Sunday, July 18, 2010

Memories, Dreams, Projections

I recently read the late great Donald E. Westlake’s posthumously published novel, “Memory.” It is a different sort of noir. Its moral is: “Don’t sleep with the wife of a guy in a town so small that guy has lots of power.” Its theme, however, is deeper and longer-lasting: Our memories identify us. Without long-term memories, who are we? As Westlake’s protagonist struggles to regain his memory, to regain his life, his long-term memories travel farther away, and then the short-term memories start to fail him as well. The book is more frightening than you might think. I woke up thinking about its protagonist’s noir nightmare over a week after I finished reading it. "Memory" stays with you.

Memory plays a major role in the new film “Inception,” written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who gave us “Memento,” a story about memory loss. For Inception, Nolan and his production designer Guy Dyas clearly spent a great deal of time staring at M.C. Escher’s lithographs and engravings. It appears they journeyed by Escher’s paradoxical stairways and looked beyond the contradictory, impossible, illogical images to find the impossible and illogical thought processes that might have inspired them.

This film has a slew of marvelous images and scenes, with reality bending back on itself, and people real and unreal having physical impact on the scenes and the characters. The film takes us to real places in Paris and Morocco, and many unreal places. And the unreality of Place in this film is important, creative, and fascinating.

As for the story, well this is Christopher Nolan. It’s convoluted, complicated, and finally ambiguous. Which I quite like.

Sometime in the presumably near future (since nothing else seems futuristic), there is an art/science of joining in someone else’s dreams and lifting secrets from the subject’s subconscious. There is, therefore, a countermeasure to protect corporate secrets and such like, in which potential subjects are taught how to fight back in the virtual reality of their multi-level dreams. Naturally fighting back includes security forces, guns, bombs, and Hummvees. Otherwise there would be no explosions. Either extracting the desired information or fighting said extraction is called “Extraction.” I think. The imaginary extras, guns, and bombs, are projections.

“Inception,” on the other hand, is implanting an idea, or its seed, into the deep subconscious of a subject such that he or she develops the idea on his/her own, believing it was always his own idea, not an external suggestion. The “Inception” planned in Inception is necessarily a simple one. Implementing the implant is not at all simple. The scenarios contrived to implant the mark in Inception require sensitivity and some psychology. And, apparently, some action scenes.

Naturally the team that plans the Inception is imperfect. They are:

Leonardo diCaprio as Cobb, in exile from his U.S. home, wanting only to get back there to be with his children. He has an unfortunate habit of creating an image of his very angry wife in whatever dreamscape he enters. She has a habit of destroying his well-laid plans.

Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s very angry wife, Mal. This is pronounced as “Molly” without the “ly,” but spelled as “bad,” which I think is excessive. Ms. Cotillard is never excessive, however. She is sleek and magnifique.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, rather uptight, the stable partner, the friend. He has a somewhat antagonistic relationship with another member of the team, Eames, which allows for a bit of brash banter.

Tom Hardy as the Forger, Eames. In dreamscape, this means not that he draws other people’s pictures, but rather that he becomes, impersonates real people in the subject’s life, but of course giving said people the dialogue and behavior required for the scenario to work.

Ellen Page as Ariadne, the student Architect of the dreamscapes. She replaces the first Architect we meet, the woefully underused (not just in this film, but in all of Hollywood) Lucas Haas. In trailers, Page appears too young for this film, but considering her function, her youth is not an issue. Still, it’s not the work we like to see her do.

Ken Watanabe is the Client, Mr. Saito. He is extremely rich and powerful, but all is not well in his world. He begins the film as the subject of another job, but outsmarts the team he wants to put to work toward his own ends. My favorite line of the film is his: “I bought the airline. I thought it was simpler.” Well, yes, it was.

Dileep Rao is the Chemist. There are a lot of drugs in this film, just not the ones you expect. All sorts of people stick things in their arms and fall into false sleeps. It’s creepy.

Not technically part of the team but an inspiration for some of its members, Michael Caine is the teacher as well as the father-in-law of Cobb, and therefore the grandfather of the two small children we see from the back and the side out of the corner of Cobb’s eye.

Willingly or unwillingly, subjects of the above team’s jobs are chemically induced into sleep and sharing dreams with the members of the team, the people we seem to be rooting for. Every avenue of such an enterprise is morally reprehensible. Practitioners of these arts/sciences are the protagonists of the film. They’d better be sympathetic. Alas, not awfully. But not to worry. The marks are even less sympathetic. The marks are:

Pete Postlethwaite as the dying corporate king with an empire spanning too many enterprises including energy.

Cillian Murphy as his heir apparent, otherwise known as Postlethwaite’s son. He’s the immediate mark, the object of Saito’s desire to implant an important idea in the mind of his primary competitor.

Tom Berenger is the right hand man/lawyer to father and son emperors. We’ll never know if Berenger’s or Postlethwaite’s characters are really terrible people – just their positions in the story make them the badder guys.

The primary goal of the leading character, diCaprio’s Cobb, is clear. He will do anything to find a way home to his kids, who are in the U.S., where Cobb may not return. Saito’s power level is such that he can “fix” the problem that keeps Cobb in exile.

The primary goal of the client Saito is also clear. He wants to destroy his business rival, not only because he’s got a global monopoly on everything, but because said monopoly threatens the safety of the world.

The primary goals of all the other characters are unclear. It’s a job. But if we consider this the heist story that it really is, that’s not a problem. In most heist stories, all the criminals are doing the job that is required to get by. And really, all these characters are criminals to some degree, some more blatantly than others.

In any case, it’s pretty damn cool to look at, particularly the Parisian scenes as Cobb explores the mental skills of Ariadne as his new ‘architect.’ Also fun are the scenes in a level of unconsciousness in which Arthur performs acrobatic feats, with and without partners, in hotel hallways, rooms, and elevator shafts, all without gravity. The scenes of the destruction of dreams are awe-inspiring.

Oddly enough this very visual film is not in 3D, for which I profusely thank Mr. Nolan, his fellow producers, and Warner Brothers. Story does matter here, and Inception’s multiple levels and dimensions have support both visually and in terms of the storytelling.

Please don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed Inception, laughed the very few times it was appropriate, and held my breath in the last shot focusing on a spinning top. Perhaps its heist-like nature made its lack of humor stand out to me. The performances were fine, but not outstanding. This is not a film about actors’ performances. It’s about visualizing adventurous unreal dreams and nightmares, testing the trustworthiness of memory, testing the moral fiber of society and science. And society and science fail. The premise sticks in my craw. But this unpleasant story is brought to life expertly. The “realities” created in the dream levels can crumble when the dream architecture isn’t working, and the disintegration of the architecture is portrayed with such imagination and skill that it’s magnificent and frightening. And sometimes it looks rather like Montauk.
Inception is one of those films that I’ll enjoy seeing more than once. I’m sure I missed a level or two. And it’s still mighty hot outside….

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Time to find the nearest A/C (shorthand for moviehouse).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Knight, Day, and a Night Train

On a hot Saturday evening, in a theatre that needs to repair its screen, where the air conditioning is sufficient but not frigid, Knight and Day is a sweet, silly, romantic-comedy-action-thriller. Its two stars are charming and funny, its fight scenes, stunts, chases, and crashes are sharp and exciting. If its villains are a tad dull and predictable, its MacGuffin is twofold and clever.

Mostly, though, it’s about Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Although it’s not advertised as a ‘second time around’ romance, neither Mr. Cruise nor Ms. Diaz are spring chickens, nor is there any attempt to portray them as such. Ms. Diaz plays a woman who has taken over her late father’s shop rebuilding classic cars. Her June Havens has been wooed by a much younger man (fireman Rodney played by Marc Blucas), has a younger sister named April getting married within the week, and might, in a lesser tale, be thought to be going into desperation mode. Mr. Cruise is that familiar secret agent, has other secrets of his own, and in a moment of connection talks about the fateful word, “Someday.” We all have our “someday” dreams, and Cruise’s “Roy Miller” voices some romantic dreams of balconies and seas and exotic locales.

Then all the action starts. And continues. Director James Mangold and writer Patrick O’Neill have focused on the dialogue, the action, and the characters in this gift to Mr. Cruise and Ms. Diaz. The story makes enough sense to not be bothersome.

Viola Davis is wasted in a marginal managerial role for which I hope she receives points. Blucas is a good but dull puppy dog. Peter Sarsgaard is, with just a touch of a Southern lilt, a predictable sleaze. And Paul Dano is quite good as half a MacGuffin, a brainy, socially incompetent young man.

The chemistry between Cruise and Diaz is believable and enjoyable. Everything that occurs in the story, were one to be foolish and grumpy enough to think about it, is quite absurd. But if you prefer to think of a hot July night as a sultry summer evening, the romantic in you will enjoy Knight and Day.

That’s 2010. In contrast, back in 1940, the young Carol Reed (later to direct such films as The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, and Trapeze) directed a clever little script called Night Train to Munich written by the same two fellows (Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder) who wrote the delightful Hitchcock thriller, The Lady Vanishes. Night Train also shares with that film its leading lady, Margaret Lockwood, and two bumbling British characters who generally care more about cricket than the state of the world, played again by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. Michael Redgrave’s cocky unintentional hero of The Lady Vanishes is not here – instead a young Rex Harrison is just as cocky, even more vain (if possible) and quite determined to be the hero. Paul Henreid (billed under his original name, Paul von Hernried) appears as …. perhaps a romantic interest, perhaps a Nazi agent. The film even opens similarly to The Lady Vanishes, with a rather poor model of a mountain mansion inside of which we find an annoyed Adolf Hitler pounding a map of Austria, then one of Sudetenland, and then Prague, where the story of the film begins. Several dreadful models do crop up throughout the film and interfere with our willing suspension of disbelief momentarily. However, story wins out.

Unlike with The Lady Vanishes, World War II was already in full swing when this film was released, so there’s no pussy-footing about as to who the villains are. The villains are Nazis, and as they swoop into Prague, an elderly gentleman scientist is flown out to England, while his daughter is captured and sent to a concentration camp. That’s Margaret Lockwood, and there she meets Paul Henreid. There were quite a few changes in the world in the short time period between the filming of The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich which darken this story. Incursion of the Third Reich into more and more of Europe, heightening the threat to the rest of the world, increases the tension here, particularly in the latter half of the film. The sight of Paul Henreid in a Gestapo uniform is extremely unpleasant even if not entirely surprising to a cynical 21st century filmgoer. Nevertheless, from Prague, to concentration camp to escape to a night boat to England, to recapture, to a submarine that somehow gets them all to Berlin in a remarkably short period of time, and finally to that night train to Munich, it’s a witty ride of the young heroine discreetly wooed by two men, wisecracks and winks and disguises, all culminating on that Night Train to Munich on the very day that Britain declared war on Germany.

It’s a fine ride. Take it.

(Released on DVD in that priceless Criterion Collection with nifty notes. What would we do without it?)

~ Molly Matera, signing off, wishing for rain to accompany some black-and-white film viewing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hypatia or Woody?

AGORA means an open place of assembly -- for public meetings and pronouncements, for a market. Alexandria is in north-central Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea. In the fifth century, when the story of Agora takes place, it was part of the declining Roman Empire. Christians were no longer hunted or forced to fight to the death -- it was legal to be a Christian anywhere in the Roman Empire, and it was becoming downright popular.

Hypatia of Alexandria was an upper class Greek, a “pagan” philosopher and intellectual, a mathematician, a teacher. Also, and this is the unusual part, a woman. That’s also why she was murdered by Christian mobs of Alexandria under “Pope” Cyril. At least as director Alejandro Amenábar saw it.

But I get ahead of myself. A Neoplatonist, Hypatia taught young men from various backgrounds and religions, and had a following worthy of any scholar / philosopher. Now think “Dark Ages.” No, they hadn’t come yet in the time of Hypatia or on her continent, but they are illustrative of the way the Christian church fathers, founders, and followers thought of inquiring minds, intelligence, education, and questions. Not to mention women.

Agora, directed and co-written by Alejandro Amenábar (with Gil Mateo) is about religious fundamentalism, fear, hatred, and misogyny. This film is clearly a reaction to Western reaction against Islam, since all the actions taken by the Christians in this film are those Westerners believe are being reenacted by Muslims – against people of other religions, and against women. And let’s not forget Zionism.

Yes, the film is heavy handed.

Amenábar goes out to space to bring us through the desert to the sea and port of Alexandria. It’s a very tan film – the city, the streets, are all the color of sand. The Christians stand out -- when the black-clothed Christians are destroying the “library” (which was not just a building full of books – it was a public place, a temple, a school) the camera flies back up to a birds’ eye view, showing all the little black antlike creatures jerking around, mindlessly destroying everything in their paths. Statues are pulled down (sound familiar?). Eventually the sanctum of knowledge becomes a habitat for sheep. People formerly prey of the powerful become predators. There are no good Christians in this film.

Alexandria was a city of Christians, Pagans, and Jews. During the reign of Pope Cyril, the Jews not murdered were driven out of Alexandria, and most of the Pagans were forced to become Christians. Also during said reign, a Christian mob of indeterminate size and allegiances murdered Hypatia. Perhaps she was skinned alive, perhaps she was stoned to death, perhaps she was dragged through the streets behind a chariot – however she died, it was public and horrific. And it wasn’t just because she was a Pagan. It was because she was a woman who did not keep silent. A woman who was the intellectual equal of any man and superior to most.

Every bit of self-righteous anger that could be nudged to fury, Amenábar jabbed. It is not possible to ever know how historically inaccurate or accurate any of his choices were – Hypatia died in approximately 415 C.E., and histories were written by men, all of whom had their own points to press, their own theories to justify.

Amenábar chose romantic devices to tell the story – in Agora, one of Hypatia’s followers/students is quite publicly and vocally in love with her, and her slave is silently in love with her. The student is Orestes, who will, in later years, convert to Christianity and become prefect of Alexandria. The slave is Davus, who converts to Christianity and becomes a murderer. Another student is already a Christian called Synesius and will grow up to be bishop of Cyrene. Orestes and Synesius were real people. Their actions in this film are the stuff that films are made of – fiction.

The actors:

  • Rachel Weisz is remarkably good casting for Hypatia. Her intelligence, her stillness, her sudden smile of wonder and joy at discovering a new idea, a new angle – this was just right, humanizing the intellectual woman who never married in an age when all women of good birth married. Of course not – what happens when a woman marries? She is silenced. Who could silence Hypatia? Even her father (nicely played by Michael Lonsdale) would not dream of using his privilege to marry her off – she would no longer be Hypatia, an honored and renowned scholar.
  • Orestes is very well played by Oscar Isaac, from the aristocratic would-be lover to the Prefect in crisis.
  • The slave Davus is played by Max Minghella – from loyal, brave, and adoring of his mistress Hypatia, to the angry militant Christian.
  • The most evil creature in the film, Ammonius, is frighteningly played over the top by Ashraf Barhom. To a modern audience, this man’s a lunatic, a trickster, a bully, and a thug. To the people around him, he was supposedly devout. Just because one can quote Scripture… know the rest.
  • Cyril is well played by Sami Samir, who looks disturbingly like Ashraf Barhom. At first I thought the hooligan from the streets was becoming a bishop. Close enough.
  • Synesius was perhaps too quietly played by Rupert Evans. He’s so level he becomes dull -- until the last few moments he’s on screen, when something ugly comes into his eye. That moment was worth waiting for.

Visually Amenádar spends the last third of the film shooting through ellipses and circles. By this time, Hypatia has figured out that the Ptolemaic theory of the solar system didn’t make sense. She solved the riddle. Another heresy, of course.

The film is essentially in two parts, and is clunkier for it. The story is interrupted by years of uneasy peace between factions. In a landscape of desert tans, the captions explaining what happens in the passage of time are in light brown. Pretty, but hard to read. Over the years the Christians became more and more powerful, pagans less so.

Pretty hopeless species, humankind is. We never learn. We never grow. We never get better. Mr. Amenádar is pretty depressing.

I’m glad I saw this film. It sent me back to a book I read years ago—Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska. And I always think analyzing the flaws of a film is more educational than extolling the virtues. Nevertheless, I cannot recommend Agora. It is didactic, intellectually cluttered, over the top. Just for diehard fans of Ms. Weisz.

On the other hand, a film I can easily recommend to absolutely anyone is ToyStory3. There’s absolutely no reason for it to be in 3-D –- except the obvious reason, of course, charging us twice to see a film once – but it’s a fine story, engrossing, well drawn characters, funny, sweet, oh just go see it. In 2-D if you can.