A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 306 – Inception

Inception – December 31st, 2010

This was, perhaps, not the best of plans for tonight. We bought it just before Christmas and held off on watching it what with the Christmas movies we had at the time. Then our schedules just didn’t accommodate a movie this long and then we found Hogfather and wanted to watch that before today. So it just got put off, and so we thought we’d watch it on New Year’s Eve. After all, we already watched our one New Year’s specific movie (Strange Days, watched way back at the beginning of the project), so we weren’t going to have something holiday themed for tonight. And then we decided to have dinner with my parents and things took a lot longer than we planned and here we are, watching the movie at my mother’s house because if we don’t start it now, we won’t finish by midnight.

The trouble here is that we’re rushed. Of course you can’t really literally rush a movie without putting it on fast forward, but it feels rushed. We’re starting before dinner, watching while we wait for things to cook. And before the movie is over we’ll pause it to eat, because by then it will be quite late indeed. And then we’ll watch more of it later. And this isn’t a movie I want to watch in pieces. It’s convoluted enough as it is, without complicating it with pauses. Oh well. We’ll just have to cope.

I love this movie, but I have to admit I have some issues with it. Or rather, not with the movie itself but with the fuss around it. See, a movie like this, with so much going on and so many twists and turns and secrets and metaphors, with the concept of multi-level dreaming and the questions of the nature of reality and the human mind? It is the stuff people love to analyze. This is a movie that invites prodding and poking and picking apart. But, well. I don’t want to poke it too much and end up breaking it in my own head. Because when I walked out of the theater after seeing it the first time I thought it was fantastic. And I loved all the layers and levels and questions. But I don’t really want to answer everything.

The plot is science fiction corporate espionage. In a world where it is possible to share dreams with other people, to design dreams other people will have, to sneak into other people’s heads via their subconscious dream-state, Extraction is the ultimate tool for corporate espionage. Dom Cobb is one of the best in the business and he is hired not to steal a concept, but to implant one. Inception, as it’s called, is thought to be nearly impossible, as planting an idea requires making the person it’s planted in believe they came up with it themselves. So Cobb has quite a job ahead of him. He puts together a team to work with him. There’s Arthur, his right hand man who deals with the technology that allows dreams to be shared and who does background research on their target. There’s Yusuf, a chemist who puts together a sedative that will keep the team asleep through the job. There’s Eames, a forger who will insert people into the dreams. There’s Ariadne, the architect who designs the various dream levels and teaches them to the others. There’s Saito, their employer who comes along to keep an eye on things. And then there’s Cobb. Who has secrets and guilt and far more experience with the deeper levels of dreams than he’s willing to talk about. All together they’re targeting Fischer, a young man who has just inherited his father’s corporate legacy.

The trouble is that Cobb’s secrets involve his late wife and the time they spent in the deepest level of dreams – limbo – together. Mal, his wife, shows up in his dreams, finding a way to sabotage everything whenever she finds him. And while the base story is about the team trying to plant an idea in Fisher’s head for Saito, the deeper story is about Cobb and the nature of reality. The nature of his reality. His guilt about Mal and his memories and his search for a way to get home. Cobb believes that he’s managed inception before, and that’s what caused Mal’s death. It permeates everything in his mind, which means it permeates the movie. That and the question of what is real? That is the plot of the movie.

It’s all told in layers. The whole story with Cobb’s wife isn’t revealed until you’re inside one of his dreams, and you only find out more details by going deeper and deeper into his head. And the deeper you go, the less clear reality becomes. The nature of the plot with Mal and Cobb calls into question whether Cobb is really aware of what reality is, and therefore it calls into question the movie’s whole setting. Is it all even really happening? There are clues and hints all over the place, from the top that doesn’t topple to the musical cues to Cobb’s wedding band. We’re meant to wonder about it all and try to figure it out.

The problem here is that I don’t think there are definitive answers. There’s opinion and analysis, but not concrete answers. This isn’t math. It’s English. So whether there are three or four or five dream layers going on is really up to interpretation and the viewer. Whether Cobb is asleep or awake isn’t something that ever has one right answer. Will the top keep spinning after the movie goes to credits or no? We don’t know. We’re not supposed to know. We’re supposed to wonder and interpret, much in the way we wonder about and interpret our own dreams.

One of the problems I had with my undergraduate major was that I truly felt there was no way to say “No, that cannot mean what you think it means.” So much of literary analysis is a melding of the outside world with the inner mind through the window of the work being analyzed. How do you say that what’s in someone else’s head is wrong? You might not agree with it, but that’s the nature of individual thought. So if some people want to argue one way for this movie, and others want to argue the opposite? I can live with that. Personally, I’m just pleased with the movie itself.

It is a fine work of art with a load of clever layers built in, right up to a potential meta layer that is the movie as a sort of dream, being experienced by the audience. I enjoy every performance in the movie, from Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb to the ubiquitous Michael Caine as his father-in-law. I feel I would be remiss if I did not mention the entire cast, in fact. Marion Cotillard as Mal, Ken Watanabe as Saito, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur (looking very snappy indeed, in his suit – and might I mention his awesome spinning-set action scene?), Tom Hardy as Eames, Dileep Rao as Yusuf, Ellen Page as Ariadne and Cillian Murphy as Fischer. And then there’s some smaller roles, with Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite as people close to Fisher. The whole cast is excellent. And I love that. While it’s muchly a story of Cobb and Mal, the movie wouldn’t work without excellent performances from everyone else.

I don’t want to poke this movie too hard or with too sharp a stick. I love it for the strange and beautiful thing that it is. I’ve heard people questioning its logic and unraveling its layers, peeling them apart and trying to find fault with them. I’ve read bits and pieces of criticism that deconstructs the movie in a way that ignores how it was constructed in the first place. And while I do love knowing how a trick works, I also love seeing it in motion, and this movie in motion is wonderful. Stopping it to pick it apart just doesn’t work for me. It’s probably for the same reason I don’t try to analyze my dreams. They’re dreams. Maybe they mean something. Maybe not. In that case and in this, I’d rather just enjoy.

December 31, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Inception

December 31, 2010

Inception

For our last movie of 2010 we wanted a really great one. With typical lack of forethought we watched our only New Year’s movie (Strange Days) many months ago, so we had to just pick from what we had available. Thankfully we had purchased Inception a few days before Christmas while we were shopping for presents for my nieces, so we had this to look forward to.

When we first decided to review Inception, a few days ago, I dreamed about the movie. Or rather, I dreamed that I was part of the movie. I was an extractor inside a dream setting traps and playing tricks and generally being badass. This movie means a lot to me because I have always held dreams in high regard. I love dreaming, because in my dreams I am always a super hero or a god or just generally the center of the world. My dreams are epic adventures. A reoccurring theme of my night-time wanderings is that I discover wondrous treasures in the mundane surroundings of my real life. There are hidden secret passages behind the walls of my grandparents’ home. My digital pocket watch has a secret series of button presses that unlocks a vast quantity of previously undiscovered video games. And of course I can usually fly. So a movie about people entering each other’s dreams and having adventures there is bound to pique my interest.

Then again, this is only nominally a movie about dreams. The dreams portrayed here are fairly rigid, with clearly delineated rules. Nobody has super powers. The thing about dreams is that they don’t actually make sense. Every once in a while I’ll have a dream that seems to have a relatively sane narrative thread, but when I recall it in the light of day it never quite holds up. It’s not just that dreams are constantly filled with strange juxtapositions of disparate memories (which is, I believe, their defining feature and actually their purpose) but that they involve creations that almost cannot be defined by the waking mind. It’s easy to cope with a dream that involves unfamiliar places or events, but then there are the truly deep and moving dreams (for me at least) that involve entire artificial memories. You are in a place, caught up in some epic struggle, and your mind provides you with the whole mythology and background that is involved. I don’t think you ever “live out” this background in your dream – it is simply there. A whole alternate world contained in your dream-memories. How can something like that ever possibly be captured on film?

No, after much consideration I think that the dreams portrayed in this movie are not actually dreams at all. The movie is actually about ideas. It’s right there in Leonardo DeCaprio’s first dialog as Cobb. An idea is an insidious thing like a virus. It can worm its way into your brain and come to define who you are.

There are a whole lot of stories going on here. There’s the whole notion of trying to plant an idea deep enough into some body’s mind that they think they came up with it on their own. There’s Cobb with his guilt over his wife’s death. There’s the whole notion that it can be almost impossible for a dreamer to tell that he or she is dreaming at all (a frequent occurrence for me since I often find it amazing that I should have suddenly discovered the secret to flight or something else unbelievable – so I wonder if I am actually dreaming, only to dismiss this because it feels too real. Right until I wake up.) There’s a heist film with a crew coming together to pull of an amazing feat against insurmountable odds and pulling it off even when all appears to be lost. And what’s amazing is that every level of the film really works.

This is Christopher Nolan at his most impossibly talented. He has a great crew of actors who can do deep drama and impressive action and blend it all seamlessly together. He playfully flips through the multiple levels of dreams as the action climax last fully half of the whole movie. He has action set pieces combined with emotional revelations and very Nolanesque brain twisters as well. How can the same movie contain both the visually stunning rolling corridor fight scene and Cobb’s painful struggle with the literal embodiment of his unresolved guilt regarding his wife?

The funny thing for me is that the whole movie seems to me to be a blueprint for inserting an idea into an audience’s mind, but there is no idea to place. The best way to plant the seed of an idea is to make it part of a story. A story we want to believe about ourselves or the world we live in. Nolan understands this. The dreams his characters use for extraction or inception are not very dreamlike, but they are very much narrative devices. They are stories built to entrap people so that something can be done to their psyche. And, really, isn’t that what all the best stories do? They touch us and in some way they change us. But like dreams within dreams there’s a recursion to this movie. It’s a story about stories. And maybe that’s what it’s meant to be. It makes you question your own reality and your own beliefs, which is a healthy thing I think. Perhaps by saying that people can implant the seed of an idea in your mind Christopher Nolan is trying to make us look harder at the roots of what we have come to accept to be true. maybe this movie is not so much an inception as an inoculation.

Of course like any dream, or like the infamous last shot in this movie, all of this is very much open to personal interpretation. I fully accept that what is deeply personal and undeniably true for me might well make no sense to somebody else. That’s the curse and blessing of individuality after all.

December 31, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 305 – Hogfather

Hogfather – December 30th, 2010

After Christmas, when we were quite sure we’d finished up every Christmas movie in our possession and had moved on to other things, we discovered this sitting in a stack in the bedroom. Somehow we’d missed even putting it into our master spreadsheet, so when I’d gone through to note all the Christmas movies so we could tally them up and plan for the season, I hadn’t figured it into our plans. And then there it was, sitting there with some of our other things, taunting us with its 3 hour running time and Discworld Christmas plot. Since we’re well under a year left in the project (unless we get a sudden influx of over 100 more movies, which I don’t foresee happening), we didn’t want to leave this for next year, and it would be silly to watch it in, say, April. Thus, we have extended the holiday season a bit.

I read the book this is based on back when I was in college. I remember quite distinctly that I had been having an absolutely hellish month. I was worried about my classes. I was worried about my job. I was worried about everything. I was depressed, to put it frankly, and then one day I got back to my room in my dorm and this book was sitting in front of my door. Inside was a note from a good friend, telling me she’d read it so I could take my time with it and she hoped it would help in some small way. And it did. The book itself was fantastic and having a friend care was even better. So this one holds a special place for me. It was a bright point in a horrible time.

At its root, this is a story about belief and the purpose it serves. It taps into myths of childhood and twists them in the way that Terry Pratchett is so famous for. It’s about Christmas, or the Discworld version of it, but it’s mostly about mythology and folklore and why it’s important to us as humans. It’s all about storytelling, which I love about Pratchett. He likes to write about why people do the things they do and the importance of stories in daily life. And this one is made to be a big one. It’s about the assassination of the Hogfather, an anthropomorphic representation of the winter season and hope for the return of the sun after the solstice and all of the things that come along with this time of year. In the story he’s evolved quite a bit in the time he’s been around, shifting from a boar, killed as a sacrifice to ensure the rising of the sun, to a pig-faced man in a red and white fur suit who drives a sleigh drawn by pigs and delivers presents and pork products on Hogswatch Eve. And there are forces out there who want him dead.

The thing about this movie is that it doesn’t have the benefit of the considerable amount of explanation possible in a book. And it depends entirely on the vast amount of worldbuilding that Mr. Pratchett has done with the Discworld. If you were to watch this movie with little or no prior knowledge of the world it’s set in, I think you’d be rather lost in it. There’s very little in the way of explanation of who Susan is until rather late in the movie, when she explains that Death adopted her mother and took her father as an apprentice and they fell in love and she’s somehow inherited certain abilities. In the books, if you’ve read about Death and his adopted daughter and Susan’s childhood and all that, you know enough about her to know her place in the grander scheme of the world. If not, well, she’s still a rather kick-ass lady, but the finer points of just why and how she manages to kick so much ass and be who she is are lost. Which is a pity. But this is a movie made for fans. It’s a movie made for people who know the world and will be amused by the cameos of Nobby and Visit and the Death of Rats.

All things considered, the movie does do a good job of presenting the story and the world. It’s not that it doesn’t do its job. It’s that the book it’s based on also expects you to know things and the things you don’t know are explained in narration or footnotes and you can’t footnote a movie. It’s a case of the medium not being able to hold much more than the story it’s telling without getting overburdened. And I don’t fault it for that. It never tried to and I think if it had it would have been a mess. Better to be a movie for people who know and love the world and people who are willing to jump in without prior knowledge for a bizarre alternate Christmas adventure, with assassins and pigs and a skeleton in a Santa suit and a pile of teeth. I’m sorry we didn’t remember we had this in time for Christmas, but from now on I plan on making it part of our regular seasonal viewing.

December 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Hogfather

December 30, 2010

Hogfather

A couple days after Christmas, when we had completed our twelve days of Christmas movie reviews, we discovered this in one of the piles in the Bedroom. It had not made it into our Christmas plans because somehow it had never been entered into our spreadsheet of movies which we created way back when the movie a day project began. Because we discovered it after the holiday was already over we had a tough choice to make. Do we watch it now, five days after Christmas day, or do we keep it until next year in the hopes that our project will be extended that far? I was in favor of keeping it for next year, but Amanda isn’t altogether confident that we will get the 140 or so movies that would be required to extend our project that far. As it currently stands we’re going to run out of movies around July or so – so we decided to extend the holiday season and watch this tonight. We both have the day off, so we have time to watch an extremely long movie, which is good since this was originally a two-part television special and is rather lengthy.

This was the first of a new series of Discworld movies produced for SkyTV in England. I’m not altogether sure why they chose Hogfather out of the entire series to make into a film version. Perhaps they felt that the tie-in to the holiday season would mean that people who were not enormous fans of Pratchett’s work* would perhaps tune in to see a strange fantasy Christmas movie. If those people did tune in I’d imagine they were rather confused, since no effort is made to really explain who any of the characters are. In the case of most characters, such as Death and the wizards of the Unseen University this is alright since they are based on familiar archetypes, but then there’s Susan, who is a pretty major character throughout the film. It isn’t until halfway through that she explains to another character about how her father was an apprentice to Death and fell in love with her mother, whom Death had adopted. Unless you know this about her then she’s just a sort of practical and perhaps sinister kind of Mary Poppins in this movie. To really understand Sarah you would at least have to know the story of Mort.**

It seems slightly arbitrary therefore that this particular book was selected for the movie treatment, but overall I have to say I was pleased by the result. There’s always going to be a disconnect when you first see characters that have only ever been pictured in your mind portrayed on the screen, but for the most part I was delighted by the casting. Michelle Dockery is absolutely perfect as Susan. She’s all practical skepticism and level headed common sense. She perfectly captures the tolerant eye-roll of a sensible woman caught up in family matters that are as usual fantastical and potentially world ending. I was at first thrown by Marc Warren’s interpretation of Mr. Teatime,*** since he’s more creepy than sinister, but he quickly grew on me. I think they somewhat undermine his truly capricious and deadly nature by playing him somewhat for laughs, but it fit the overall mood of the movie. Joss Ackland is absolutely perfect casting as Mustrum Ridcully, the Arch-chancellor of the UU, and I loved every scene he was in. The entire spirit of the University was I think exactly portrayed here in the movie as I had seen it in my head.

Special kudos to both Ian Richardson as the voice of Death and the crew that brought the character to life for the screen. Skeletal hands are something very difficult to make work on screen, for example, and these ones are wonderfully articulate. The grinning skull of Death’s face is actually surprisingly expressive, given that it never changes at all – it’s all in the way he holds his body, the shrugs and gestures. Death has long been one of my favorite characters in the whole Diskworld cannon and here he is – exactly as I pictured him. He has just the right air of both understanding things beyond human ken and being constantly befuddled by people.

I’ll admit that for the most part I viewed this not so much as a movie as a visit with old friends. I have loved the Discworld books for so long that it’s just a pleasure to see somebody who clearly loves them just as much putting so much care into producing them for the screen. Oh, not everything was exactly as I pictured it (Nobby Nobbs for example was nowhere near as gruesome and misshapen as I thought he ought to be) but so much care and dedication clearly went into this product that it’s easy to overlook such things.

I note that the same team have gone back to the start and done a version of the Colour of Magic as well as the new adaptation of Going Postal which should be available soon. I look forward to owning and viewing those as well. And in the future I think this movie will make its way into our regular Christmas rotation.****

* Assuming that such people actually exist.

** Which was made into a stage-play I know, but was never a movie to my knowledge.

***Everybody pronounces it wrong the first time. Honestly, he doesn’t hold it against you.

****I realize that I say nothing here about the plot of the movie. This is because if you are unfamiliar with it I highly recommend that you go read the book. Heck, read all the Discworld books you can lay your hands on. Then when you’re done come back and view this movie – because until then you probably won’t enjoy it as much.

December 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 304 – The Prestige

The Prestige – December 29th, 2010

I hadn’t heard the ending to this movie before it began, but I figured it out fairly quickly. It helps that I’ve seen a particular episode of The Avengers that uses the same ending. And it’s one of my very favorite episodes. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it. Do a little digging and you could spoil yourself for this. Or you could just watch it.

There’s a certain amount of spoiling that I don’t think I’m going to be able to help here. The whole concept of the movie is two magicians attempting to outdo each other with improved versions of the same trick. A trick that involves a man mysteriously transported a distance instantly. And being magicians, they have secrets to how they perform it. One of those secrets is explained as a matter of course in the movie. You watch as he does it and changes it and figures out a more dramatic way of doing it. But the other, his secret is a magician’s secret. And it’s a good one, as secrets go. So I apologize, because if you keep reading and you haven’t seen this, I will be revealing the secrets and ruining the tricks. I’m sorry.

Andy had this movie spoiled for him. He hates spoilers (I don’t much mind them), so I feel bad about that because there’s a great reveal here. I didn’t need it, sadly. I’m far too good at facial recognition. I caught the actor who played Moriarty in Star Trek: The Next Generation as the judge. I recognized one of the guards as a one-episode actor from the Highlander series. And while William Morgan Lee (who’s been in everything from Zork Nemesis to the recent Star Trek reboot) and Roger Rees are far more recognizable and well known, I can spot them a mile away. I know it’s bragging a bit, but I spotted Peter Wingfield in full camo paint, in a darkened shot for less than a second in a trailer. It’s a totally useless talent, but it also means I spotted Christian Bale (tip of his nose, shape of his chin) right off. But unlike Andy, I’m the sort of person who likes to know how a trick works. I like to see it built and performed. At heart, I’m a stage hand, working the ropes and lights and never being seen myself. So I suppose it’s only natural.

The funny part is, even knowing the trick, Andy still didn’t spot him right away. I think that’s a testament to the nature of the trick and the nature of magic. Even when you know some of how it’s done, you can still be fooled and misdirected. And this movie does a brilliant job when it comes to showing you but not showing you. The tricks are all right there in plain sight. I can think of three blatant pointers to the big secret right near the beginning, and that doesn’t even count the opening scenes and dialogue from Michael Caine’s character, Cutter. Half of an early trick you see points to one secret and the other half points to the other. It’s told well, with plenty of leads and references, and also plenty of hiding and secrets.

The movie is bookended with Cutter explaining how a magic trick works. He is showing a little girl a trick with a disappearing bird in a cage, telling her that there are three stages to every trick, ending with the reveal, the prestige. After that we start to learn the story of Alfred Borden and Roger Angier, two would-be magicians who study under Cutter in hopes of becoming the best. Cutter is an engineer, who can build contraptions and create tricks. But in a profession where risks are taken, people get hurt. And when Angier’s wife dies during a trick, due, he believes, to Borden’s insistence on showing off, the rivalry is born. It’s about being the best, but it’s also about sacrificing things and coping with loss and revenge.

Throughout the movie, while Borden and Angier try to top each other, they’re also digging at each other to even the score. It’s only partially about reputation. If you can damage your opponent’s reputation, do it while physically or emotionally wounding him too. That’s how they do it. By the end of the movie they’re both fairly unlikable. One is slightly better than the other, but really the only good guys in the movie, in my opinion, are Cutter, Nikola Tesla and Tesla’s assistant, Alley. The women in the movie are largely innocents, caught up in this hideous rivalry that will destroy them all. The audience is innocent as well, merely wanting a good show and to be fooled for just a moment into thinking there is true magic in the world. Angier and Borden want to be the best, and there is much talk about getting one’s hands dirty in order to do that. Cutter, however, never wanted them at each other’s throats. He never wanted them hurt, even if they did get their hands a little dirty. Because he didn’t want them to have to. Just to be willing to.

I very much enjoyed this movie, even knowing the secret to how half of it worked. I still enjoyed watching how it all came together and played out. I enjoyed the theatricality of it and the showmanship. I certainly enjoyed all the performances, even if it was slightly disconcerting to have Michael Caine teaching someone named Alfred, played by Christian Bale. But Alfred Borden is no Batman (even if he does have a secret identity). There are no heroes here. Just magicians and tricks and a cycle of revenge that ends only when the curtain comes down.

December 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Prestige

December 29, 2010

The Prestige

This movie starts right out of the gate being clever. It dives right into the fantasy of the movie world without any of that mumbo-jumbo of having opening credits. It just has a title card – two words in bold type hovering over a field filled with top hats – the first hint in a long series of clever slight of hand that slowly reveals the secret behind this movie. Even without opening credits however this movie absolutely screams Christopher Nolan. It plays with time, jumping forward and back through the story in a very Chris Nolan way (familiar to anybody who’s seen Memento of the more recent Inception.) It stars some of his favorite actors in Christian Bale and Michael Caine. It has a fun mystery to it and a cool reveal at the end of the movie.

There are several tricks Nolan uses in the telling of this tale. I mentioned how he bounces back and forth in time. The plot revolves around a pair of rival magicians and their constant bitter and nasty attempts to destroy each other’s careers and lives. They discover much about how their lives played out by reading each other’s diaries. So we get narration, flash backs, flashes even further back, jumps forward… just keeping track of it all takes a lot of concentration. Just editing this together into a film that makes sense to the viewer must have been a herculean task. What’s even more astonishing though, is that all this cleverness is just misdirection. It’s the magician waving a handkerchief about while the real trick goes on in his other hand. Nolan wants you concentrating on all the plot threads, he wants you concentrating hard trying to figure out just what the actual sequence of events is so that he can cleverly work the real magic of the film right out in the open without you seeing it.

This movie is part mystery, part tragedy, part dark fantasy and all magic. It’s an homage to the art of magic, with detailed reveals that explain how some of the tricks work, but also a warning about the danger of becoming obsessed with that world. There’s an underlying theme that in order to become a truly great magician one has to be willing to make sacrifices. One of the rivals – Alfred Borden aka The Professor – understands this from the very start. His rival, Robert Angier, never seems to grasp it until near the end of the film. He wants to believe that great magic is possible even when his wife, early in his career, is tragically killed onstage while attempting an underwater escape. He has a great grasp of the necessary theatricality necessary but not of the sacrifice. Magic, this movie says to us, is a gruesome and brutal art form based on deception. The two lead characters are men consumed and destroyed by this constant deception.

There are layers upon layers to this film, with deep motivations for the characters that are not entirely clear in some cases until quite late in the movie. It must have been a wonderful pleasure for the actors to dig into these characters and bring them to life. Hugh Jackman plays the pathetic Angier, who is destroyed by his wife’s death and commits all of his efforts from that point on to the destruction of the man he holds responsible. Borden is played by Christian Bale, who in many ways has the hardest job here since his character is so hard to understand. Michael Caine is their mentor in the ways of magic and an inventor of clever contraptions to deceive the audience. Throw in a cameo by David Bowie as Nikola Tessla, the real life eccentric genius and inventor and a wonderful performance by Scarlett Johansson as Angier’s attractive assistant and you have probably one of the best casts you could possibly assemble. It’s their job to sell this warped, sad, tragic world of deception and betrayal.

I had this film spoiled for me before I watched it. I truly wish that I had not. It would have been so much more fun if I hadn’t known the trick behind it. But as you know if you’re a fan of Penn and Teller the best magic tricks are the ones that are still fascinating and fun to watch even when you know how they are done. Perhaps especially then because you can appreciate all the more the craft of the magician. Chistopher Nolan is a wonderful master of his craft, and it’s a joy to watch him work, so even with the ending spoiled for me in advance I completely loved this movie.

December 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 303 – Run, Fatboy, Run

Run, Fatboy, Run – December 28th, 2010

This is yet another of Andy’s impulse purchases. I’m sure we’d both seen ads for it on television when it came out, but aside from those and knowing Simon Pegg was in it, I know I had no clue what it was really about. And while I do like Simon Pegg and have enjoyed him in everything I’ve seen him in so far, I probably wouldn’t have picked this up on his merits and the ads alone. Then again, had I looked and seen that Dylan Moran, Hank Azaria and Thandie Newton were all leads in it I might have given it a chance. But Andy gave it a chance for me, and so I didn’t have to make that decision.

Now, this is not the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen. It has a bit of a mish-mash of physical and verbal humor, including one gross-out gag and some jokes I didn’t find funny at all. It tries to balance a typical rom-com plot with Simon Pegg’s brand of antics and to be honest the two things seem very opposed at times. But it’s still a lot of fun. It doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced in order to be funny. And if it didn’t have Simon Pegg doing his thing through the whole movie it probably would be just a standard rom-com. Granted, Azaria and Newton as the romantic half of the rom-com equation would elevate it quite a bit, but Pegg, with Moran at his side (plus the fantastic Harish Patel) make it something unique, or at least closer to unique than the crap romantic comedies I’m used to the label being applied to.

The movie opens with Dennis (Pegg) leaving his fiance (Newton) at the altar when she’s visibly pregnant with their baby. Not an auspicious beginning, right? Right. Five years later his life is crap. He’s an out of shape security guard for a lingere store, taunted by bra thieves and behind on his rent. Libby (Newton) has custody of their son, Jake, and has built a new life for herself. When Dennis meets her new boyfriend, Whit (Azaria), he decides he’s going to be all macho and try and prove himself to Libby and win her back. Now, what I like here is that while he’s utterly determined to “beat” Whit and “win” Libby, Libby has no intention of being won. And while in true rom-com fashion there is a hopeful ending for Dennis, it’s not a sure thing. There’s no moment where I felt like Libby gave up her choices just because Dennis decided to try and prove himself. After all, he did leave her at the altar.

When he finds out that Whit is a runner and is going to be racing in the London Marathon, the truly unfit Dennis decides to run too, to prove that he’s just as good as Whit if not better. And so a good chunk of the middle of the movie is Dennis training for the marathon. Training ridiculously, with his landlord (Patel) wielding a spatula to smack him with if he slows down, and his friend Gordon (Moran) cheering him on since he has a rather large bet on Dennis actually finishing the race. Not winning, just finishing. The odds in his favor are not good, so it’s a sizable bet. And through it all Whit and Dennis sort of verbally spar. Whit is ten times the man Dennis is. He’s ten times everything Dennis is. And up until the end he seems like a pretty decent, if annoying, guy. He’s decent with Jake, he’s sweet to Libby, he’s got money, he’s got a career, etc. He’s just… grating. He’s the sort of guy who just irks you by being so damn good at everything. You just know there’s a jackass (or a shit-head) lurking in there somewhere and he’s enough of a jerk to also be a good actor so he can cover it up. There was a comment on IMDB that Azaria’s comedic talent was wasted here, but I disagree. He’s not the slapstick funny guy, but he pulls off Whit with fantastic skill, making him likable and unlikable at the same time.

The same can really be said of Pegg as Dennis. He’s no prize at the outset. He’s awkward and lazy and obnoxious and seems to much up whatever he does. He’s got no interest in making his own life better, and he’s frustrating to watch. And yet he’s got a sweet core to him. You don’t want him to truly fail. Now, personally, I didn’t want him to fully succeed without a major effort either, but I didn’t want him to fail. Once he actually starts running in the marathon and the movie follows his hilarious and painful effort, I felt torn between cheering him on because come on, he is the hero, and wishing he’d just collapse, because it would have been good for comedic purposes. And the movie manages to have him do both.

Now, it was a little difficult not to watch this and see Sgt. Angel and Bernard Black as the comedic leads, with half the town of Springfield as their foe, but then there was Thandie Newton as well, who did a wonderful job with Libby, keeping things from getting too slapstick while not being the simpering damsel the role could have been. And I also have to give some credit to Matthew Fenton, who played the five year old Jake far better than many kid actors might have.

It was a cute movie. Not a wildly funny as Hot Fuzz but certainly not the sort of soft and mindless crud I expect when I hear “romantic comedy”. Sure, there’s unevenness, and man, that one gross-out thing was truly disgusting (I laughed anyhow), but it’s still fun. It kept me laughing and I enjoyed it all the way through.

December 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Run Fatboy Run

December 28, 2010

Run Fatboy Run

I bought this movie because it stars Simon Pegg. I knew nothing about it besides that. And now that I’ve finally taken the time to watch it I couldn’t be happier to announce that starring Simon Pegg was easily enough to make the movie a great deal of fun. Well, it helps that you have Dylan Moran and Hank Azaria as well.

In this delightful romp Simon Pegg plays Dennis, a sad sort of looser who has ruined his own life because he cannot finish anything he ever sets out to do. Dylan Moran plays his best friend Bernard Black Gordon. Dennis leaves his pregnant fiance, Libby, on their wedding day, and his life is destroyed as a result. Years later we find him still living alone, working as an out of shape security guard. He is still desperately in love with Libby but his only real contact with her is through their son Jake. In the mean time Libby has found the most perfect man ever – an American banker named Whit who is successful, handsome, friendly, and athletic. Whit is training to run in a marathon, which somehow puts the idea into Dennis’ head that if he can run in the marathon he can somehow win Libby back.

There were so many hilarious moments in this movie. I found myself frequently laughing out loud, which is not something I’m given to do most of the time. There are gross moments of physical humor, great bits of slapstick comedy, and plenty of just plain funny dialog. The stand-outs for me were Dylan Moran as Gordon, a character very reminiscent of the one Dylan plays in Black Books, and Harish Patel as Dennis’ kindly landlord Mr. Goshdashtidar. Dylan is a master at making hilarious faces and wringing laughs from the delivery of even the plainest line. Harish is just so charming as Mr. G – a fellow who sees somewhere in Dennis there might be a good person, if only he can find it. Any time either of them is on screen you know there are going to be some great laughs, and when both of them appear together to train Dennis for the marathon it’s simply superb.

The perfect boyfriend Whit is played perfectly by Hank Azaria. He’s just so charming and impossible to compete with that you have to feel sorry for Dennis. He’s so clearly outclassed. Libby is a strong female character and a real challenge. Thandie Newton has several moments where the conflict of a woman dealing with a real affection for this fool who betrayed her are played out entirely on her face and you can almost hear her thoughts, so clear is her acting. It’s quite impressive.

Holding the whole production together is Simon Pegg. Dennis is a loser, it’s true, but he’s a lovable one. He plays the common comedic role of the eternal man-child who must learn somehow to be an adult, but does it with a kind of class. Ultimately this is the story of Dennis trying to prove to himself that there is something – anything – that he can actually see through to the end. At first he tricks himself into thinking that it’s for Libby, and certainly Gordon thinks that Dennis is running for him (he having bet every penny he has at long odds that Dennis will somehow complete the marathon) but ultimately Dennis has to realize that he’s running for himself.

It’s always a sign of a good movie when I reach the end and immediately want to go back and watch it again. Maybe someday soon I’ll have time to listen to the director’s commentary with director David Schwimmer, Thandie Newton, Simon Pegg and his mother. In the mean time I’ll have to be satisfied with some Black Books. We followed the movie up with the first episode of the third series, which features a guest appearance by Simon Pegg.

December 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 302 – A Bug’s Life

A Bug’s Life – December 27th, 2010

It seems that after several days of merry-making and then a snow storm neither Andy nor I were up to the long movie we’d been hoping to watch tonight. Which is a pity, as we’re moving well away from Christmas. But then it also serves to extend the holiday season and I’m all for that. Last year I decided to celebrate until New Year’s was over and it was very nice indeed. So we’ll save the long movie for Wednesday or Thursday and stick to easier movies for now. Things that make us smile and not think too hard.

Perhaps we should have watched this closer to when we watched Antz. They came out close together and both feature ant colonies in trouble. They both have a socially awkward outcast ant with a thing for the queen ant’s daughter. And both socially awkward ants have to somehow find a way to save the colony from disaster. I’ve seen this happen in other media as well and it’s kind of amusing. But while the urge to capitalize on the vampire and werewolf market is understandable in YA lit, where did the ant fascination come from in two studios at the same time? I was in college at the time, so I can’t say I had the time to be following what was going on in children’s entertainment. Was there a big bug push for a while there? I have no idea. When you think about it, while bugs are fascinating and all, they’re not terribly cuddly and it takes effort to make them cute. And yet both Dreamworks and Pixar made the attempt.

In this movie the socially awkward lead is Flik, voiced by Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall fame. He’s just a worker ant, but he has all sorts of plans and ideas about how to make things better, faster, more efficient, easier, etc. He’s also accident-prone and maybe one out of ten of his ideas pan out at all. Usually, of course, they end in disaster. His colony is also in trouble, as they’ve been suckered into a protection scheme by a group of grasshoppers led by the sociopathic Hopper, played by Kevin Spacey with a casual cruelty that I honestly find a little unusual in a children’s movie (usually villains are over-the-top nasty and caricatures of evil whereas Hopper is nonchalant about it all, which feels more sinister). The grasshoppers arrive every year two weeks before the rains come and demand a tithe of food. The ants hand over their summer/fall harvest and then scramble for enough to feed themselves for the winter. This year Flik messes it all up and the food is lost, leaving the colony racing to find more food fast and Flik sent off ostensibly to find help. He’s actually been shoved out of the way by Princess Atta to keep him from messing anything else up.

In true cartoon fashion, Flik finds a group he believes can help, but it turns out they’re circus performers, not the warriors he assumed them to be. And so begins the attempt to make a plan to save the colony with tricks instead of brute force. It ends up being sort of complicated, actually, which is a criticism I have of the plot. Flik brings the circus bugs to the colony, the colony is overjoyed and welcomes them! The circus bugs freak out when they realize they’re expected to fight, but Flik convinces them to stay! The colony finds out they’re circus performers and sends them packing. Then they save the younger princess, Dot, and the colony welcomes them back! They put their plans in motion, the grasshoppers arrive, everything goes to hell and the ant equivalent of a troop of Daisy Girl Scouts (led by Dot and Flik) save the day. It has so many ups and downs it’s like a particularly nausea-inducing roller coaster. I like vast swaths of the movie and I like a lot of the performances. I love the circus bugs and how they add a lot of variety to the cast and visuals. But the whole movie is “OH NO!” followed by “YAY!” and then immediately after there’s another “OH NO!”

As I said, I do enjoy a lot about this movie. The performances are fantastic, with the aforementioned Spacey and Foley doing great jobs with the leads. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is fun as the often exasperated Princess Atta and then there’s Phyllis Diller as her mother. The circus bugs, however, are really the ones I adore. Madeline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary? They’re all fantastic. I would have loved to have the movie be more about them than the beleaguered ant colony. It’s a perfectly nice little movie, but it’s uneven and that’s a pity. More circus bugs would have been just the thing.

December 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

A Bug’s Life

December 27, 2010

A Bug’s Life

We’re almost out of Pixar movies. Of all the ones we own there are only this one and Up that we haven’t reviewed yet. Up because we know that watching it will require an entire box of tissues, and this movie because, well, I just don’t like it that much. It feels like a horrible thing to say, blasphemous somehow, that a Pixar movie isn’t pure genius, but this movie has just never quite done it for me.

It’s clear that an astonishing amount of effort went into this film. The detailed backgrounds are so lush that they almost seem alive at times. There are astonishing crowd scenes involving hundreds of ants. This was only the second feature length Pixar film and the enormous leaps they made in technical ability just from Toy Story to this are astonishing. But Pixar have always been about so much more than technical wizardry, and this film just doesn’t capture me emotionally the way every other Pixar movie does.

I can’t quite put my finger on why it is that I am disappointed in this movie. It has a lot going for it, really. It has Denis Leary as an irritable ladybug with a complex because everybody assumes he’s a lady. It has David Hyde Pierce as a stuck up walking stick. It has a much expanded role for John Ratzenberger who usually has a cameo appearance in all Pixar films but who is a major character in this one. It has one of the last performances by Madeline Kahn. It has Kevin Spacey playing one of the most sinister bad-guys in any children’s movie (you fully believe he’s capable of casual violence.) In short it has a fantastic cast of colorful characters, but even so it fails on some level for me.

The plot revolves around Flik, an ant with ideas. He wants only to use his inventions to help the rest of the ants in his colony, but instead trails disaster behind him everywhere he goes. The ants of ant island are busy preparing an enormous feast for a small cadre of grasshoppers who arrive every year to demand tribute from the ants, but Flik messes everything up and the sacrifice is lost. As a result the nasty grasshoppers promise bloody retribution if their tribute is not gathered before the last leaf falls. Flik gets the notion that he could go out into the wide world and find warrior insects to drive off the grasshoppers when they return, and the other ants are glad to see him go since he won’t be around to mess things up any more.

Flik does find a group of insects that he thinks are mighty warriors, but they are in fact down on their luck circus performers. They think he is looking for entertainment and he thinks they are just the ruthless warriors he has sought, and so they all return to ant island. Of course eventually the comic misunderstanding comes out and some other means of dealing with the grasshoppers must be found, and it all ends with a big action scene.

I really wish I could nail down what it is about this movie that gets so under my skin. Part of the problem is that some of the main characters are so familiar to me. The bumbling inventor. The cute-as-a-button young princess (who reminds me so much of the girl kitten from the Aristocats.) The saucy queen who feels as though she’s transplanted from the Golden Girls. (Played by Phyllis Diller, which amused me.) The whole movie feels more Disney than Pixar. It feels as though it is a sit-com on prime time television. I love the circus performers themselves, they’re a colorful and hilarious group, but everything else in the movie falls flat.

Amanda points out to me that part of my dissatisfaction with this movie might be that the other movie about an ant cast out of the colony which came out in the same year was so much cooler in my eyes. Antz, from Dreamworks animation, was edgier, darker, stranger and more brooding. Of the two movies Antz is by far my favorite, which might be part of why I’m so down on A Bug’s Life – it’s a perfectly good movie but it doesn’t capture my imagination in any way.

Undeniably the best part of the movie is the rotund caterpillar Heimlich played by Pixar staffer Joe Ranft. His performance was meant to be a temp track used to guide the animators and help whatever actor they found to fill the role, but he did it so well that you can’t imagine anybody else in the part. His delightful antics steal every scene and he even gets the last line in the movie. It’s not enough to redeem the movie in my eyes, but it helps, and it brings a smile to my face.

I wish I could just give up and love this movie. It’s got a great homey comfortable soundtrack that screams Randy Newman, which I generally like. It’s got a colorful crew of strange characters and it’s got a lot of actors I enjoy and respect. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just too safe a movie. It never challenges me. It never engages me. At best it makes me chuckle a couple times and doesn’t actively irritate or offend me. It’s just not what I would expect from the geniuses at Pixar.

December 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment