As summer winds down to August, all those movies that studios either couldn’t make sense of or otherwise couldn’t cut it get unleashed on the public. Consequently August is a kind of limbo; most of the releases have the hallmark of a blockbuster but aren’t quite “award season” material. They’re somewhere in between. As with February, some serious gems can slip in under the radar. But there’s a lot of chaff to get through to find that wheat.
Bureau Chiefs Dorian Wright and Ken Lowery take a look at the upcoming August releases and find it a pretty schizophrenic bunch.
KL: I tend to run real hot or cold on Adam McKay as a writer and director. I think Anchorman is possibly the strongest comedy he or Will Ferrell has ever done, but everything after that—at least the stuff produced for the big screen and not Funny or Die—has been real hit or miss. Talladega Nights is amusing but I can take it or leave it, and even after my opinion of Step Brothers improved, I feel the same way.
This could be different. I think Mark Wahlberg is actually pretty solid as a comedic actor, and Will Ferrell doing the whitebread thing also has some mileage to it. I like the gags that poke at buddy-cop-action-movie conceits, but self-awareness aside, this does sorta seem like yet another melding of comedy with insane action to double-dip on your audiences, a la Knight and Day, Date Night, et cetera. Pretty on the fence here.
DW: I usually like Mark Wahlberg too, though as you say, more as a comedic actor. When he’s trying to do a serious role I can’t help but think “take your shirt off already and give the audience what they want.” Ferrell I can’t make up my mind whether I’m done with his films or not. I enjoyed them, but then he entered that long stretch where it felt like he was making the same movie over and over. This seems different, at least to some degree, from his usual schtick, so I’m willing to give it a shot. Mostly because, apart from anything else, I like the conceit here. I like the idea of two guys trying to live up to the action-movie hero-cop expectations with two living embodiments of that archetype standing in their way. I may be setting myself up for disappointment, as a premise like that so rarely seems to live up to its promise, but we’ll see.
DW: It’s kind of cute that the producers of these films think that the plot actually matters. People don’t watch these films for the stories, they watch them for the visuals. The stories are just a necessary evil to bridge dance scenes. Looking at this, I’m starting to get the idea that, this time, the creators realize that, as there’s really no indication of any kind of plot other than the apparently obligatory “lovers separated by class” story.
I’m not honestly interested enough in the genre to want to see the film, but I do find myself curious at the niche they’re filling. These are big, spectacle, event-style films, but they’re not CGI-fests, all the visuals are just things that humans can do. I don’t want to say that movies in this genre are the feminine equivalent of your summer sci-fi film, but I’m leaning towards that as being a component.
The other thing that strikes me about this film is the use of color and light. The last film I can think of that actually used color and light as elements of “world-building” the way this does was Speed Racer. Which just brings me back to thinking about the market films like this are trying to tap.
KL: The thing about 3D the first time they tried it is that it belonged at least as much to trashy fare as it did to spectacles. So I think this, in a weird sort of way, actually works; it’s a lowest common denominator kind of movie but it actually displays real human skill, versus, as you point out, CGI wizardry. 3D glasses make my eyes hurt and I’m allergic to jacked-up ticket prices, but I’d be more inclined to see this over the half-dozen shovelware 3D “epic” kids movies that’re coming out this year.
KL: Uh, hm. I have an unironic love for movies like Predator, The Last Action Hero, Demolition Man, and even, on a good day, Commando. They’re big hyper-masculine relics of the ‘80s for the most part, some with greater awareness of what they are than others, but they’re fun movies. And I can get behind the macho charisma of most of this cast.
I’d feel better if Stallone weren’t such a klutzy writer and director. Rocky Balboa met and exceeded the daily FDA recommended intake of schmaltz and Rambo was problematic. (OK, another one: I did like Cliffhanger.) The amount of pleasure I can get out of The Expendables depends entirely on whether it wants to be fun badass or “cool” badass. Early on in the movie’s publicity campaign I was optimistic. Now, I’m a lot less so.
DW: Every time I’ve seen one of these trailers play out here, there’s been a big cheer from the audience every time one of these meaty ’80s action guys appears on screen for the first time. And then Schwarzenegger appears and the groans are deafening. Not that I expect the political mood of coastal Californians to be a huge factor in the final box office, but I thought it was interesting.
I suspect that nostalgia factor of this will give it decent sales and word of mouth, but I can’t help but feel that, as a genre, action movies have really moved on from the time when most of these guys were in their hey-day. The inclusion of Jet Li and Jason Statham seems like an acknowledgement of that, as they are lithe, athletic guys who actually give violence a sort of poeticism, not slabs of meat spouting one-liners.
KL: I’m going to be real with you: I tried to read the first volume of Scott Pilgrim on three separate occasions and it never took. I didn’t find Scott cute or relatable; I found him immature and kind of gross. (Now I think I “get” it a bit more; in the age of relentless status updates, everyone tries—humorously or not—to recast the most mundane aspects of their lives as something epic.)
But I like these trailers. Mostly because (as I’ve said elsewhere) I have a craving for novelty in big movie releases, a craving that sometimes takes me into unhealthy spaces. Mostly I’m just glad that Edgar Wright decided not to water anything down and just straight-up did fucking Scott Pilgrim right there on the big screen. I think that takes more guts than just doing an animated feature, and I respect guts.
DW: I’m not the target audience for this. I read a few pages of the original graphic novel when it was released and very quickly came to the realization that it was “not for me.” The fans of the series love it in an extremely vocal way, and more power to them (though please stop trying to convince me that my lack of interest is a sign of moral retardation on my part), but more nuanced reviewers have left me with the impression that, as a body of work, it is masterful at giving its target audience exactly what they want, to the point that we can probably go ahead and call it “pandering,” and that I would find the work extremely problematic.
Coupled with my growing weariness with Edgar Wright and his work and the utter, visceral, irrational loathing I feel for Michael Cera whenever I see his image, it’s safe to say that I don’t have high expectations for the two of them teaming up to present a film version of the comics.
And then I actually sit down and watch the trailer, and yeah, that’s definitely an Edgar Wright adaptation of Scott Pilgrim comics with Michael Cera.
DW: I usually find myself exasperated with films like this. It’s aspirational affirmation for women, and the only thing that immediately differentiates it from things like Sex and the City is that it’s not materialistic. It does, though, perpetuate this idea that “the other” is more in tune with spirituality or nature or whatever the protagonist feels is unbalanced in her life than her own culture is. I find that really problematic, not to mention condescending in its attitude towards other cultures. Films like this don’t value those cultures on their own merits, but for their ability to “fix” Americans and their problems. It aggravates me.
KL: My doctor no longer allows me to watch Julia Roberts movies (he keeps talking about something called a “rage coma”), so I won’t be heading into the theaters for this one. I can say my wife found the book to be as uninspiring and aggravating as you feel this movie will be, so!
DW: The Studio Ghibli films are some of the most gorgeous animated films produced. You just have to pretend not to notice that most of them follow a pretty predictable formula. And that you haven’t noticed that their last couple of films haven’t been very good. It’s an adaptation, though the studio isn’t particularly known for the faithfulness of their adaptations, but maybe having the spine of someone else’s plot will help on the story aspects. And it’s an explicit fantasy film, which I tend to think is the studio’s strong suit, but that’s still no guarantee of a better result.
But it is so very pretty, and a fantasy world that’s visually based on native South American cultures is novel enough that I’m going to want to see it anyway.
I do find myself wondering at the shortness of the trailer and its narrated nature. We know the film is going to be dubbed for the theatrical release, but adopting the usual markers of “serious foreign film” in the trailers makes me wonder how they’re pitching the marketing money.
KL: Oh man, a world where humans and dragons were one! I have definitely not seen that in at least two months!
OK, maybe that was unfair. But Dorian, you put your finger on a couple things that bothered me that I was unable to name. For one, the quality of Ghibli pictures—or perhaps it’s just my interest level—has waned precariously ever since Spirited Away. (Which I quite enjoyed.) The last one I saw, Ponyo, I saw on assignment. It was very pretty but it was definitely not for adults. So I feel like my opinion on that movie would be a moot point.
I don’t know why this trailer is narrated, but Disney has had kind of a heavy hand in trailer editing lately. The Princess and the Frog’s trailer spent the first half of it telling us how fucking awesome and epic and historical and monumental this new movie was going to be, and I suppose they’re doing the same thing here. Which is weird, as I see a list of dubbed voice actors right there under the trailer. Why not just let their dialogue tell the story?
DW: Film icons slumming! Unnecessary use of an obnoxious gimmick! Disrespectful teens bearing a suspicious resemblance to the film’s market getting killed in nasty and inventive ways! On the one hand, I kind of admire the filmmakers for hewing so close to the ’80s horror cheapie formula. On the other, it’s the ’80s horror cheapie formula and they want us to pay $12 to see it, knowing full well that there are dozens of these things available on streaming services like Netflix.
Every once in awhile, when I’m bored, I’ll make notes on themes in horror films, and why I think they work or don’t. Generally, I find I’m pretty down on the “nature gone wrong” films. I just don’t find animals, even prehistoric or mutant animals, to have quite the gravitas as a supernatural or human “monster” has. It’s the lack of motive or direction, I think. It’s hard to find a fish doing what a fish does all that terrifying. Film-makers have to be very careful when using animals as monsters to avoid camp, or else they have to just embrace it. Because, frankly, animals as monsters almost always come off a bit silly.
Which is a long and indirect way of saying that, if this turns out to embrace the camp, it might be worth a rental, or at least a download via a streaming service. If not, well…at least we’ve got 2025’s Piranha 4D to look forward to.
KL: Like I said above, 3D belongs to trash cinema at least as much as it belongs to any other kind, so I’m glad stuff like this is happening.
However, this is most definitely trash cinema, and I should be honest here: I’ve never had much of an “ironic appreciation” gene. I do not like things because they are terrible; if a thing is terrible, I just think it’s terrible. At the least, I need a heavy filter—think Mystery Science Theater 3000—to get through that stuff. Unless Piranha 3D is unusually well done—and I do not think the phrase “unusually well done” has been applied to any made-for-3D movie since Coraline—I will spend my $12 on a good meal.
KL: So that is definitely the entire movie outlined in the trailer, right there. Bully, mentor, wacky sidekick friend, gold digger, friend who should be the real love interest… I hit BINGO about halfway through.
I’m sure it’ll be OK in a forgettable way. And maybe it’s Idiocracy or Everybody Hates Chris, but I’m going to laugh any time Terry Crews is on screen. Still, the only mystery here is what ultimately happens with the money… and the inspirational friend-who-should-be-the-love-interest spells that out, too. Oh well.
DW: Yeah, as you say, the trailer spells out pretty much every detail of the film, including what looks to be the resolution, a tactic which I always suspect is a sign of a film that doesn’t have much in the way of plot or story to go on. But then, neither of us exactly in the target market for this film, so I’m willing to concede that the intended audience may be getting more out of it than I might be.
KL: The Exorcist casts such a long shadow over the horror genre that any movie about demonic possession will inevitably be viewed through its prism. The Last Exorcism seems aware of that, and adds a few nice twists: the modern conceit of being a documentary or “found footage” a la Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, along with some of that spooky Southern flavor that gives good horror a nice tang. Could be good; exorcism movies have a special hold over me, for reasons this trailer make explicit: an innocent person wholly subsumed by evil they did not earn or deserve.
Someone smarter and better-versed than me: who are Huck Botko, Andrew Gurland and Daniel Stamm? They’re right there on the promotional material as if they’re a big deal, but I’ve never heard of anything they’ve done.
DW: As near as I can tell, the gentlemen you ask about have done…not very much, and nothing very notable.
I don’t like the faux-documentary approach to horror films at all. I’ve seen too many where that approach was used to cover the lack of a budget or because someone thought shaky cameras pointed at something in the darkness is scary in and of itself. And it feels like we’ve had a LOT of exorcism themed horror films in the last few years, as well. I don’t think the sub-genre is at the tipping point yet where the devil has stopped being scary, but it feels to me that ultimate evil is starting to be in as much danger of over-use and over-exposure as vampires and zombies are now.
In other words, I’m pretty confident that I can skip this one and not feel like I’m missing anything.
DW: I’ve yet to be impressed with anything that I’ve seen from Neil Marshall. It just feels a little too calculated to me, I suppose. There’s nothing specific, just something vague there that I find off-putting.
Which is a shame, because otherwise I might find myself interested in a Romans vs. Celts action movie. There are hints here of something a little more ambitious going on, in a political metaphor sort of way, but it’s not clear if Marshall is attempting to use Rome’s occupation of Britain as a metaphor for any other world powers occupying another country or if he’s using the suggestion of corruption within the Roman war-machine as, well, a metaphor for corruption in a contemporary war-machine. Or maybe none of that is actually in the film and it’s just really skillful editing on the part of the people who put together the trailer in an attempt to make the film look deeper than it might actually be.
KL: I loved, loved, loved Doomsday, because it was a big crazy joke and a mash-up of everything from John Carpenter’s Escape movies to Lord of the Rings. Best of all, the execution lived up to the ambition; it was just entertaining as hell, and for me (and precious few others, I’ll admit), it totally worked.
But no, I don’t think he’s a terribly deep filmmaker. Not that that’s a problem for me. This looks in some ways just as bananas as Doomsday; Ukranian actress/model Olga Kurylenko as a badass Celt manhunter? Sure, why not!
This is also a period that’s woefully neglected in modern filmmaking; I suppose everyone saw Gladiator and thought anything that had to do with Romans had to be epic, Best Picture-baiting material. Good on Marshall for finding the fun, brutal potential.
KL: There is not an original thought to be found in the movie’s premise (totes badass bank robber crew takes on One Last Job; will it be their last?) and despite liking Idris Elba, Paul Walker and Zoe Saldana, the presence of Hayden Christensen in just about anything that isn’t Shattered Glass is a turd in the punch bowl. The parkour stuff looks neat, at least.
I don’t know where my line is when it comes to depicting hyper-competence on the big screen. I can really get behind how guys like David Mamet and Michael Mann show it; I could watch Spartan and Heat forever. But when you throw in that music video gloss and the impossible stunt work, my interest meter goes from green to zero like that. Pass.
DW: Actually, I take back my earlier comments. I’d rather watch ’80s meatheads spew one-liners than something as cold and slick and lifeless as this. As “by the numbers” as those ’80s action films were, this is the modern equivalent of an action movie that is just checking off al the required plot and stunt elements and assembling them into something that the studio hopes is viewable. Or, if not viewable, at least has a good couple of days of box office before word of mouth kills it.
In Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character goes to a shady, back alley doctor (Peter Stormare) to get his eyeballs replaced. While Cruise recovers, a wall-sized television projects an image or Robert Ryan shooting a man in a Japanese-style hot tub.
That short, violent, beautifully shot scene comes from Samuel Fuller’s brutal 1955 noir classic House of Bamboo, and it seems an odd reference for Spielberg to make. While Spielberg is a technically brilliant director on many levels, he lacks the sensibility to make a movie that is as bleak and morally challenging as Fuller’s. In fact, Minority Report is a good case in point: for most of its running time, the film presents a world that is completely dominated and controlled by an elaborate surveillance system that the hero cannot escape, until the very end, when we find out that there is a space free of surveillance where humans can live, happily ever after. It’s as if Spielberg got within inches of making a profound statement about surveillance and control but blinked at the last minute and went for the safe ending.
House of Bamboo has little to do with surveillance, though an underground network of criminal informants does factor in to the film. Instead, where it–and most other Fuller movies, for that matter–contrasts with Spielberg films is that Fuller doesn’t give his characters an easy out from the cruel and violent world in which they are immersed.
Fuller’s film takes place in post-war Japan, and it’s filmed in color and Cinemascope, making it a bit of an oddity for the classic film noir cycle of the ’40s and ’50s. An American hood named Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) comes to Japan at the invitation of an old Army buddy, who has promised Spanier a gig with the local mob. Spanier’s buddy, however, is killed, gunned down by his own men during a botched robbery. Eddie then decides to get revenge with the help of his buddy’s secret Japanese bride, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi).
Eddie’s method for gathering information is brilliant: he goes to various Tokyo pachinko parlors and shakes down the managers for protection money. He first enters the parlor and asks an employee for the manager. When the employee doesn’t understand English, Eddie continues, “You know, the boss!” That gets him nowhere, so he then tries “Number One Boy.” “Ah, ichiban!” the employee responds and directs him to the back of the parlor. Then, he shakes down the ichiban for $25, with a promise to return every week.
After two tries, this gets the attention of the local mob, run by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). Dawson’s mob consists of former U.S. soldiers expatriated to Japan, and they seem to run all the illegal rackets in Tokyo, with the pachinko parlors as a legit front. Though Dawson at first punishes Spanier for muscling in on his racket, the boss quickly sees that the thug could be of use, especially since the gang is one guy short.
Dawson runs a tight operation. In addition to the regular illegal businesses, he also plans regular heists. With each heist, the gang operates on one simple rule: if any man gets injured, he should be shot dead so that he can’t turn informant to the authorities. This had been the plan with Eddie’s buddy, but he didn’t quite die right away, and the police got some important information about Dawson’s operation out of him.
Spanier works his way up in the gang, eventually becoming second man, much to the chagrin of the previous second man, Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Eddie also works his way in with Mariko, who is willing to sacrifice her reputation in order to find her husband’s killer.
When the cops get tipped to the next heist, Dawson gets suspicious that he has a mole in the group, and he mistakenly targets Griff, who has been acting hinky since Eddie got his promotion. Dawson doesn’t mess around, and he plugs Griff in the famous hot tub scene. Turns out, though, that Dawson was wrong about the snitch: it’s Eddie, who is really a U.S. military investigator sent to infiltrate the gang.
Though Eddie turns out to be an ostensible good guy in the end, he’s still a rough and violent man. It’s fun to see Robert Stack play such a complex role–he’s a far cry from Eliot Ness here. Like Ness, he doesn’t mess around, but he’s also willing to go to extreme lengths to keep his cover. And Robert Ryan plays Dawson with a sense of stoic calm that makes him a formidable and intimidating villain. Eddie and Sandy are not that far apart in the way that they approach their jobs, and it’s easy to see how they connect so quickly when Eddie enters the organization. Both have also sacrificed their personal lives–and, in Dawson’s case, connection to his home country–for the jobs they do, and those jobs happen to be pretty brutal.
The film is also beautifully shot. Fuller uses the entirety of the wide-screen Cinemascope frame while also keeping the film’s noir sensibilities–which normally lend themselves to tighter, more intimate shots–intact. The final shootout serves as an excellent example. Fuller shoots this from far away, giving the scene an impersonal feel as two violent men do their violent jobs.
The movie often gets a bad rap for the cold and impersonal way it depicts violence, yet that seems to be the entire point that the movie is making. The men in this film are almost all U.S. soldiers who stayed behind in Japan after World War II because they simply couldn’t leave that world behind, and they found a new way to keep fighting under the same leader. Like many of the best violent movies–and many of Fuller’s best movies–it serves as a commentary on and indictment of violence, which makes its cold, distant conclusion all the more unsettling.
Give the advertising campaign credit: “Who is Salt?” isn’t just a marketing tagline, but the question you’ll find yourself asking over and over as Salt unreels before you. At first Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) appears to be a CIA agent with a loving husband and a normal life, but it isn’t long before she’s crossing and double-crossing people without explaining to anyone, least of all the audience, why she’s doing what she’s doing.
And on paper, that’s kind of a nifty idea. Salt is undeniably the protagonist of the movie; we follow her almost exclusively through her many daring escapes, assaults and flashbacks. We see that she is whoever she needs to be in a given moment, which can be anything from a charming lady to a badass martial artist. But we never know where she stands. Is she hero, or villain?
The points of contention: Salt is on her way home to celebrate her anniversary with her husband when an ex-Russian spy comes in claiming that a rogue Russian intelligence agent wants to reignite the Cold War with a countless host of sleeper agents planted all throughout the United States. Who’s going to kick it off? Why, none other than Evelyn Salt, who’ll light the fire by assassinating the Russian president in New York City. This comes as something of a surprise to Evelyn, but her peers take it seriously enough to force Evelyn to flee. Only her boss (Liev Schreiber) still believes she is who she says she is.
From there Salt takes some genuinely surprising, topsy-turvy turns that you leave you genuinely questioning who it is Evelyn works for and who, exactly, you should be rooting for. I’m not convinced this works as the audience’s sole perspective for an entire movie, and Salt does not make the case well; it so thoroughly undermines Evelyn’s identity—already pretty scant due to a script that is 80% chase sequences—that it is, in fact, impossible to care about what happens to anyone. Jolie’s ability to switch from house cat to tiger in a manner of seconds is the only thing that keeps Salt from simply floating away into the ether.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the movie’s baser pleasures. For all her prestigious star power, I think Jolie is most at home in action roles. There’s something visceral about her presence; when she’s kicking someone’s ass you feel the sheer physicality of it. She stalks through her scenes with true menace and frightening competence.
Director Phillip Noyce occasionally succumbs to the shaky-cam chaos that you see in a lot of spy movies these days, but occasionally he remembers to pull back and show us what’s going on. Was it Mamet who said that audiences enjoy watching competent people do things well? That’s a sentiment that I think applies to action directors as much or moreso than anyone else. Don’t confuse the audience; take the chance to luxuriate in the proficiency and coolness of all those martial arts consultants, all that stunt work, and all those special effects. Why spend all that money and all that time if you’re going to obscure most of it?
In short, give people the show.
Salt mostly does. It’s a pretty movie when it remembers to be, its action is entertaining and occasionally inventive. It also contains a few genuine surprises, not least of which is the moral ambivalence of its lead. But there is clumsiness on display; the husband-in-peril thread is so thin as to be transparent and the opening info-dump given by the Russian spy was, oh, a little embarrassing. Salt’s stakes are good—and refreshingly old-school in a James Bond kind of way—and Jolie makes a great dramatic action lead. It’s a pity, then, that the movie’s central premise is also its downfall.
P.S. “Evelyn Salt” is a dumb name for a character.
“Riders to the stars, that is what we are, every time we kiss in the night”: so begins the theme song to the 1954 sci-fi film, Riders to the Stars. I get the distinct feeling that the writers of this song weren’t given a lot of direction regarding the movie’s plot.
After the opening titles and theme song, a voice-over narrator explains that humans have conquered every challenge except one: space. Yeah, it sure was nice to have every conceivable human problem licked by 1954…
Riders to the Stars tries to imagine what the near-future of space travel will be like, as the USA rushes to get a manned rocket into space before the Soviets. After a test rocket drops some kind of box out of the sky that causes scientists to go apeshit, the United States government initiates a program to recruit astronauts for the space program. Computers the size of my house are used to pick 12 men out of all Americans based on specific qualifications: past accomplishments, intelligence, and an unencumbered personal life. These men would then go through some rigorous training and testing to determine which of them would finally qualify as astronauts.
In this sense, Riders to the Stars is a sort of precursor to The Right Stuff, the movie that makes me proud to be a white man. However, the qualifications and training for astronauts as imagined in 1954 are a bit different than those that would be used in the Mercury program. For one, as far as I can tell, no one has to give a sperm sample in Riders to the Stars. Also, the recruits in the earlier film tend to be scientists with a military background instead of pilots.
Much of the movie’s running time is taken up with the testing and training, and all but four wash out by the end of the centrifuge test. Meanwhile, we’ve also gotten a peek into the private lives of two candidates. Jerry Lockwood (Richard Carlson, who is also credited as director) is a pipe-smoking mathematician who looks a lot like Phil Hartman and dates a model. His desire to marry his model-girlfriend provides the movie with some dramatic tension. Dr. Richard Stanton (William Lundigan) gets a slightly more interesting story. His father directs the space program, which makes me think the computer selection process was kind of bullshit, and he starts a budding romance with the lone female scientist in the program: Dr. Jane Flynn (Martha Hyer).
Once the four finalists are selected, they are apprised of their mission: they must go into space and retrieve some meteors that can be used to create rockets that will survive the rigors of space. As the elder Dr. Stanton explains, any metal that they’ve tried shooting into space has been molecularly altered by cosmic radiation to become extremely brittle. Since meteors survive the bombardment of cosmic rays, it stands to reason that they are made out of some kind of metal that could make spaceships survive. Curiously, none of the astronauts ask about what their ships might be made of, though one of them does wisely chicken out when he hears of the mission. Also, no one points out that this science is bullshit.
The mission, along with the real action of the film, only takes place in the final 20 minutes or so. Each of the three astronauts gets his own rocket and heads out to intercept the meteor shower. One tries to take in a meteor that’s too big, causing his ship to explode and his spacesuit, containing only his skeleton for some reason, floats off into space. Seeing the skeleton, another astronaut freaks the hell out, screws the pooch, and heads for the stars. But, luckily for the USA and the space program, the third makes it back with a meteor, and the scientists go off to spin how a 67% mortality rate constitutes a successful program.
Riders to the Stars is more interesting as a historical artifact of retrofuturism than it is as an entertaining sci-fi film, much like the kind of comics stories pal Dave Lartigue writes about in his regular “This Used to be the Future” feature at his Dave Ex Machina blog. This is particularly disappointing considering the fact that the movie’s poster advertises “space vikings of the future,” which should be the greatest movie ever made. However, the movie suggests the entertaining possibility of a Mad Men-style series featuring a bunch of chain-smoking, hard-liquor-drinking, fedora-wearing, sexual-harrassing scientists trying to start the space program in the 1950s. I’d watch the hell out of that.
Christopher Nolan’s characters live in a world of ideas. They’re trapped by them, enslaved by them, dominated by them and ruled by them. They are fallible people who externalize every lash on their souls; their gestures change the world and they know it, but they know also that they will never live up to the abstract ideals they forever chase or evade. They are haunted by dreams dashed, lost, or inadequately conceived.
Therefore it seems predestined that Nolan would eventually tap Leonardo DiCaprio to play one of his leads. DiCaprio has built his career around playing fiercely intelligent men with deeply compromised mental integrity who chase oblivion to find peace. He does so again in Inception, which plays as a striking companion piece to this year’s other DiCaprio head trip, Shutter Island.
It’s good that DiCaprio is such a natural at this sort of thing, and better still that Nolan’s cast—so uniformly strong that any quarter of them could headline a great movie—gives so strong an impression of character and intent. On paper, these people are ciphers. See the movie and ask yourself: what do we really know about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s staid sidekick, or Ellen Page’s honest and talented dream architect? The answer is nothing more than I just told you. The roles are simply embodied, and the actors’ charisma does the rest. It’s too bad, really, that in creating his most idea-driven movie, Christopher Nolan has left his characters behind.
But what ideas they are. DiCaprio plays Cobb, leader of a team of people who are able to enter a person’s mind via their dreams in order to steal valuable data. They call it extraction, but “they” also talk about a much more dangerous maneuver: inception, or the introduction of an alien idea into someone’s mind. It’s this latter they’re hired to do by an energy mogul (Ken Watanabe) who wants to stop the son of his chief rival (Cillian Murphy) from monopolizing the field worldwide once the rival (Pete Postlethwaite) dies, which should be any day now. Most of the movie is taken up with the business of Cobb recruiting his team and then delving into his target’s mind three layers deep: a dream within a dream within a dream, and a flirtation with delving even deeper into the chaotic and bottomless subconscious. Complicating the matter is that Cobb can’t seem to keep a guilt-driven projection of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) from popping up and sabotaging his work. And she’s getting more dangerous all the time.
So much of Inception is spent in surreal atmospheres with flexible rules and plenty of paradoxes. If I’m being honest, this—more than the good cast and intriguing premise—is why I wanted to see the movie so much. Mainstream filmmaking has been “safe” for as long as it’s existed, but the past few years especially it seems that formula, contrivance, and dim versions of the high concept have ruled every major release of every weekend. Most filmmakers (and consequently most moviegoers) forget that in movies, you can do and show anything.
Some remember, sometimes, and you get the occasional glorious success (300, Dark City, most of Pixar’s catalogue) or brilliant failure (Speed Racer, Sin City). The filmmakers remember that the empty soundstage and the green screen are canvases, and that there aren’t—or shouldn’t be—any fetters between their conception of the story and its execution.
All of which is a high-falutin’ way to say that every now and then, a filmmaker decides to show us things we’ve never seen before and can never see in any other medium. By this gauge Inception is an unqualified triumph. It is quite simply an amazing thing to behold; the glimpses you’ve seen in trailers only hint at the construction of interlocking chains of logic, consequence and action that Nolan has constructed, even if most of it is washed in that teal light filmmakers are so fond of, and so much of the dialogue is given over to simply explaining what is happening. There is one extended action sequence that takes place on three levels of consciousness, one affecting the other which affects still yet another. I guarantee you have never seen anything like it before.
Nolan’s preoccupation with city spaces dominates, as well. Cities tend to be great lurking beasts in his movies, as much a character as a setting, but never more so than here; each real-world city is introduced with establishing shots that show building after building eating up the horizon, and almost every dream construct we see is some spin on a city. In The Dark Knight, Gotham City was an endless maze for human rats to play in. In Inception, the rats build and embrace the maze themselves: for instance, in the decades spent in the dreamspace of his own subconscious, Cobb and his wife built miles of geometric cityspace and little to no wildlife. I can’t tell if this is a statement of some kind, or merely Nolan unintentionally revealing something about himself. Either way, I sympathize with his fascination.
Among all that awe, it came as a surprise to me that the more intimate moments with Cobb and Mal are so affecting. More than that, they’re frightening: Cobb’s head is a haunted place, and Ariadne’s few forays into his dreamscape feel more dangerous than any other peril presented in the movie. I felt the peril there, in a quiet and ransacked hotel room, far more than I did in some of the later action sequences. I wish we could have spent more time there.
If I have a complaint about Inception it is that it is so very plot-heavy, and its central premise for getting to the meat of it—the dream-diving—is loaded down with specialized language and the mechanics of the thing that when Ariadne at one point asks in exasperation, “whose subconscious are we diving into?” the audience laughed in recognition. There’s enough jargon here to populate a David Mamet film, and like a Mamet film, you have to pay close attention if you don’t want to get left behind.
In terms of coherence, forward motion and characterization, Inception is in many ways a step down from The Dark Knight. In terms of virtuosity, it has no modern peer: here is, quite simply, an engine built to show you wonders. Amidst the endless array of explanations and exposition, Christopher Nolan has built a movie that is impossible not to look at.
Movies in the film noir genre are known for having a bleak view of human nature, but few are as overwhelmingly bleak as Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s classic noir novel Nightmare Alley. The movie traces the rise and fall of con man Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) as he goes from side show barker to nightclub mentalist to spiritual advisor for Chicago’s wealthiest citizens, all the while using and leaving behind the people that aid his success. Instead of a conventional morality that divides humans into good and evil, the film’s morality divides the world into grifters and marks (though neither group is mutually exclusive), and success only comes to those with the best cons.
Gresham’s novel opens with a fascinating explanation of how a traveling carnival manages to hire a geek, a performer who bites the heads off of live chickens. The explanation involves finding a man at his lowest point–alcoholic and broke–and exploiting him to the point where he will do anything for his bottle a day. The movie has a similar scene at the beginning without explaining most of the grisly details of the geek’s job. Though we only see the geek at a distance in the movie, screaming as the d.t.’s take over, he remains an important figure throughout, and this question about the nadir of human existence hangs over the rest of the movie, even as Stan makes his meteoric rise as a mentalist and spiritual leader.
Late in the movie, Stan’s wife and partner in his mentalist act, Molly (Coleen Gray), warns Stan that he’s gone too far by promising to resurrect the dead love of a wealthy older man. She warns specifically against the blasphemy that such a con entails: God will punish him for this sin. This is the one sign of conservative, conventional morality sneaking into the movie, and while it does seem to determine Stan’s fate as his life starts to fall apart, it’s not unproblematic. God, in Molly’s estimation, is not the ultimate force for good in the universe, but is, instead, the ultimate grifter who has a lock on the life and death game that Stan is trying to play. Stan would have been fine scamming rich people at the night club with his mentalist schtick. In fact, he would have also been fine with his next con, using a corrupt psychologist (Helen Walker) to gain access to the secrets of Chicago’s wealthy. These crimes would have gone unpunished, as we see from Walker’s ultimate success. It is only by stepping into God’s game that Stan reaches too far.
This is a level of nihilism reminiscent of Sartre or Camus. In that, the movie is surprisingly faithful to the mood of the novel, even if it doesn’t get into all the gruesome details of life in a carnival side show. In fact, one has to wonder how this movie got made at all in the Hollywood system. Sure, 1947 is the height of the postwar film noir cycle, but I can think of few movies that are this nihilistic. Detour comes to mind, but that was made outside of the system on a shoestring budget. Sweet Smell of Success is the movie that I thought of most often, though Burt Lancaster independently financed that film through his own production company. Both movies create a world that has little space for goodness, and where the quest for power and success leads characters to give up their humanity easily. (I could throw Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole in here, as well.)
With Sweet Smell of Success, there is also a relevant comparison between the performances of Tony Curtis and Tyrone Power. Both give performances that were the high points of their respective careers, and both roles capitalize on the dark side of their matinee-idol good looks. Power often regretted the light adventure roles that required little of him other than looking good on screen, and he was ready to hang up his screen acting career when Billy Wilder offered him the lead in Witness for the Prosecution. Tragically, Power died of a heart attack on the set of his next film, and he never got the chance to have a shot at another role that would allow him to show the depth he could achieve. But he’s perfect in Nightmare Alley, and he uses his charm and good looks to keep the audience engaged with a character who is completely unredemptive. It’s a delicate balancing act that few actors could pull off.
Nightmare Alley ends with a somewhat upbeat note, but, like the film’s nod to conventional morality, it falls apart once one considers what it means in the context of the movie. The film cycles back to the beginning in a sense, and we know Stan’s ultimate fate because we saw how that particular story worked out earlier. I love that this movie stays so uncompromising in its bleakness, and that it takes a Hollywood star and challenges everything that gave him that status.