J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Matchstick Men

Posted by J on July 16, 2011

Matchstick Men is a movie that a lot of regular moviewatchers would despise, with good reason.  It stars Nicolas Cage, who, if you don’t like him, you’ll think he’s overacting here.  And then the movie (spoiler alert) is an elaborate con on the main character and all viewers.  Trick endings are tough because they usually require something that, in hindsight, would be practically impossible. The trick ending that this movie offers us is practically impossible, and some people won’t like that.

But oh well.  I accept this movie’s problems because I enjoyed its human considerations.  Cage’s character is well-drawn, complex and rewarding.  He’s an obsessive-compulsive, an agoraphobic, a professional con artist, but also a man hurting because he doesn’t know if his ex-wife bore his child over a decade ago.  As other critics have noted, this movie is three movies in one: a con game, a man-dealing-with-neurosis story, and a father-meets-long-lost-child story.  Cage’s character perfectly converges these three plots.

(FINISH and revise)

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The Next Three Days

Posted by J on May 15, 2011

The Next Three Days is highly entertaining, yet entirely ridiculous.  It qualifies as a how-could-a movie.  A how-could-a movie is a movie during which you keep asking yourself the question “How could?”  As in, how could Harrison Ford possibly survive that jump off the dam in The FugitiveThe Next Three Days might set the record for “how coulds?”

Consider. The main character, Russell Crowe, is a pudgy community college English teacher who has an apprehension about guns.  So of course he is the perfect character to plan and execute a jail break! Of course.  The entire premise of the movie, that Russell Crowe’s character can and will break his wife out of jail, is a how could question.

It turns out that Crowe’s wife is in prison for murder. The evidence points to her guilt, and when she loses her final appeal, she is stuck in the slammer for life. Crowe is quite depressed about this, mostly because she’s attractive. So he mopes about his daily life, playing the father to his six-year-old boy.

But then the idea hits, “why couldn’t I break my wife out of jail?”  Well, aside from the facts that no one has ever escaped this jail and that Crowe has no experience as a criminal mastermind, he certainly could break her out of jail! Why not? So Crowe hires Liam Neeson, who has escaped jail seven times, to give him advice for five minutes about how to break someone out of jail.  It turns out that you really just need willpower and a little luck.

So Crowe spends most of the movie planning the jailbreak.  He uses Youtube a lot. Youtube shows him how to make a bump key, which he tries in an elevator at the jail. That doesn’t work, so he tries to buy fake passports and social security numbers in the ghetto. After he gets beat up and robbed, he goes back to the ghetto with a gun to rob a meth dealer.  He needs money badly, in order to escape the country and bribe corrupt officials in Venezuela, his final destination after he successfully pulls off his impossible plan.  But he has only a few hundred dollars left.  This is quite strange, because even though he has sold his house and all of his furniture, he’s still hanging on to his brand new Toyota Prius, which is his getaway vehicle.

Crowe then robs the meth dealer. He sets fire to the dealer’s house, but the house does not blow up.  This allows Pittsburgh detectives to find a piece of the Prius, which broke off when Crowe ran into a bunch of trashcans while leaving the crimescene.  These detectives turn out to be the ultimate Super Sleuths. They reason that there are 7000 Priuses in the nearby metro area, and thus 7000 suspects.  But they start their search with convicted murderers. Only one murderer owns a Prius: Crowe’s wife.  She couldn’t have committed a crime, though, because she’s in jail.  Yet these Super Sleuths reason that the killer of the meth dealer must be the husband or child of the murderer who owns the Prius.  Of course!  It takes them the better part of a morning to make this brilliant deduction and track down Crowe, who on that very day is executing his elaborate jailbreak.  Chase scene alert!

It’s funny, apparently Super Sleuths don’t make good cops.  While the police detectives find Crowe within hours, they can’t stop him when he’s on a hospital elevator.  Our pudgy English professor hero has, in his infinite wisdom, gotten his diabetic jailbird wife transferred to a hospital.  He then thwarts the Super Sleuths on the hospital elevator. He descends to the parking garage, throws his clothes off of the elevator, and then goes back up to the hospital lobby.  The Sleuths think that he is in the parking garage.  Oh that clever Russell Crowe!

Once Crowe has gotten his wife out of the hospital covertly, he follows Neeson’s advice.  He’s got 35 minutes to get out of Pittsburgh.  But there’s no time to get his son.  It’s either escape now or risk capture later.  Crowe’s wife cannot bear the thought of escaping without their son, so she tries to commit suicide by jumping out of the car.  But Crowe grabs her and hangs onto her as their rental car does a 720 on the interstate at 65 mph.  This is the second time in the movie that Crowe’s wife has attempted suicide, but apparently she’s too attractive to not live with in Venezuela for the next four decades.

Does Crowe get out of the country? As the movie’s hero, should we really be rooting for him to bust a murderer out of jail? These questions I will leave you to ponder, but if you seen only a few Hollywood movies, you should know what their answers are.

These detailed plot points are provided for you to prove that this movie is bursting with unintentional comedy.  Almost none of it makes sense.  It is more a fantasy than The Lord of the Rings.  Admittedly, though, it so entertaining that I didn’t feel like falling asleep during it, the first movie I’ve watched in a while where shuteye was not an option.  If you are looking to spend a mindless evening, then this is your movie.

Posted in Action, Jailbreak, Silly but Entertaining | Leave a Comment »

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Posted by J on February 16, 2011

A professor of ours once declared that there was only one good science fiction work.  Everything else in the genre, he claimed, was simplistic and soon would be outdated, if it wasn’t already.  For science fiction is about ideas and tech, not humans, which is what great literature has to be about.  In science fiction, all characters are one-dimensional. They act in the plot according to their two or three major character traits, and they tend not to exhibit complexity.

We preface this short essay about the first Star Trek movie with this caution about science fiction because Star Trek, as everyone knows, makes little effort to portray human complexities.  Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy are who they are, always. Yes, Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan, but he is merely a simplistic symbol of the clash between logic and emotion.  These characters have amazing adventures, encounter new places, and maintain their friendship.  Their beloved status is accorded to them by viewers and fans, who feel a sense of comfort in any story they inhabit.

But, like we were trying to say, they’re not rich, complex characters. Star Trek is about the adventure and the ideas behind the Enterprise’s encounters with new aliens and planets. The franchise, like this first movie, tends to rip off of Western “classics.”  Here, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a major influence. In the second Star Trek movie, Moby-Dick is employed.

The first Star Trek movie, this one, might be the best, which isn’t saying much. Its flaws are numerous. It is badly dated, for one.  The tech might’ve looked fascinating in 1979, but it shows limited imagination today.  Like those really small viewer screens, for example. Wouldn’t they be larger, crisper, and three-dimensional today? But again, in science fiction, the wonders of tech soon become outdated jokes.

The idea behind this first movie is that human technology can develop its own consciousness, which is not all that interesting an idea anymore.  The big secret here is that the NASA probe Voyager has become a living organism.  It emits a massive cloud that destroys everything, and the big problem is that this cloud is heading for Earth. The Enterprise is the only ship that has a chance of stopping it.  So Kirk, Spock, and friends, try to stop the cloud.

That’s about it for the plot. It should be said that Voyager did not develop consciousness on its own, but that some bizarre race of machines way beyond the galaxy, or somewhere, took in Voyager and gave it consciousness.  We are supposed to be overawed with what Voyager has become. It is massive and powerful, according to the crew. It tries to communicate with the crew via a human-like probe, after taking one of the ship’s crew and using her body as the probe.  This idea, that we can communicate fairly easily with the unknown, is silly. The hope of easy communication fuels SETI’s futile search for the alien life, but the novels of Stanislaw Lem offer cautionary wisdom about the impossibility of communicating with something so completely different than us.  (Lem, of course, uses science fiction to discuss complex human issues.)

Despite Voyager’s superior intelligence and technology, it is a moron. It couldn’t, for example, figure out who the “Creator” is.  The Creator is NASA, but Voyager thinks that “carbon-based units” are too simplistic to create anything. Voyager has traveled through the galaxy, it has unimaginable quantities of data, it has incredible reasoning capability, and yet it can’t figure out that humans are capable of building machines?

But the worst howler is that Voyager thinks its name is “V-ger.”  That because it didn’t blow the dust off the letters “O – Y – A.”  When Kirk and company finally see “V-ger,” they realize that its name is actually Voyager, only that those three crucial letters can’t be seen.

It has to be said that Star Trek is always filled with unintentional comedy like this, so it makes for decent, light, nonsensical entertainment for those like us who have a soft spot for science fiction. There’s a sense in which this movie is one of the most boring of all Star Trek stories, but we kind of like its attempt at grandiosity and the involvement of the Voyager probe. Other Trek fare features human-like aliens, and thus dives into sociology and politics. But Trek is at its limited best when its about grand ideas about tech, so, in a sense, this is possibly the best movie of the series.

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 2 Comments »

The Devil’s Brigade

Posted by J on February 15, 2011

We thought there was a rule that no WWII mission movie could be unwatchable.  No such movie can go wrong, theoretically.  The premise promises adventure — a team of soldiers or commandos goes on an impossible mission in exotic territory.  The setting is wartime, and the good guys and bad guys are obvious and without ambiguity.

Yet The Devil’s Brigade is one of the lesser of WWII mission movies, unwatchable in parts, and trite in every way.  Here the mission is for a band of misfits to get in shape, then storm a mountain where unreachable Nazis fire artillery guns at will.  But the movie sucks the life out of this mission, meandering whenever it needs to move forward.

There is a standard formula for movies like this.  It goes according to this plan:

1) Commanding officer gets a special assignment, then assembles group of outcasts and criminals to prepare to perform special assignment.  Each outcast has his own wacky, distinctive personality.

2) The group of outcasts doesn’t gel at first.  There will be a fistfight or two, but then an incident occurs that unites them as a group.  Usually this incident involves fistfights, too.

3) The group of outcasts get a special assignment, but something goes wrong, except team spirit and willpower overcome whatever went wrong.  In the end, the commanding officer will survive, as will a few of the outcasts, but many of them will die and each will get his own special moment where he dies gloriously in battle.

While The Devil’s Brigade follows this generic formula, it goes wrong in a number of ways.  The first is that none of the individual members of the brigade are all that interesting.  None is a colorful character.  Even near the end of the movie, it’s hard to distinguish one guy from another, even though the movie has tried very hard to establish its characters as likeable and unique.

The second way it goes wrong is that it gives the brigade two special assignments, thereby limiting the screen time spent on each assignment.  As a result, the brigade’s first mission is incredibly dull — sneaking into a base and catching a few German officers showering.  The movie does promise that the brigade will go to Norway, which would’ve been the best route for the plot to take, except the brigade gets shipped off to Italy instead.  While this may be historically accurate, the movie does little justice to the real Devil’s Brigade anyway, so why not have a cool snow battle in Norway involving skiing and crossbows?

The movie was released in 1968, in the opening years of the Vietnam war, which means it’s really about Vietnam and not WWII.  It argues for an military alliance with Canada, a signifier for any potential foreign ally that we might not like (the Americans harbor antipathy for the Canadians in the movie) but that would be useful anyway.  It’s hard to watch this now and not think that the outcasts, criminals, and rapscallions who comprise the brigade are representative of wayward youths in the late ’60s, the kinds of guys needed in 1968 for the U.S. Army.  The movie shows us that we can trust these wayward youths, who can be turned into a valiant fighting force for good, if only we give some courageous leader like William Holden a chance.  Fortunately, the ending to The Devil’s Brigade isn’t all that happy, but any WWII mission movie like this inherently praises modern war as the pinnacle for the exhibition of several male virtues, such as courage, endurance, and toughness.  Unfortunately, to get through this movie without falling asleep, you too will need these virtues.

Posted in Action, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

The Wages of Fear

Posted by J on February 12, 2011

Apparently, there’s an audience for watching tough guys do dangerous jobs.  There’s no other explanation for the popularity of the cable TV shows about deep sea fishermen, ice road truckers, demolition experts, barbarian beef eaters, and skydiving snake handlers.  At least a few people like to dream that a tiny part of the world isn’t touched by feminine influence.  Would you be surprised to know that a 1953 French movie would fit right in on the TV schedule after Iceroad TruckersThe Wages of Fear works as a modern guy movie.

What’s fascinating is the way it’s presented nowadays.  Look at the cover from the Criterion Collection’s DVD.  It depicts a couple of tired and defeated men, looking like they’ve been watching a bunch of boring Criterion films in a row.  Reader, do not pay heed to this cover.  Look at the original movie poster above.  That’s the movie you will see.  These tired-looking men have a fantastic reason to look tired.  They’re driving a truck filled with nitroglycerin for 300 miles down a terrible road.  They could blow up at any second!  At the point in the movie where they look tired, they’ve just hauled the truck out of a pool of oil, and the guy on the left got his leg smashed.

The movie starts in South America — Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname, we don’t know — in a forsaken place where there are a few ex-pats.  Some Americans, Germans, Brits, Italians, and French hang around a tiny bar in a tiny town that exists to serve the oil industry.  The American company, SOC, operates oil wells near the town.  But the ex-pats can’t get a job, so they just bum around at the bar all day.

Jo, an old French guy, arrives in town and meets Mario, a young French guy.  Mario takes to Jo, who shows his toughness in a near-bar fight.  Mario would like to hang around Jo and leave his French girlfriend, who seems to be the local prostitute.  But how can he ditch that girlfriend?  And where will he get a job?

Well, an oil well explodes.  SOC needs to put out the fire, and it needs explosives to do it. Bill O’Brien, head of SOC’s operations, wants the job done now, without regard to safety.  He orders that regular old trucks haul containers of nitroglycerin to the oil wells.  These trucks don’t have shock absorbers, so one bad bump and BOOM!  Who will drive these trucks?  O’Brien reasons that the local ex-pats will do it.  They don’t have a union and they’ll each jump at the chance to earn $2000 for a day’s work. (This explains the Criterion’s cover, which has an implicit political message about colonialism, exploitation, capitalist greed, and whatever else is supposedly wrong with the world.)

Four drivers are selected, all of whom we’ve learned a little about in the movie’s first hour, including Jo and Mario.  Two trucks will go, two men per truck. Why two trucks? In case one of them blows up.

So the trucks begin a long journey down a perilous road.  We know this is a total guy movie because, as Mario’s truck leaves town, his girlfriend jumps onto it.  Mario pushes her off, she falls onto the road, and she watches the men leave.  The scene closes on her as if to say “no women are allowed passed this point!”  Hauling nitroglycerin, it turns out, is only a job for the toughest of guys. (The ending, which has baffled all kinds of people, absolutely reinforces this point about “no women allowed.”)

The mission seems suicidal.  What happens if the trucks hit a washboard road?  How do they handle hairpin turns up steep hills?  How do they get around boulders that have fallen into the road?  The movie’s tense moments hold up well against any modern action movie you can name.    In fact, reader, the last hour-and-a-half of The Wages of Fear is one of the best stretches in cinema’s short history.  It makes the iceroad truckers look like they are making cupcakes.

Posted in Action, Great | Leave a Comment »

The Straight Story

Posted by J on February 10, 2011

There are a lot of road movies, many of which are about individual catharsis. Few, if any, are better than The Straight Story, a celebration of the upper Midwest.  If you’ve experienced them, you’ve probably enjoyed leisurely drives on two-lane highways through the endless cornfields of the Midwest.  This movie offers you such a drive, only you’ll be going at a much slower pace.  Think three miles an hour, on a lawnmower.

Why a lawnmower?  Well, Alvin Straight doesn’t have many options.  He’s diabetic, so he can’t see well, and his hips don’t work so he has to use two canes.  Somewhat stubborn, he insists on going by himself.  And there’s no bus to his brother’s house.  You can’t expect any kind of transportation from Laurens, Iowa to western Wisconsin, unless you provide it yourself.

Straight hasn’t talked to his brother in ten years, when he learns that his brother has suffered a stroke.  73 years old, given a bill of poor health by his doctor, it is now or never for Alvin.  He desires reconciliation with his estranged brother.  With no wife and and one adult child at his home, Alvin could leave, if there were any way to do so.  How can he get to his brother?  That clunky old Rehms lawnmower might be the way to go.

So Alvin stocks up on hotdogs, builds a trailer to tow behind his lawnmower, and heads out.  He’s got 400 miles to traverse.  As it will turn out, this journey is not simply about reconciling with his brother, but dealing with loneliness and old age.

Based on a true story, The Straight Story is not straightforward in its description of Straight’s history.  During his six-week journey, he meets several strangers — a pregnant runaway, a group of bicyclers, a Catholic priest.  At each stop, in each conversation, we learn something new about Straight.  He had 14 children, but only seven lived past childbirth.  He has been a widow for 15 years.  And he is a WWII vet who lives with the pain of a terrible accident.  The more we learn about Straight, the better the movie gets.

Does Straight reach his brother?  He is threatened by the fast pace of vehicles that pass him by.  He also doesn’t have brakes on his trailer, a major problem because his lawnmower is certainly not designed to pull that trailer.   It’s hard to imagine the transmission on his ’66 John Deere lasting for 400 miles — his old Rehms broke down a few miles into the journey.  What would happen if the John Deere breaks down? Not only do we find out, but the movie makes you feel as if you are traveling at Straight’s pace, watching everything else move too quickly. Straight’s pace, it seems, is the right pace for such a journey.

At one point, Straight tells us that he and his brother had, at their last meeting, the harshest of exchanges, fueled by alcohol.  But they used to camp out every summer night on their Minnesota farm, as children, talking to each other.  A brother knows you best, Straight reasons, because he knows your whole life.  Straight’s journey and his attempt to reconcile with family is deeply affecting.  It is a puzzle why more movies like this — G-rated, but not saccharine — don’t exist. The Straight Story is the opposite of Facing the Giants and it makes the hyper-emotional nonsense of such Christian fare look foolish. We should not forget it.

Posted in Great, Modern Drama | Leave a Comment »

The Prisoner (1955)

Posted by J on February 3, 2011

The cardinal is arrested.  He is told that he is a man of the church, someone outside of the state.  For suspected treason, he is interrogated and tortured for weeks, and he is ordered to confess his crimes against the state.  So goes the setup of The Prisoner (1955), a movie relevant today for its portrayal of a lawless democratic regime that has no regard for habeus corpus or human dignity.

This movie was somewhat scandalous when it was first released.  Banned at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, the movie might have been considered, by any viewer, an attack against post-World War II, Western governments that were occupied by Germany during WWII.  In the opening scene, the cardinal, pictured on the DVD cover, is arrested just after mass.  What he is arrested for is unclear.  He soon faces an interrogator, a seemingly friendly man whose job it is to get the cardinal to confess something.  This begins a battle of wits between the two men.  But the interrogator has resources on his side; he can edit the cardinal’s tape-recorded words, and he can torture him psychologically.

What crime did the cardinal commit?  We are never even told. The Prisoner is quite vague on details, and so it can apply to many historical scenarios.  The characters do not have names; they are simply the cardinal and the interrogator.  We do not know the country in which the cardinal is arrested, although there are hints that it takes place in France.

We do, however, know that both he and the interrogator were part of the Resistance movement against their former Nazi occupiers.  After the war, each man finds himself loyal to different authorities.  The cardinal’s chief crime, it seems, is to harbor some loyalty to an authority outside the state, in this case, the Catholic church.  As he tells the interrogator, the modern Western state that has arrested him has acted no differently than the Nazis.  The Prisoner is adamant that democracies can be totalitarian tyrannies.

Essentially a simple morality tale about the modern state run amuck, the movie is a setpiece for its two main actors, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins.  Guinness plays the cardinal, a man subjected to thorough psychological examination, whose crimes — a suicide attempt in his past; little affection for his mother — really amount to nothing except “human weakness”.  The interrogator, played by Hawkins, tries to know the cardinal better than the cardinal knows himself.  His attempted friendship, however, will only be used to get the cardinal to confess uncommitted crimes against the state in court.

The highlights of the movie are its themes about democratic tyrannies — as relevant today as ever — and the interplay between Guinness and Hawkins.  The script is its chief problem; many lines and scenes are predictable.  We wished that Graham Greene would’ve written this script instead, but Greene would never have written anything this aesthetically simply.  The movie displays many of Greene’s major themes, one of which is the Western trudge towards a totalitarianism accepted by the general populace.  The key character in the The Prisoner is the interrogator, a nice man, whose unquestioned allegiance to the state ruins the application of his intelligent mind and warps his human compassion.  There are a lot of these people today.

Posted in Modern Drama, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

The Night of the Hunter

Posted by J on January 31, 2011

It’s possible that The Night of the Hunter is the best film ever made.  That’s such a contentious claim, we know.  But as a midwestern Americans, we understand it very well, and thematically and aesthetically it fits the current accepted criteria for “great movie.”  So let’s just agree to call it one of the best yet made.

There is a lot of America in the movie, past and present.  A psychopath who disguises himself as a preacher, Harry Powell, who seems to believe that he is doing the Lord’s work, attacks and robs widows.  He does this by seducing them first with his God talk.  Thrown in jail for stealing a car, Powell learns of $10,000 in stolen cash from Ben Harper, a fellow prisoner who, the day after he tells Powell about the money, is executed for murder.  Harper has a wife and two children.  This is a great opportunity for Powell. Once released from jail, he heads to the Harper homestead.

The problem is that no one knows where the money is, except for Harper’s two children, John and Pearl.  The battle is on between Powell and the children.  Powell first seduces the townsfolk with a religious story about the battle between “Love” and “Hate.” words he has written on the knuckles of his left and right hands.  He then seduces Mrs. Harper and marries her.  For the kids, this is a big problem.  Their new stepdad is a psychopath.  For Mrs. Harper, now Mrs. Powell, it is a wild descent into being brainwashed by a misogynist.  She sides with Powell, and against her children, while believing that sex is an unclean abomination.

What we have described so far is a plotline that we tend to avoid.  We don’t enjoy being around psychopaths in reality, and we don’t like watching them on screen, especially those who try to torment children.  If this movie had been made anytime between the 1970s and today, it would’ve been a disaster. It most likely would’ve been a horror film strictly about a creep who chases children.  But this movie veers, in its third act, upwards to another level.  By doing so, it becomes a kind of Midwestern fairy tale — the old kind of fairy tale, like the stories of Brothers Grimm, where the bad guys are really maniacs who murder for pleasure.

The movie depicts the faults and virtues of the Midwest.  Granted, the faults of the Midwest and South have been the feature of many a film.    There have been so many idiotic or psychopathic rednecks in the last forty years of movies that we get really defensive about the depiction of our native region.  And Harry Powell may be the ultimate Midwestern psychopath. He talks to God and deceives all of the townsfolk, who believe him to be an honorable man of God.  But Powell’s character is balanced by another’s — whose we won’t say — who enters the third act and introduces hope into the story.  The movie does not treat Christianity as if it is a religion of hucksters and brainwashed fools.  It is quite honest about the possibilities of proclaimed Christians.  Powell, who sings “Leaning on Jesus,” is a devil in disguise, the townsfolk are naive fools who eventually form a lawless mob, but others are genuine Christians in word and practice.

The idea of Huck Finn is also attacked in this movie. John Harper, probably 8 years old, is a kind of Huck Finn, a would-be orphan who floats down the river.  But John is forced into playing Huck Finn by foolish and sinister adults.  And in the end, he is the anti-Huck Finn who needs reforming from a charitable Aunt Polly.  John’s fatherlessness is a major problem, and his substitute father (Powell) is an even bigger one.  The idea that he will be taught — via the story of the baby Moses — is that Christian doctrine provides the ultimate Father.

We like movies that have a touch of the mythical.  The Night of the Hunter has that.  It is a morality tale that taps into primal feelings and makes you root hard for the children and against Powell.  And it mythologically elevates Middle America.  Since this is one of a handful of movies that do that for our beloved, native land, for us, it is special.

Posted in Great, Horror | Leave a Comment »

Inception

Posted by J on January 25, 2011

It seems odd to think of Inception as a science-fiction heist flick.  While it is just that, it never feels like that.  Perhaps that’s because, as viewers, we’re too absorbed and distracted to think about this.  Instead, we are constantly trying to listen for and learn this movie’s rules.  It has a lot of rules.  It makes them up as it goes along, but that never bothered us.  The movie is its own self-defined fantasy world.

Others have had problems with the movie’s logical expositions.  There are lots and lots of didactic moments, where the characters tell each other — and thus the audience — exactly what the rules of the dream world are.  These didactic moments are necessary because the movie is complicated.  The main character, Cobb, must implant an idea in Robert Fischer’s mind.  The way to do this is through dreams.  To get Fischer to believe that his recently-deceased father, head of a major energy corporation, wants Fischer to be his own man and split up the company, Cobb must create a dream within a dream within a dream.  Then he must guide Fischer through these dreams. Usually Cobb is involved in missions called “extractions,” in which he finds an idea in someone’s mind, but his mission here is the much harder process of idea-implantation known as “inception.”

To perform inception, Cobb must assemble a team.  He picks a chemist, a forger, a right-hand man, and an architect.  The architect creates the dream worlds, which must be enclosed, complex mazes so that the dreamer doesn’t realize that he/she is dreaming.   Cobb’s architect, a college student named Ariadne, finds that dream worlds are planes of “pure creation.”  There is a sense of wonder about this, but also dread.  A dreamer’s subconscious can turn upon other dreamers, attacking them with its manifestations.  And then there’s the problem of Cobb.  In dreams, Cobb’s dead wife keeps showing up and ruining his plans.  Ariadne worries that Cobb’s involvement will ruin the inception of Fischer.

It is nearly impossible to criticize this movie’s logic because it is its own self-contained entity.  We could ask, why is it safe to have three dream levels, but four dream levels is dangerous, the fourth level being the dreaded “Limbo,” which is the realm of “unreconstructed dream space”?  Why does the dream world experience zero-gravity if the dreamer experiences zero gravity?  We could go on questioning, but that’s pointless.  Questions like these do arise because, somehow, someway, the movie seems far more realistic than it really is.  The technology that makes shared dreaming possible is barely noticeable — it’s just a small, shiny gray box.  What does the box do?  How does it work?  Again, these aren’t relevant questions for this movie.

Inception‘s dream worlds resemble reality, but they allow architects to create entirely new, enticing places. This can be dangerous.  Cobb and his wife, Mal, once spent decades in a dream world, though technically it was only minutes of reality.  Mal loved the dream world too much.  As the movie shows, she loved an abstraction of real life — a fantasy world of statis — more than our everyday reality that necessarily involves time and change.  The threat to Cobb and his accomplices is that they, too, will get stuck in “Limbo” forever.

There are some obvious themes, then, that relate to modern addictions to fantasy worlds.  In a certain sense, we get sucked in to virtual worlds, whether in a video game, or a TV show, or online.  These virtual worlds must be fairly potent; for examples, head to your local library and witness dozens of people playing mindless games, fantasizing in Second Life, or creating new personalities on social networking sites. As with Inception’s dream box, these newer, digital mediums create dreams for us to inhabit and lose ourselves in.

Also, the movie touches on whether the mind is constructed by culture and influenced by visual communication.  Cobb’s mission is to implant an unwanted idea into another’s head.  This is a reasonable working definition for “propaganda.”  The idea that words and images can create reality — can bend or distort reality — is a powerful one for 20th century philosophy.  It is also the idea behind advertising.  While we think some arguments for the power of images to shape minds go too far, images certainly have some motivating effect on us all.  Watch this Darren Brown video on subliminal advertising for an example.  What Brown does is not far from what Cobb does in Inception.

It’s worth pointing out that Inception is an amalgam of other movies.  It’s already well known that the movie uses Fred Astaire’s dancing sequence from Royal Wedding, as well as various James Bond ski-resort scenes.  It also has major elements of every heist movie yet made, though the way Inception uses them to invent its own, unique world is probably the movie’s greatest success.  Implantation of ideas into another’s mind has long been a plot device for sci-fi.  We recently watched an episode of the 1960s series The Prisoner in which this was attempted (see “A.B. and C.“).  As a compilation of other movies, Inception is its own dream world.  It is about the effect of movies on viewer behavior, and it is about itself.

(Addendum: What’s interesting about this movie, psychologically, is the way that it conveys the directional space of dreams so effortlessly. In the final sequence, there are four dream levels.  As confusing as this could be, we know intuitively that these levels are layered, that one is on top of another.  We still can’t figure out why we get this certain feeling of the dream layers being organized vertically, but the movie pulls it off.  Well done.

Also novel is the ticking clock used in this movie.  Instead of a timer that counts down to zero, a van that falls off a bridge into the ocean is the clock.  This is an example of the way that the movie reinvents many cliches of the action genre.)

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Pretty Good, Reality-Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 1 Comment »

The Social Network

Posted by J on January 21, 2011

The Blu-ray and DVD covers for The Social Network aren’t typical covers, since their focal points are critics’ blurbs about how great this movie is. “An American Landmark!”  “A Brilliant Film.”  “Mammoth and Exhilarating.”  This all seems a little too boastful, and the curmudgeons in us, upon seeing this cover, immediately wanted to dislike this movie.

Well, we were entertained enough, though there were no exhilarating mammoths. But The Social Network ultimately fails in number of ways and it might be quickly forgotten.  As is well known, the movie is about the creation of Facebook.  500 million people use Facebook, and so the movie has a ready-made audience.  The story is told through a legal deposition in which Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is sued by his former business partner, Eduardo Saverin, who put up $19,000 to in start-up cash, and an identical twin pair, the Winklevosses. The movie is almost as much about the failures of Saverin and the Winklevosses as it is about Zuckerberg’s successes.

The movie cuts between flashbacks to Facebook’s formation at Harvard and California in 2003-2004, and the 2008 testimony at the deposition.  This structure works well, but it assumes that viewers know what Facebook is and why this deposition matters.  Yes, most people know this well today, but they may not tomorrow.  The problem with giving an Oscar to this movie is the looming threat of irrelevance.  How much would people today care about a 2004 movie about the founding of Myspace?  A 1995 movie about the founding of Microsoft or Apple would still be relevant; a similar movie about AOL or Sega would not be.  And we all would be bored to death now by a movie about Atari, Netscape, and Gateway. (A list of failed tech companies from the 1970s would be too obscure.) Obviously, powerful tech companies can vanish very quickly.

The Social Network sharply contrasts modern entrepreneurial spirit with the narcissism and arrogance of those same entrepreneurs.  In the opening scene, Zuckerberg has a conversation in a bar with his girlfriend, Erica. How Zuckerberg ever got a girlfriend, and one as patient as her, is a plot hole that is ignored.  Zuckerberg is a narcissist and an exacting logician, so Erica dumps him.  Angered, Zuckerberg returns to his dormroom to create a website called Facemash, in which users choose who the hottest girls at Harvard are.  Zuckerberg is best when programming at his computer — a phenomenon termed “wired in” in the movie — but worst when he’s talking to others.  This is the Nerd that you’ve seen a thousand times in movies, only this Nerd is annoyingly arrogant, not shy.

The Winklevoss twins hear of the success of Zuckerberg’s Facemash website, and so they ask him to work on a “Harvard Connection” website.  Zuckerberg agrees, but then never does anything for them.    This leads the Winklevosses to believe that Zuckerberg, once Facebook’s success is obvious, stole their ideas.  They are rich, handsome and athletic, and the movie makes them out to be spurned, prideful, gentleman jocks.  Once again, the Nerd defeats the Preppy Jock at the movies.

The Social Network makes it clear that Zuckerberg’s only good friend is Saverin.  It is supposed to be ironic that Zuckerberg, who creates a website where you could find 500 million friends, abandons his own friend to create a billion-dollar company.  Repeatedly, Saverin claims that Zuckerberg is not interested in money.  He may not be, but he seems interested in the power that money brings, a temptation offered to him by Sean Parker, founder of Napster.  The film’s last act shows how Saverin was pushed aside and how Parker stepped in to own 6% of Facebook.  Parker is a successful entrepreneur who seemingly has no friends, but he does have money and women.

So Saverin sues Zuckerberg because he, Saverin, put up the initial capital for Facebook and was CFO. It seems that he was tricked into signing a bad contract that, eventually, made his share of the company drop from 34% to .03%.  Since that company is supposedly worth $25 billion, Saverin is just a little peeved.

This is a movie that misunderstands what its major themes should be.  It focuses on the irony of the lack of friendship between its characters, who nevertheless are creating a website about finding friends.  But Facebook is not a website about finding friends, which is so easy to do that it makes the term “friend” meaningless.  Facebook is about proclaiming yourself to the world, about showing the triumph of you and your likes and dislikes, of trying to tell everybody that you matter.  Given who these characters are, it makes complete sense that they would create such a website.

The final scene — spoiler alert — shows Zuckerberg as desiring the thing he couldn’t have.  He sends a friend request on Facebook to Erica, the girlfriend who broke up with him and whom he mistreated.  Then he refreshes the page over and over to see if she will “accept his friend request.”  This is ridiculous.  Would Zuckerberg, a 25-year old billionaire and head of a global company that 10% of the world’s population uses, care about something so insignificant?  The movie has spent so much time trying to show Zuckerberg’s arrogance and narcissism, and he is clearly at the point in life where the abundance of money and power that he has would feed those qualities.  And yet the ending of the movie tries to figure him as a man longing for the past, a quality that usually manifests itself in much older people. Remember Charles Foster Kane uttering “Rosebud”?  It’s as if Kane were long for his Rosebud as a young newspaper owner, not as an old man on his deathbed. Reader, if I were a 25-year old billionaire, the last thing I would ever think about is the girlfriend I barely knew who dumped me five years ago.  Try me when I’m 75, maybe.

Posted in Modern Drama, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | 1 Comment »