Thursday, 29 July 2010

Iron Man 2


I finally got around to seeing Iron Man 2 (in the cheap theatres). It wasn’t ALL bad. Iron Man 2 was much lighter than Iron Man, with much less violence toward human beings, and that was entirely positive for me. But Iron Man 2 was also much less intelligent than the first film, with very little of the thought-provoking dialogue which made Iron Man so enjoyable. And while Scarlett Johansson makes for a diverting female “superhero”, she and Samuel L. Jackson can’t make up for the loss of Jeff Bridges (personally, I think the film could have done much much more with SHIELD). Mickey Rourke was okay but also underdeveloped and underutilized. Gwyneth Paltrow either acts badly in Iron Man 2 or is meant to be a character who resembles a bad actor. Either way, I was not impressed with her performance (I wasn’t that impressed with her character in the first film either). The evil villain’s demise provides all the components of the redemptive violence that is usually necessary in superhero films and so I’ll just ignore that with a sigh.

In summary, Iron Man 2 was, for me, a rather light and silly superhero film, mildly diverting but nothing more. Compare that to Nolan’s work and it provides a helpful perspective (and corrective) to my essay on Nolan, whose Batman films are so much better (even if The Dark Knight makes no sense) than the lightweight Iron Man 2. So if I was feeling really generous, I might give Iron Man 2 ***, but deep down I know it deserves only **+. My mug is tipping over.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Another Look at Christopher Nolan: Genius or Master of Contrivance (or both)?

With Inception working its way toward number one on the list of this summer’s blockbusters, Christopher Nolan is, for the moment, the world’s hottest director. As someone who expects great things whenever I see Nolan’s name attached to a film, and have yet to be disappointed, I guess I must also be a fan. But after last week, I have begun to wonder just how good Nolan really is.

Nolan’s fame started ten years ago with Memento. After watching (and loving) Memento, I immediately got hold of Nolan’s previous film, Following, a short film which, in its own way, seemed worthy of a director like Nolan – dark, twisting and engrossing. Then came Nolan’s remake of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia, starring Robin Williams, which was quite good for an American remake, followed by a rather brilliant and hugely popular revisioning of Batman called Batman Begins. The Prestige came shortly thereafter and I also enjoyed it very much, though I have a knack for immediately seeing through disguises and this lessened the surprise factor for me. Nevertheless, it was another worthy Nolan film and certainly fit his dark and twisted mould. Then came The Dark Knight, yet another dark and twisted outing, which got so many great reviews that I felt compelled to like it. And now we have the possibly brilliant Inception, which blew me away on first viewing. All of Nolan’s films got at least ***+ from me and two of them got ****, so for me Nolan is as consistent a filmmaker as they come. His films are intelligent and complex thrillers, a favourite genre of mine (yeah, I know, it probably means I’m rather dark and twisted myself), so I look forward with anticipation to whatever he is doing next.

But then, last week, between viewings of Inception, I decided to watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (only the second time I have seen the latter). I wasn’t surprised by how much I still liked Batman Begins (Batman was always my favourite superhero as a child) but I was surprised at how disappointed I was with The Dark Knight. I found many scenes distasteful and inexcusably violent (especially for a PG film) and found the darkness anything but compelling. In the brief reviews I wrote about The Dark Knight, I can recognize an undercurrent of uncertainty about my appreciation for the film, and I complained a lot about the action scenes, but the WOW factor kept me from complaining too much. With my second viewing, however, I can clearly identify what had bothered me the first time (there are hints of this in my earlier reviews), namely that the convoluted plot makes absolutely no sense. I remember commenting on how much I disliked the big underground action scene in the film, but did not clearly state why I disliked it, which is that it is utterly ludicrous. It is based on the most intricate of plans of both Batman and The Joker, plans that rely on endless unpredictable factors and are therefore completely useless. None of those plans had even a 1% chance of succeeding and yet both plans somehow succeeded in their own way (a chance of about a hundred billion to one). And this time I noticed that this ludicrous planning is found throughout The Dark Knight. Because I sensed this subconsciously as I watched, I kept shaking my head in what I thought was confusion. But it wasn’t confusion; it was a feeling that things did not make sense based on a gut reaction to the intricate but impossible level of planning throughout. In film critic jargon, we like to use the word ‘contrived’ to describe a film which strays too far beyond believability. The Dark Knight is, in its own way, the most contrived film I can recall, and yet where are all the reviews which point to this?

Thinking back to Batman Begins, I was able to find many examples of similar contrived plot elements, but they were more subtle and I was able to overlook most of them, at least before re-watching The Dark Knight. Needless to say, when I went to my second viewing of Inception, I was alert for signs of this flaw in Nolan’s Batman films. Did I find these signs? Does a bear ... (you know the rest)? By the very nature of Inception’s dream plot device, it is absolutely teaming with intricate plans, especially in the last half of the film. Because the film is so overwhelming (in this case, so WOW), and because of the fact that we are dealing with dreams, it is much harder to be bothered by these plans, but because I was watching for them, I found them quite distracting. I certainly enjoyed the film less the second time around, despite understanding it better (as opposed to, say, Star Wars, which I watched four times in one day (the first day) and enjoyed as much each time, despite its countless flaws).

One could correctly argue that most films have contrived plots and that the secret is to minimize this and find a way to not draw attention to it. If one is dealing with an inherently unbelievable superhero story, one has to work even harder at making the plot imaginable. The fact that critics have not highlighted the contrived plots in Nolan’s films suggests he has succeeded. But I found the plot of The Dark Knight completely unimaginable (ludicrous, as I said) and have therefore lost interest in the film. And I am now led to wonder whether Nolan’s films will stand the test of time. To do this, they have to offer something deeper than just thrills. At first glance I thought the Batman films did this (e.g. with their treatment of means and ends and the various emotional struggles Bruce Wayne goes through, with the help of his two wise counsellors, Caine and Freeman). But even here I have begun to wonder how much we can learn from these potentially thought-provoking themes. The same is true with Nolan’s others films. Inception forced me to think about dreams and the subconscious but how much did it really offer by way of insight. I have tried to start discussions about Fischer and his father and what we can learn about ourselves and psychotherapy through that central plot element, but it fizzled out fast both times.

I am now going to go back and watch the rest of Nolan’s films again (needless to say, I own all of them) to see if Christopher Nolan’s genius is deeper than knowing how to make the kind of absorbing thriller which will bring in the masses. I’m not giving up hope, and I’m still grateful that he’s making intelligent thrillers, but I’m worried that real substance may be lacking and that Nolan’s genius lies in covering up his ludicrous plots with overwhelming complexity.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Inception


It is rare indeed that I watch a film on opening night. But I knew from the first moments of its trailer that I wanted to see Inception and to see it while I still knew almost nothing about it. I didn’t even know that two of my favorite actresses (Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page) starred in the film. So I decided I should go before people around me started talking about it. Probably a wise move, though it’s not like anything someone said about the film would be that revealing. It’s just that the WOW factor might have been affected (I’m not going to give much of the plot away, but if you want to know as little as possible, stop reading now and go watch the film).

You all know how important the WOW factor is for me. This is a WOW film and it gets **** just for wowing me and for its originality and for being a science fiction film when I was not expecting one (I had heard no mention of science fiction).

Dreams are mysterious things. On the day I watched Inception, I awoke from a long intricate dream only to glance at the clock and realize I had slept no more than seven minutes since the last time I glanced at the clock. Hours later I am watching a film where the concept behind this realization plays a key role.

Often forgotten instantly upon waking, dreams can sometimes haunt you all day long. Or they can make you wonder whether the dream is more real than the so-called real world, especially if they are recurring dreams. And then there are the Jungian dream interpretations. What exactly are our brains up to when they dream? Does our subconscious help us develop and defend ideas which guide our real lives? Does guilt haunt our dreams? How do we let go of memories when they are deeply entrenched in our subconscious and played out in dreams again and again?

Inception plays with these questions in a brilliantly-devised plot which I do not claim to understand. Perhaps a second viewing would help, but the film seems to have a huge number of holes (not flaws, but holes), from the lack of background information on the ‘science’ and on the characters to the unexplainable and largely unexplained things that happen time and again. More than once I wondered whether what I was watching made sense. And sometimes I felt as if important pieces of the film were left on the cutting room floor because the film was so long already. Ah well, I give it four stars anyway.

Then there’s the action. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a film with so much action in it (and some rather violent action at that). I won’t say I enjoyed the action, but I wasn’t bored by it (as I usually am) and that’s a significant achievement. And what about the violence? Do I find movie violence less offensive if it happens in a dream? I suppose I do, though it’s not as if movie violence is ever real, so this requires more thought.

Leonardo DiCaprio comes through again with an excellent performance as the protagonist. Maybe one day I’ll have to become a fan. One rather eerie coincidence is the resemblance between Inception and DiCaprio’s last film, Shutter Island.

Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed Inception, also came through again, creating an intriguing, baffling and intelligent wow film, as he did before with Memento, which also got four stars.

My review feels like a collection of ramblings about a film that defies description. Maybe I’m still dizzy. Inception is an overwhelming thrill ride that you’ll want to ride again before you leave the amusement park. So I expect it will be a huge hit. Maybe it will convince Hollywood that people are not just looking for brainless action or comedy sequels/remakes, but also looking for something new. **** My mug is held high, even if I’m not sure what’s inside.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Foreign Thriller Night at the Movies


The Girl Who Played with Fire

Having recently seen and loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (reviewed below), I was prepared to wait some time (with anticipation) for the sequel. So I was pleasantly surprised to find the sequel already playing in theatres. Unfortunately, despite the additional pleasant fact that The Girl Who Played with Fire was not about a serial killer, I was unpleasantly disappointed with the second instalment.

All of the technical components of film-making were done well enough (by mostly the same people), but almost all of them, including the acting, were inferior to the first film. Dragon Tattoo had an epic drama feel which is lacking in Played with Fire (not for lack of trying, but the new ‘background story’ for Lisbeth just didn’t work for me). The sequel, with its new crimes to solve, focused more on action, which doesn’t score any points with me. Indeed, I actually found Dragon Tattoo much more suspenseful than the sequel and that does score points with me.

I was drawn deeply into the lives of the protagonists in Dragon Tattoo, but the same characters in Played with Fire drew little such attention from me. Partly this was caused by the amount of time they had together on the screen (i.e. the lack thereof). But partly it was because the story focused much more on the theme of revenge (I don’t like revenge stories) and ended in a very similar way to the first film, thus sacrificing one of the best qualities of the first film - its originality.

Played with Fire was a satisfying thriller, but not much more than that. It gets a solid ***, but that’s a giant step down from the first film. Duncan, you appreciated Dragon Tattoo as much as I did, so I wonder whether you were also as disappointed as I was with the sequel.

The Secret in Their Eyes

There is no question that The Secret in Their Eyes is a better film than Played with Fire, but I did not think it was as good as The White Ribbon, which it beat for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film of 2009.

The strength of The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentinean film written and directed by Juan Jose Campanella, is the character development and the actors who make that character development come alive. Each of the main characters is unique, memorable and well-acted (especially Ricardo DarĂ­n as Benjamin, Soledad Villamil as Irene and Guillermo Francella as Sandoval) and that’s what makes this subtle romantic thriller work. The central crime story (rape/homicide) is okay too (i.e. satisfying, like Played with Fire), but that’s really all it is, though the ending to this story strives for something greater and almost gets there.

It’s exciting to see such an excellent film from a country which makes relatively few films (at least few that get distributed up north). The Secret in Their Eyes gets a very solid ***+, though I’m still debating whether it does not in fact deserve ****. In any event, my mug is up.