had never seen act before. Her Jett, even as she becomes a rock celebrity, never loses that look of a damaged little girl. It’s a surprisingly low-keyed performance in the middle of a loud, disjointed movie. Also offering an interesting performance in a small role is former child star Tatum O’Neal, as Currie’s hopelessly irresponsible mother.

In real life, Jett went on to front another band, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who’s first hit, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” spent seven weeks at No. 1 during 1982. Currie’s solo singing career sputtered and she didn’t do much better as an actress, playing one of the wild girls in “Foxes” (1980) and then taking a handful of smaller roles in films and TV into the early ‘90s. Ford, played in the film by Scout Taylor-Compton, doesn’t have much to do in the movie, but after the band broke up she had a successful solo career as one of the few female heavy metal rockers, and, 30 years later, still tours.

On paper, showbiz stories always seem as if they could make compelling drama, but, like Westerns, it is crucial the filmmakers find what makes their latest version special. The clichés are essential to the genre’s appeal----humble beginnings, demanding manager, sudden fame, jealousy, drugs, booze and sex----but the successful ones (recently, “Walk the Line,” “Ray,” “Cadillac Records”) find something new in the emotions and motivations behind the performer’s success. “The Runaways” has none of that and remains mired in mediocrity, not even a one-hit wonder.

I AM LOVE (2010)
This operatic, occasionally bombastic picture portrays the mostly ordinary comings and going of a wealthy Italian family living in grand style in Milan.
The film opens impressively with an elaborately dinner party to celebrate the birthday of the family’s patriarch. This set-piece seems to go on forever as director Luca Guadagnino details every aspects of the evening---from the preparation of the food to the old man’s announcement that he’s handing over control of the family textile company to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbonno) and grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti).

Despite some offhanded displays of emotion, the Recchis seem more like a corporation than a family. Echoing that feeling is Tancredi’s Russian-born wife and perfect hostess Emma (Tilda Swinton), whose icy, careful demeanor hides her concerns for her children and the family status. Yet she’s clearly bored with her life, struggling to stay focused doing the endless series of dinner parties, lunches and shopping trips. A thread of a plot begins to develop when she shows an unexpected interest in the young chef who is planning to open a restaurant with her son.

This very calculated film goes from remote to passionate very quickly but I never could work up much emotional connection to these characters.
Swinton, who won an Oscar for her role as the ruthless business executive in “Michael Clayton” (2007), is impression in this Italian film, mastering both the language (at least well enough for someone who is a Russian transplant) and this introspective, complex character. If it wasn’t her fascinating portrayal of a woman in full midlife crisis, this would have been an extraordinary tedious film. Most of the other characters are just well-tailored suits.

An exception is the still-striking Marisa Berenson, best known as the female lead in “Barry Lyndon” (1975), who plays Emma’s elegant mother-in-law. I actually would have been more intrigued by her story rather than the one Guadagnino and his collection of screenwriters decided to tell.

The director clearly saw this tale as something sprawling and important (you can see the influence of “The Godfather” films in more than one scene) and the heavy-handed score by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams (his best-known operas are “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic”) just adds to the melodramatic bluster. At too many important moments of the film, the grave score drowns out the actors and, unintentionally, punctuates how flimsy the story really is.