Marty: Woke in the ’50s

Marty is a basically decent man, trapped in a kind of stasis by social forces only more amplified today: misogyny, distrust of the educated, racism, and classism. Even the changing economic landscape looms over him, as corporate consolidation threatens his dream to own a small business.

One more generation, and it’s easy to imagine Marty’s family chanting “lock her up” at a MAGA rally, and his friends as incels trolling women on the internet.

His family exemplifies a moment of social transformation between extended families living together and a trend towards isolation and nuclear families. His mother and aunt spent a lifetime working until they couldn’t work any more. In their old age, they are left with nowhere to live and nothing to do. His cousin is transitioning towards the American Dream of a house and child, but the accompanying burdens and anxieties outweigh any happiness. Outside the family tumult, his circle of friends is adrift in an increasingly isolated social world of movies, bars, and dance clubs — all in the pursuit of women that they seem to desire and loathe in equal measure.

I cannot tell you how utterly relieved I was when Marty made that last-minute phone call. I don’t think I could have borne it if he hadn’t.

The Three Hour Avalanche: Cloud Atlas

Books are books, and movies are movies. I usually don’t want or expect any adaptation to copy its source — in fact, it’s usually in everyone’s best interests for a derivative work to strive to be its own thing, and not… well, derivative. But Tom Tykwer and Lana & Larry Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas turned out to be an astonishingly faithful adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel. For a book so sprawling and commonly deemed unadaptable, I fully expected more characters and incident to have been necessarily jettisoned. But almost everything is there, with most of the screenwriters’ additions coming in the form of structural changes rather than material.

Being so faithful to this particular book comes with a potential downside. One of the greatest pleasures to be had in the novel is its wide range of genres and tones. Sequences include a pulpy 70s thriller, a light-hearted old folks farce, a sci-fi dystopia, and a postapocalyptic wasteland. Each is familiar to a degree, but only insofar as Mitchell employs known genre tropes to his own ends. Each is written in a different voice, ranging from archaic historical vernacular to imaginary fractured and devolved languages of the far future.

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas. Hanks’ character on the metaphysical conundrum: “times are you say a person’s beliefs ain’t true, they think you’re saying’ their lives ain’t true and their truth ain’t true.”

These devices may work better on the page than on the screen, for a reader is able to savor the lushly stylized language of each period. But subtract the novel’s devices of epistolary exchanges, internal monologues, fireside storytelling, and formal interviews, you’re only left with dialogue and visual depictions of action. What’s illustrated on screen comes across as a gumbo of The China Syndrome, The Matrix, The Road, and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. For instance, when David Mitchell took on the tone of a conspiracy thriller, I found it impressive. But when it’s realized on screen, it feels like a Friedkin or Frankenheimer knockoff with extra corny dialog.

The aforementioned faithfulness extends to plot, tone, character, theme, incident… almost everything except structure. The elegantly spiraling structure of David Mitchell’s novel is one of its most justly celebrated features, and it could have theoretically been adopted to cinema. Instead, the film scrambles the various story lines into one long montage that comes at you in a nearly three-hour-long avalanche. The obvious benefit is the highlighting of how recurring themes are interlinked and interwoven, how patterns of behavior repeat throughout history, and for the more metaphysically inclined, how souls are reincarnated, and how good and bad deeds echo forwards and backwards through time.

James Darcy and Ben Whishaw in Cloud Atlas
James Darcy and Ben Whishaw in Cloud Atlas. “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

The three directors told the A.V. Club that they all worked simultaneously in close collaboration, but were required to be credited for specific sequences. For better or for worse, it seems pretty clear to me that the action sequences set in futuristic Korea have the Wachowski brand all over them. In this dystopia, corporations have replaced both government and religion, not that dissimilar to the world of the Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta). While intense and lengthy, these glorified chase sequences are not as extreme as their eyeball-spraining 2008 film Speed Racer. But Tykwer is a highly kinetic and visually oriented director as well, as he proved right away with Run Lola Run, so maybe I’m off base here.

One of the primary selling points of the movie is its stunt casting of a relatively small troupe of actors into a multitude of roles. The sad truth is that many of the makeup effects for actors playing across gender or race boundaries just don’t work. Hugo Weaving suffers in particular, with no amount of latex able to disguise his permanent menace and leer (how much do you want to bet he’s a sweet family man in real life?). But there are a few triumphs. For instance, I didn’t recognize Hugh Grant in at least two of his roles. Tom Hanks runs up and down the hamminess scale, but I thought he was genuinely excellent in the role of Zachry, a humble but atypically thoughtful goat herder whose deepest religious beliefs are challenged.

Bae Doona in Cloud Atlas
Bae Doona in Cloud Atlas. “Wars do not combust without warning.”

Like many, I fell in love with the beautifully written, structured, and ingenious novel. But most interestingly of all, it’s the first thing I can remember reading in a long time that had anything approaching a message, or, for lack of a better term, a “moral of the story”. In short, resisting oppression of all sorts is always worth it, even if one person can’t fix the world. Mitchell shows us a world seemingly inevitably doomed to drastic decline via slavery, global warming, societal collapse, and world war, but its heroes nevertheless act against political, corporate, or religious oppression. Many (but not all) of them suffer for it, but their acts resonate in ways both large and small.

It is in this context that I must pinpoint one serious crime the movie commits against the book. I noticed only one significant deviation from the novel that, for me, almost negates everything I found most powerful in the book. I don’t object that something was added (in fact, I usually argue that most adaptations of books need to be more liberal in their interpretations), but rather that what was added betrayed a desire for sentiment — in essence, a happy ending. Anyone that has experienced the novel and the film will know exactly what I’m talking about. The movie ends on a positive note for humanity at its chronologically latest point, while the book ends with a moving internal monologue set near the beginning, as a character decides to dedicate his life to the abolitionist movement.

Despite serious reservations like this, I was totally swept up in the movie and have to rate it highly overall. As a movie, it’s a towering, almost unbelievable achievement. It was essentially an independent production, with a large portion of the financing coming directly from the filmmakers themselves. Cloud Atlas was not made as a corporate exercise; it exists because three filmmakers felt they had to do it. The message of resisting oppression of all sorts, including corporate, must not have been a good selling point when it came time for them to shop their movie around to potential distributors, giant corporations all. So go see Cloud Atlas, if for no reason other than its verve and audacity.

Adapting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: After the End of the World

Genre fiction has long resided on the less reputable side of the divide between escapism and literature. But as The Atlantic notes, cult writers like Neil Gaiman are increasingly crossing over into the mainstream while established novelists like Michael Chabon are exploring sci-fi/horror/fantasy territory blazed by the likes of Margaret Atwood. Few have blurred these barriers as well as Cormac McCarthy, a writer with firm bona fides in the literary world whose devastating 2006 novel The Road incorporated elements of speculative fiction. It became a crossover hit and landed a spot in the world’s biggest book club: The Oprah Winfrey Show. Its vision of a burned world populated by dehumanized scavengers is sometimes even described as a zombie story, sparking an argument over whether or not it qualifies as horror or science fiction. My own two-fold answer: yes, of course, to both. But the question is also irrelevant. Speculative futures and fanciful technologies are not the true subjects of science fiction, but rather means to an end: illuminating the world of here and now.

The Road was in theaters roughly contemporaneously with its dimwitted cousin Terminator Salvation, the fourth entry in an escapist action franchise detailing a formulaic battle for the fate of humanity. But The Road was set at a time long after such heroic struggles were lost, if they were even attempted. The world itself is terrifyingly realized onscreen, using actual desolate locations: particularly an eerily abandoned stretch of turnpike in Pittsburgh, and the still largely lifeless blast zone around Mount St. Helens in Washington. The only technical problem I noticed was the somewhat distracting tooth continuity throughout. Decay: now you see it, now you don’t.

A scene from The Road
“If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different.”

I re-read the novel a few days before first seeing the film, which turned out to be a mistake. The book remained the emotional, visceral experience it was on my first read, but its freshness in my mind kept me somewhat detached throughout the movie. I could not help but dispassionately analyze the particulars of the adaptation. I’m among those who loved the book, but didn’t necessarily desire the movie to be faithful. The mechanics of how it could be done fascinated me. How do you adapt a book that lives and dies on the Steinbeckian terse, harsh, understated poetry of its language? Joe Penhall’s screenplay is remarkably faithful in terms of plot and sequence of events, and the few changes are effective. In particular, a neat narrative trick near the end seamlessly combines three separate incidents into a single sequence: The Boy falls ill, The Man loots an abandoned boat, and they are robbed.

It’s hard to imagine a better director for The Road than John Hillcoat, whose previous film The Proposition, from a screenplay by Nick Cave, could have been the movie that McCarthy never made himself. But The Road as a film somehow fails to recreate the emotionally devastating effect of its source material. Another candidate for director might have been Alfonso Cuarón, who managed to transform P.D. James’ novel Children of Men into a gut-wrenching vision of a near-future society disintegrating before our eyes. McCarthy had presented Hillcoat with a significant challenge; the novel is a long denouement to a story we didn’t see. Perhaps the strongest argument against genre fans claiming The Road as their own is that most zombie stories concern the fall of civilization. The Road is set long after this cataclysm, where everything has been taken away, even the very names of the people and places that remain. All that remains is the drudgery of mere survival.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
“If there is a God up there, he would have turned his back on us by now. And whoever made humanity will find no humanity here.”

That said, McCarthy does glancingly allude to a cataclysmic event (possibly a natural disaster) followed by human violence on a massive scale, waged by tribes described as Bloodcults. There are many aspects of the back story that Hillcoat and Penhall opt to clarify (particularly the Man and Boy’s family life), but the massive wars that swept the world in the preceding years is not one of them. This largely unspoken past in crucial to the book, as the reader contemplates how the Man, the Boy, and everyone they encountered somehow lived through it all, be it through fighting, hiding, or collaborating. The Man’s strategy for survival is to lay low and instill in his son the need to preserve a metaphorical “light” of basic humanity. We see numerous alternative strategies that also worked, but which result in the destruction of the soul. One such walking dead man we meet is Old Man (Robert Duvall), who apparently collaborated with the Bloodcults until the toxic landscape claimed his health.

Some of McCarthy’s poetically spare language is preserved in the limited voiceover narration delivered by the Man (Viggo Mortensen). But some evidence exists onscreen that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to put two and two together. While being scarcely mentioned by name in the book, “cannibalism” is one of the first words spoken in the film. It presents this savagery as the specific omnipresent threat that forces the Man and Boy to remain totally alone and self-reliant. Another clue the movie is more obsessed with cannibalism than the book: in the closing credits, a character is chillingly named only as “well-fed woman”. That’s certainly more humor than can be found in the text.

Viggo Mortensen in The Road
“I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive. It’s when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry.”

Another key element I missed from the book is the realization that the Boy has literally never seen another child, ever, which goes a long way towards explaining his careless reaction to glimpsing another boy. Long accustomed to hiding from all contact, he explodes with the dangerous need to connect. Although The Boy has evidently known little else, he seems to have the inborn need to cling to signs of life. The boy also marvels at a glimpse of a beetle whose metallic-like wings refract the grayish light and provide one of the film’s only flashes of color.

The ending of the novel is something that can only work in prose. A simple change in verb tense hints at a possible future, a radical change in thinking for characters previously forced to organize their lives around immediate survival. Beyond an overarching quest to reach the ocean, they indulged in little talk of the future, or of any kind of continuance at all. Life on the literal and metaphorical road is a sick combination of drudgery and terror. Every event in their lives is sudden, unexpected, and never likely to recur in quite the same way. The final words in the novel are perhaps the first thing the boy hears that hints of a comforting routine he might expect in his future. Translated to film, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall do perhaps the only thing they could do: plug a bunch of words into a character’s mouth that was silent in the book.

Charlize Theron in The Road
“My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born.”

The casting is pretty much perfect, particularly Kodi Smit-McPhee, who so resembles Charlize Theron that it’s eerie. Even the supporting cast is superlative, including Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, Molly Parker, and Garret Dillahunt. The latter is an interesting, versatile actor, having previously played an upper-crust psychopath in Deadwood, a criminal idiot in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a murderous cyborg in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and here a vile cannibal.

Solitary Confinement: Moon

Moon is a rare science fiction thriller that doesn’t derive its tension solely from the spectacle of spaceships, robots, or offworld locale. Rather, it’s a psychodrama about paranoia, in the Philip K. Dick tradition of Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly (not to mention the countless movies Dick indirectly inspired, such as Dark City, 12 Monkeys, and The Matrix). Moon’s futuristic trappings hide several onion layers of deeper themes: bioethics, torture, labor exploitation, and questioning the nature of the self and one’s perception of reality.

Director Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie, son of David Bowie), shot Moon on an extraordinarily economical budget of $5 million, achieved largely by restricting production to soundstages and substituting practical miniatures for costly CGI. A beneficial side-effect is a pleasing tactility lacking in most contemporary sci-fi films, where entire characters and environments are now routinely virtual. As a beat-up moon rover slowly trundles across the uneven lunar surface, kicking up dust, bumping and rattling all the way, it feels real because it is.

Duncan Jones' Moon
Our circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong

As his character’s name Sam Bell implies, Jones conceived the role with Sam Rockwell in mind. Rockwell was great in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Matchstick Men, and is great here. He must hold the screen virtually alone for most of the film, and Jones was right to hype him for an Academy Award nomination.

Sam is a blue-collar miner and the sole occupant of a partially automated base dedicated to strip-mining the dark side of the moon for a compound needed back on earth for clean power. It may sound like technobabble but in fact the science is sound: Helium-3 is a real element believed to be plentiful on the moon and theoretically may someday provide a sustainable source of energy. But in the true sci-fi dystopian tradition, Sam’s employer Lunar Industries turns out to be as insidious as the Weylan-Utani corporation that exploits the Nostromo mining platform crew in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Lunar Industries boasts of profitably saving the Earth’s environment by providing clean power on the cheap, made possible by engaging in practices that are arguably immoral but commonly accepted. The exploitation of cloned life is a direct parallel to today’s outsourcing of labor to developing countries with more lax human rights. If one wonders how a future society might be so inured to cloning that they would condone Sam’s servitude, media broadcasts overheard at the end of the film spill the beans: no, they don’t (that is, if we’re optimistic and assume what he hear is real – it’s possible they’re the fantasy of a dying man imagining his moral victory). But perhaps it’s like how many in the western world live now; we enjoy affordable consumer electronics and clothing manufactured by workers that literally live inside their factories, and don’t ask why our purchases don’t cost more. Jones told Suicide Girls that Moon is the first part in a projected trilogy, so perhaps we will see prequels or sequels that flesh out a world where human cloning is a fact of life.

Kevin Spacey in Duncan Jones' Moon
GERTY ROTFLMAO

Sam’s madness and physical deterioration is partially explained within the science fiction context as a result of the inherent instability of cloned life. Apparently, like early experiments with animals like Dolly the sheep in 1996, clones are more prone to disease, organ failure, and premature death (Dolly survived about half the normal lifespan for a sheep). Like the “replicants” in Blade Runner, these clones come with built-in expiration dates. But then, don’t we all? While Blade Runner’s Dekker comes to terms with his true nature through escape, Sam instead chooses to confront.

Discovering he is merely a commercial product with inbuilt obsolescence is just one of Sam’s problems. His quarters and workspace look like they might have once been as clean and white as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Discovery One vessel (or the inside of an Apple Store), but have long since become stained and soiled with the filth and grit of the many Sams that came before him. Also like the Discovery One astronauts, Sam periodically receives prerecorded video messages beamed from earth. These asynchronous conversations are not unlike email, and a poor substitute for real human interaction.

You don’t have to look far for a metaphor: the common practice of solitary confinement is increasingly recognized as a form of torture. The harrowing New Yorker article “Hellhole” by Atul Gawande recounts how a psychologically stable person can go mad in a matter of weeks or even days without human contact. We first meet Sam three years into his tour of duty.

Sam Rockwell in Duncan Jones' Moon
I am obligated to make a lame “Sam I Am” joke somewhere in this review, so here it is

Sam’s interactions with the base’s computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) are likewise reduced to the rudiments of online communication; its “face” is comprised of happy/sad/neutral emoticons. GERTY is a rarity in science fiction: a compassionate example of artificial intelligence. Countless movies (including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Wargames, The Terminator, I Robot, et al.) have trained us to expect artificial intelligences to be inherently evil or, at least, dangerously unstable. But GERTY is more like David (Haley Joel Osment) in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, or Wall-E: an artificial creation that rigidly follows its programming, but whose parameters allow it to exhibit genuine compassion and caring for its charge.

I loved the movie overall, but was disappointed by the lack of ambiguity in its storytelling. The trailer reveals more than I would have liked to know if I had watched the movie cold, and the movie itself reveals its secrets very early by quickly dropping the word “clone.” Would it have been more interesting had there been hints of a possibility that Sam might be delusional, hallucinating a clone, and was in fact alone the whole time? Maybe I’ve been conditioned by too many Twilight Zone episodes, Fight Club, and M. Night Shyamalan movies, but I expected a twist ending that never came.

I’ve touched on several of Moon’s more obvious inspirations, but I’m also reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, in which a clone-like creature murders his original. Cloning is just beginning to enter the zeitgeist, having recently figured into the braindead actioner The Island but also the more contemplative Never Let Me Go, based on the highly regarded novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Clones may very well prove to be the next zombies or vampires.

Christopher Nolan’s Fugue State: Inception

In his 1999 essay Celluloid Vs. Digital, Roger Ebert cites studies equating the experience of watching a movie to entering a fugue state: “film creates reverie, video creates hypnosis.” In other words, experiencing a film in the traditional manner, projected at 24 frames per second in a darkened theater, affects the brain in a way akin to dreaming. Inception is far from the first movie set in dreams, but it may be alone in attempting to encode the experience into the architecture of a film itself. Whether you compare it to onion skins or a puzzlebox, the form follows the content.

The bar has been set very low by the likes of Avatar, but Inception is finally proof that movies with budgets in the hundreds of millions need not be moronic and disposable. Yes, Inception is a sci-fi action movie full of well-tailored outlaws, guns, fight sequences, and exploding mountain fortresses, but it’s also an intelligent, complex experience for adults. If it took a weak remake and two movies about a vigilante in a rubber bat costume for Nolan to get here, then so be it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception
“It’s not, strictly speaking, legal.”

Inception is the natural progression from Following, Memento, and The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s quartet of wholly original visions. Insomnia, a safe remake of the far more incendiary Norwegian original, now seems like a detour, a paying of dues to enter the mainstream. His pair of Batman franchise entries injected a modicum of psychological realism into the pulp source material, but the grimly ponderous weight of it all was perhaps more than it could bear. For my money, nobody other than Tim Burton has managed to find the right mixture of camp and solemnity that makes up Batman.

While Inception may have some surface resemblance to numerous heist, caper, long con, action, and science fiction films, it is nevertheless a very welcome New Thing. Its deepest thematic links are probably to cerebral sci-fi meditations Solaris and Until the End of the World. The nightmare planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris haunted visitors with imperfect reincarnations of their most emotionally significant others. When a grieving astronaut is reunited with his ersatz wife, long dead of suicide, is it a blessing or a curse?

Inception
“A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”

Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World posits a future in which dream-reading technology would be enormously addictive, psychologically damaging, and permanently alter society. If a technology is ever invented for a group of people to not only enter an individual’s dreams but also to construct the dreamworld itself, how plausible it is that society would not be radically transformed? In Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at corporate espionage. His expertise is with a process normally utilized for the “extraction” of trade secrets, but inverted to inception: to implant an idea, a task which proves to hold massive significance to Cobb. Like a drug, we’re told, these machines gradually seep away users’ ability to dream on his or her own. We glimpse a sort of opium den in which burned-out dream junkies go to re-experience the normality of not only dreaming, but more importantly, waking up from dreams. Wenders’ The End of Violence would similarly look at another dystopian future in which global surveillance is taken to its logical extreme.

Inception’s action sequences beg comparison to everything from James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible. Its creative fight sequences, taking place in virtual arenas in which the laws of time and gravity are fluid, recall The Matrix. But the true narrative and structural template is much more along the lines of long-con tale much loved by David Mamet (particularly Homicide and Redbelt) and heist films Rififi, Thief, and Heat, in which a crack team of criminal experts work with a psychologically damaged leader on a high-stakes One Last Job.

The bloodless massacre of hordes of armed thugs seems designed to resemble video games. The obliquely portrayed violence is partly explained by a PG-13 rating that hypocritically permits dozens of onscreen shootings, but disallows blood, and thus any sense of the repercussions and ramifications of violence. But in the world of the film, the thugs are explained to be manifestations of the subconscious. A slight-of-hand morality magic trick that makes it OK for our heroes to mow them down with machine guns and grenades (again, this flashes back to The Matrix, in which the good guys rationalize away their mass killing of virtual avatars).

Marion Cotillard in Inception
“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

Inception had already developed a reputation as a mind-bender even before release, but I found it to be surprisingly straightforward if you pay a little bit of attention. If you choose to take the film at face value, pretty much everything you need to know is spelled out for you, often in frankly literal exposition (usually in exchanges with Ellen Page’s inquisitive character). The key ambiguity is a simple but profound question raised in its final moments. Interpreted one way, the film neatly wraps itself up in an airtight box (which is extraordinary in and of itself, when most big-budget movies often fail to make logical sense). Interpreted another way, it calls into question everything you’ve seen.

This moment hinges on Cobb’s totem, a personal item that each dream-traveller must rely upon to detect whether or not they are awake. Both Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) warn Ariadne (Ellen Page) to never allow anyone else to touch hers. But Cobb also freely admits that his totem first belonged to his wife Mol (Marion Cotillard). Complicating matters, unless I missed something, we never see her with it outside of the dream world. The top had symbolic meaning to Mol, for she locked it up in a metaphorical safe in her dreams. Cobb then uses it to plant the notion in her head that the dream world is not real, in order to encourage her to break her addiction and wake up with him. If the top was real, would she not be able to test herself with it when she woke up?

One further clue that suggests much of what we saw may be Cobb’s dream: if he and Mol lived the equivalent of 50 years in Limbo, several levels deep into their subconscious, why do they seem to only wake up through one level of dreaming? Is Cobb still trapped a few levels down?

Ellen Page in Inception
“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

And one wonders about the implausible dream technology itself. It’s offhandedly said to have been developed by the military for training purposes, but very little time is spent on the mechanics of the technology. Some sort of IV is involved in the process of linking people together, but how exactly does an Architect create and realize the world? We see Ariadne fiddle with papier-mache models, and verbally describe the world to the participants, but we’re also told that the architect need not necessarily enter the dream personally, so it’s not her mental map that makes things possible. If the agents are able to conjure things on the fly (Eames produces a grenade launcher out of thin air, and Ariadne folds a city in half), why do they not take more advantage of their effectively unlimited abilities during the heist? Cobb makes a big deal out of a prospective architect being able to devise labyrinths, something like a video game level designer. But Ariadne’s work is literally short-circuited and we never see a dramatic payoff to the theme of mazes.

Ray Bradbury once said that he was not concerned with the mechanics of interstellar travel; if a story he wished to tell required a rocket ship to ferry characters to another world, that was good enough for him. So is it pedestrian of me to wonder about these practicalities, or do these questions actually matter a great deal? Is the lack of specificity about how this miraculous technology actually works a clue? I believe it is linked to the troubling ambiguity of Cobb’s desire to “go home.” Does he simply want to clear his name so he can re-enter his home country, or does he want to plunge deeper into his fantasy? Is he actually guilty of a crime like Roman Polanski, or merely obsessed with indirect culpability like Kelvin in Solaris or Teddy in Shutter Island? Either way, he may have the opportunity to construct a false reality in which he can absolve himself.

I believe Inception is one for the ages, and not just because it has been endorsed by Al Gore. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, it’s the rare science fiction film likely to remain well-regarded for years.

Random Observations:

  • How many heist movies have you seen in which the master thief attempts the mythical One Last Job before retiring?
  • Despite Leonardo DiCaprio sporting Nolan’s own haircut, Inception might suffer in comparison to his somewhat similar character in his most recent film, Shutter Island. Two thrillers in a row about a man wracked with guilt over his dead spouse.
  • Wikipedia puts the budget at $160 million, plus a $100 million publicity campaign. As usual, these numbers make my head spin. But at least this time the result is a strong movie.
  • Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan has developed his own personal actors’ troupe. Inception features return appearances by Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy.

Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

Objectified finds its thesis in a quotation from one of history’s prime industrialists, Henry Ford: “Every object, whether intentional or not, speaks to whoever put it there.” In other words, everything we select, purchase, and interact with, was first designed and manufactured by a skilled artisan. That person’s job is to obsess about you, your body, needs and habits, and how their product might become a part of your life. Director Gary Hustwit’s previous documentary feature Helvetica was a celebration of typographers and graphic designers, and inspired laypeople to recognize the long history and great labor that went into the typefaces they use every day on their computer screens. Similarly, Objectified profiles the often unknown industrial designers behind the stuff we buy.

Jonathan Ives in Objectified
Jonathan Ives’ inner sanctum. After conducting this interview, Apple had the filmmakers shot.

Apple’s resident guru Jonathan Ive is perhaps the most famous design auteur featured. Ive is probably the second most famous person at Apple, justly acclaimed for his singular design aesthetic that first caught the public imagination with the bondi Blue iMac and then the stark, white, deceptively “simple” iPod. Ive’s boss Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” a principle born out in Ive’s work. Knowing inside and out the particulars of different materials and manufacturing is just part of designing a product’s externals. Ive brandishes precision-tooled parts from a disassembled MacBook Pro to illustrate that Apple spends an enormous amount of time and resources not just designing their products, but also the custom machines and processes necessary to mass produce them.

Naoto Fukasawa in Objectified
Naoto Fukasawa rethinks the CD player.

Objectified spends some considerable time on the topic of sustainability, a responsibility that regrettably only recently entered the industrial designer’s job description. Valerie Casey of IDEO relates the incredible anecdote of the difficult process of developing a new toothbrush. When the product is finally ready and in stores, she embarks on a much-needed vacation to Fiji. If you didn’t already guess where this story was going, she finds a discarded IDEO toothbrush washed up on a beach halfway around the world. In less than a week, her product had become pollution.

Objectified necessarily makes a brief detour into interaction design (this brief digression would be worthy of a film unto itself, but in the meantime, the curious can refer to Steven Johnson‘s 1997 book Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate). When we interact with most analog products, their form follows their function. As a thought experiment, would an alien from outer space (or a Tarzan raised in the wild) be able to infer an object’s function simply by looking at it? That is likely the case with a spoon or chair, but not so much with an iPhone. For many products of the digital age, the outward form factor gives no clues as to the function. Thus, interaction design was born with the Xerox PARC graphical user interface. Many of our daily tasks are now abstracted onto a two-dimensional screen. The Apple iPhone and iPad have popularized the touchscreen, which likely signals the beginning of another sea change when peripherals like keyboards and mice will be revealed to have been a temporary evolutionary bump, now marked for extinction.

Objectified
Awww yeah, designers know what time it is.

The last images we see are of the devices used to make the movie itself: a computer, hard drive, and camera. Tellingly, the Objectified Blu-ray edition has no menu structure at all. You put it in, it plays, and the supplementary features follow immediately after the closing credits. It’s a completely guided, linear experience that speaks to the film’s elevation of the creator over the consumer.


Official movie site: www.objectifiedfilm.com

Must read: A Hurricane of Consumer Values by Alissa Walker

What Did I Ever Do to You? David Mamet’s Homicide

Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) comes to see himself as torn between two discrete worlds in David Mamet’s Homicide (1991). Only when maneuvered into a position in which he must choose, the duality unravels and he finds he is no one special and belongs nowhere in particular.

Gold’s partner Sullivan (William H. Macy) has an unreserved man-crush on him, taking every opportunity to publicly butter him up and extol the therapeutic pleasures of police work. He reminds their peers that his revered partner is “Bobby The Orator,” so-called for his skill at negotiation. Indeed the moniker is deserving, for he is called on to calm a rabid dog with mere words, and later sweet-talk a ferociously stubborn mother into betraying her son. But Gold is certainly no action hero, confirmed in a early scene as he is beaten up and disarmed by an overweight civilian, in the sanctuary of the police station. By the end of the film, he has lost his sidearm a second time and is quickly physically bested again by Randolph (Ving Rhames). Is it too much of a stretch to link his failure to control his weapon with impotence and castration? He certainly feels perpetually aggrieved. At each unfair turn in these very unfair events, he repeats his refrain: “What did I ever do to you?”

William H. Macy and Joe Mantegna in Homicide
“You got some heavy troubles on your mind? Huh, babe? We’ll work it out. We’ll play some cops and robbers. We’ll bust this big criminal. We’ll swagger around.”

Bobby accidentally comes across a seemingly mundane murder while chasing down the sexier Randolph case (the kind of unambiguous, action-packed police work, with measurable results, that grants Gold and Sullivan existential satisfaction). Elderly Jewish woman Mrs. Klein has been found murdered in her inner-city candy shop. Everything points to a simple robbery, “everything” being, of course, the supposition that poor neighborhood African Americans have robbed a rare white business. Klein’s son, not quite grieving but resigned to a lifetime of persecution, sighs “It never ends.” When Bobby asks “What never ends?”, granddaughter (Rebecca Pigeon) coldly clarifies for him: “On the jews.” Already the murder escalates from a robbery to a hate crime, and this is a strong whiff of catnip for a man who also believes himself to be perpetually put-upon and aggrieved. As the Klein family correctly infers, Bobby is a Jew. But he wears a 5-point star as a cop. His sublimated Jewish pride only comes out in defense against the occasional professional flare-up in which he is called a “kike.”

Fittingly for a detective celebrated for a mastery of words, pursuing the Klein murder case is more an act of literary scholarship than one of police procedure. Gold’s investigation brings him to a Jewish research library where he senses deeper mysteries encoded in his ancestral Yiddish. His single best clue is the tantalizing derivation of the nonsense-seeming word “Grofatz.” All of this leads him into a confrontation with a decades-old group of Zionist warriors (who may be or may not be the Mossad, although the name is not mentioned in the film) who awaken him to his vengeful Jewish identity. Hungry for the rush of positive action that his cop side is currently denying him, he elbows his way into their ranks and becomes addicted to violent action.

Rebecca Pigeon in Homicide
“Hey, you’re better than an aquarium, you know that? There’s something happening with you every minute.”

But Homicide is a policier on the surface only. Like most of Mamet’s plays and screenplays, the plot is structured around a deep, complex confidence game. House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross, Spartan, and Redbelt all feature a long con of one form or another at their cores. A sucker is a sucker because of the truism that if one looks hard enough for something, one will find it. Most of Gold’s apparent clues and leads evaporate into meaningless happenstance. What is at stake is not what he thinks, and he finds himself used and abandoned.

Special mention goes to fine cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. The decaying Baltimore provides for two spectacular chase scenes, one along the rooftops and another below the asphalt. Each coils into a labyrinth, spiraling down and in, deeper and deeper, until Bobby encounters physically powerless but immovable minotaur-like figures the disarmed man must battle with his words alone.


Must read: Homicide: What Are You, Then? by Stuart Klawans

The Time Has Come to Act: The Impostors

I’m not blind to its shortcomings, but The Impostors is one of my most favorite movie comfort foods. That I find it so funny and purely enjoyable is really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression.

The pitch: a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, with an all-star cast of 90s New York City indie personalities. It has the feel of a filmed stage play (like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The stagey production values become a virtue as the same few sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect. Finally, the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. The Impostors is a refreshingly affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt in The Impostors

“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Stanley Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype for the modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere.

An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. What Arthur and Maurice yearn for, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. Not for nothing is their toast “To life… and its many deaths.”

It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism. Almost everyone’s an impostor.

Lily Taylor and Campbell Scott in The Impostors

“The danger of the chase has made you perspire. It has made me also… moist.”

Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, Alison Janney, Alfred Molina, Richard Jenkins, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). And there’s still room in the soufflé for wildcards like a pre-Lost Michael Emmerson, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous skit that could easily have been cut.

The Impostors apparently landed with a bit of a thud after the critical and commercial success of Tucci and Scott’s justly acclaimed Big Night (which I also love, not least for containing cinema’s all-time greatest omelette-making scene).

Nothing to Say and No Way to Say It: Revolutionary Road

The first few minutes of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road feature one of the boldest jump cuts this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) meet cute out of a crowd of Beatnik hipsters at a loft party. Like any flirting young couple, how each chooses to introduce themself comprises a promise as to whom each will become should they grow up together. The glamorous April simply says she is studying to be an actress, as if that is all Frank needs to know. He in turn cracks wise about toiling in nothing jobs holding him back from vaguely-defined great aspirations. After this very brief scene, Mendes jump cuts to several years later to find Frank and April married in suburbia with two kids. An older Frank privately cringes during April’s weak debut in a community theater production. It turns out she’s not a great actress after all, but cursed to be just smart and sensitive enough to know it. Her sense of definitive failure and his frustration at her frustration combusts into a blistering roadside argument on par with any of the cataclysmic rows between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road
“You were just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

Frank and April’s all-consuming pride escapes as barely-veiled condescension toward their peers in the office and on their suburban street. They both share mutually incompatible senses of superiority, feeling destined for something great without knowing what, or having any obvious natural talent to nurture. It provides no satisfaction when Frank does eventually manifest an aptitude in marketing, something they both view as disappointing and beneath them. Who or what propped them up with this sense of superiority? Are we to read their hubris as a critique of the Greatest Generation (Frank is a World War II veteran, an experience he romanticizes even while acknowledging his sheer terror at the time)? This generational theory would be supported by how the older Givings family views them – but more on the Givings later. Or were Frank and April’s egos boosted by overpraising parents? We hear much of Frank’s late father, who toiled in obscurity for years at the same firm where Frank now finds himself trapped, but any other relatives are wholly absent from their lives. Perhaps if Frank and April had been born a few generations later, they would be the sort of overconfident personalities drawn to compete on reality TV shows.

After April gives up on her dream of acting after her disastrous debut, she latches onto a fantasy of moving to Paris and supporting Frank so he may find his. But Frank is even less evolved than she; he never specifies what he imagines himself becoming. Writer? Politician? Artist? He has nothing to say, and no way to say it. Their Gallic escape plan is not fully thought through, and Frank never really commits anyway. He’s clever enough to excel amongst the duller coworkers with whom he shares daily steak and martini lunches. He becomes further ensnared by success in the business world, as measured by income, the sexual availability of naive office girls, and a step above his father on the ego-stroking ladder of promotion.

Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road
“Hopeless emptiness. Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”

One flaw of the film is dialogue that sometimes strays from naturalism into the novelistic. Even in the midst of the fiercest of arguments, April is still poised enough to deliver zingers like “No one forgets the truth, Frank, they just get better at lying” and “You’re just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

I promised to return to the Givings family, whom I believe are the key to understanding the film. Helen Givings (Kathy Bates) gently teaches April how to be a good housewife, offering passive aggressive critiques of such fripperies as lawn maintenance. But she slowly reveals a longing admiration for the Wheelers as an ideal American nuclear family: a nice, good-looking, successful, model young couple in love (their coarse neighbors the Campbells also idealize the Wheelers). Helen hopes that some of their pixie dust might rub off on her troubled son John (Michael Shannon), a mathematician and intellectual brought low by mental illness and electroshock therapy (whether it is the disease or the cure that ails him most is a question that bleakly amuses him). John proves to have the coldest, clearest, starkest view of reality, and cuts right through all the subterfuge and doublespeak with which these American nuclear families delude themselves. Everything he says is right, but tragically, Frank and April interpret the bitterly damaged man as a kindred spirit and not as what he is: a holy fool (in the sense of idiot savant) that damningly illustrates their faults.

Kathy Bates in Revolutionary Road
Helen admires the Wheelers’ splendid picture window looking out on Revolutionary Road

In some ways, the final scene is the most devastating, and it doesn’t even feature the Wheelers at all. The Givings chat at home alone, long after the Wheelers revealed themselves to be fatally fractious and tortured. We witness Helen rewrite history, belittling the Wheelers in terms of their ability to maintain the value of their home (read: their family). As she’s busy erasing her emotional stake in the Wheelers, her husband Howard (Richard Easton) turns off his hearing aid to literally drown her out. He gazes at her emptily, dispassionately, dead inside. We might imagine their marriage survived the kind of emotional flashpoint that destroyed the Wheelers, but trapped them in a cold, loveless life together.

Cool Britannia: David Yates’ BBC Miniseries State of Play

The 2003 BBC miniseries State of Play is nothing less than six straight hours of intelligent drama, liberally spiced with suspense, action, and tasty plot twists. The entire epic tale is delivered by a veritable plethora of British Isles telly & movie who’s who: writer Paul Abbot, director David Yates, and actors David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Bill Nighy, and James McAvoy. Abbot is apparently a superstar television writer in the UK, and Yates directed the last two Harry Potter films (as well as reuniting Nighy and Macdonald in 2005 for The Girl in the Café).

State of Play is an especially good tonic after happening to recently watch the dour The International, which falls more or less into the same genre category. The key differential is a heathy dash of comic relief that never crosses over into farce, mostly supplied by the sublimely quirky Bill Nighy. But more importantly, the intricate tale of high-level political conspiracy feels pertinent. The International, although based on an actual banking scandal (a topic that could not be more timely), sabotaged its plausibility by limiting the protagonists to two lone wolfs that take on a crooked multinational financial conglomerate on their lonesome. Here, numerous fleshed-out cops and reporters alternately clash and collaborate as they chase down a gargantuan story. State of Play is actually both a classic newspaper story (like All the President’s Men) and a police procedural (like The French Connection). It’s worth noting that each of these genres are about the piecing together of stories, and the suspense comes from the audience follows along with them as the discover the pieces of the narrative. Granted, the luxurious six-hour running time was a luxury The International could not enjoy.

Bill Nighy, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald in State of Play
The Herald newsroom follows the money in State of Play

The details of the plot were undoubtedly timely in 2003 and continue to be now, proven by its American feature film remake in 2009. After suffering through 8 years of a Bush/Cheney administration, Americans can intimately relate to oil companies meddling in governmental operations. Although State of Play is fictional, the affair between a Member of Parliament and a staff member that winds up dead inescapably calls to mind US Representative Gary Condit’s affair intern Chandra Levy, found murdered in 2001. A subplot involving an MP’s compromised expense account now looks even more timely than Abbot could have predicted in 2003, considering the atrocious widespread abuse that currently threatens to remove Gordon Brown and possibly even the Labour Party from power.

David Morrissey & John Simm in State of Play
The Next Doctor faces off against The Master for the first time

Apart from the sometimes overenthusiastic editing (making the series feel a bit like the satire Hot Fuzz), the only misstep is Nicholas Hooper’s percussive, bombastic score, including an incongruous didgeridoo-infused theme suddenly introduced in part six. But one of the series’ greatest pleasures is to hear Kelly Macdonald (a Dork Report crush ever since her unforgettable performance as the ultimate naughty schoolgirl in Trainspotting) pronounce “murder” with all the wonderful extra diphthongs her Scottish accent provides.


Must read: BBC’s State of Play Left Me in a State of Awe on Pop Culture Nerd