Saturday, July 31, 2010

ON GOOD BAD MOVIES

Check out this piece from the venerable James Comtois on the elusive Good Bad Movie. Let no one say I lack the humility/balls to link to better writers than I.

MORAL TURPITUDE, VULGARITY . . .

The primary focus of Movies by Bowes ™ has been, to this point, on narrative features. Personal prejudice, aesthetic laziness, bourgeois attachment to people, stories, and meaning, go have that argument elsewhere and let me know how it comes out so I can light a fart in your face. I'm never going to be a grownup critic like this asshole, so rather than even try, let's assert the primacy of the music video in the development of avant-garde cinema!

For a more thorough—and better—history of the music video than I could pull out of my ass on this lovely summer Saturday, read this. As ultimately damaging as videos turned out to be for pop music (skyrocketing costs led to the industry fucking itself in the ass by keeping the pretty and tone-deaf in the luxury to which they'd become accustomed while bands that could actually play sledgehammered the foundation by learning to use the Internet to circumvent the traditional distribution system) they were an unexpected boon to the movie business.

Many critics, especially the sort whose nipples get all hard at Serious Cinema (read: foreign, political, painful to watch), moan to the heavens about quick cutting and rock n roll soundtracks ruining cinema in the 80s. The older ones, anyway. While, in the wrong hands, the “MTV aesthetic” leads to pointless, attitudinal editing and shallowness, the evolution of these tropes in the development of the music video began out of necessity and for actual reasons. The average pop song being between 3-4 minutes long (occasionally as long as 5 or 6), the music video director needs to pack as much as possible into that time. And it's not as if Russell Mulcahy invented quick cutting:

And, as specifically pertains to the marriage between cinema and pop music, like everything else in music, all roads lead back to The Beatles at some point. Among the impressive list of pop institutions on which they hold the copyright—drugs, dippy experimentation in musical forms like Indian and electronic that they didn't really understand except they were on drugs, letting girlfriends come between the band and the music, self-indulgent side projects, pissing off Jesus freaks, the much-better-than-you'd-think guitarist solo album (seriously, do not sleep on George Harrison, that boy's solo output was fucking fierce), more drugs, the melodramatic breakup—the one that had arguably the biggest input was originating the form of the music video. Much like their music synthesized earlier influences to create something new and wonderful, A Hard Day's Night took its cue from experiments going back to Louis Jordan and even earlier to Bessie Smith and did the same.

While, obviously, the Beatles are most of what make A Hard Day's Night what it is—an exhilarating, fun whirlwind—it wouldn't have been as revolutionary and influential without Richard Lester. The 60s were an exciting time for playing with cinema vocabulary, and Lester matched form with content in such a skillful way that A Hard Day's Night doesn't even feel like an art picture. The story of four dudes from Liverpool who suddenly got retarded famous playing pop songs, the rapid-fire editing emphasizes the new craziness of their lives, as do the non sequiturs—the lolwut gem of the bunch being Paul's grandfather, and everyone saying “He's very clean.” Of course, the fact that it's all scored to Beatle songs helps, but note especially the train compartment/card game “I Should Have Known Better” sequence and the holy shit we're free “Can't Buy Me Love” sequence. In those two scenes, we have the birth of the music video.

Naturally, the Beatles being kind of popular, other people took their cue from A Hard Day's Night and to a similar extent, Bob Dylan's “zup, D.A. Pennebaker, let's make a movie” Don't Look Back. The Stones got in on it, mocking their arrest for the smacked out sex with Marianne Faithfull bearskin rug thing. David Bowie, master of both the homage and getting as much attention as humanly (or alienly) possible, got himself banned by the BBC for excessive gay in the early 70s, and then relaunched his career as a chart-topper in the late 70s. And then there was MTV, and the rest is history.

A lot of that history—Madonna and Michael—has been so thoroughly written about that even I, the White Man in Yammersmith Palais, will refrain from redundancy. Much as “Express Yourself” (key in launching director David Fincher's career) and “Billie Jean” are stunningly good songs and videos, Madonna and Michael were so massively popular and singularly themselves that it's been the rare subsequent pop singer who even dared imitate them directly (hats off to Lady GaGa though; rama oo la la, baby-san).

The following people and institutions I think had more actual impact on the music video, instead of merely its popularity:


Duran Duran

Since the longest stretch of time when MTV actually played videos was the 1980s, most of the important developments in the form took place then. And who was more 80s than Duran Duran? Bored, English, kinky, authors of polished, ludicrously catchy pop tunes (that are impossible to cover due to that bendy shit Simon LeBon always did with his voice on choruses—see “Union of the Snake” and View to a Kill” among others), Duran Duran would be remembered most today by revisionist musical historians insisting that they were actually a pretty good band if not for the videos. This one was banned due to tits:

But this one is the definitive Duran Duran video. Revel in the majesty.

It's pretty simple math: band looking cool + scantily clad women = WIN. Someone else probably would have thought of it if Duran Duran didn't do it first, but just because someone else would have chipped two rocks together and set something else on fire doesn't mean the first cave person to do so wasn't awesome. In short order, bands across all genres, from hair metal to hip hop to harpsichord sonatas packed as many good-looking women as possible in every video they put out, but, learning from the “Girls on Film” controversy, always made sure there was plenty of double-sided tape on hand so there'd be no bikini slippage. Alas.


Pussies With Mullets

Where Duran Duran had balls and a surprisingly well-developed sense of perspective about themselves, many bands in the 80s had neither. Note in the following the band never appearing in the same shot as the scantily-clad woman:

A historically important subgenre for its trailblazing work in the field of unintentional comedy, and providing a never-ending supply of slow-dance and karaoke selections.


Yo! MTV (reluctantly) Raps!

Prefiguring the chart dominance in the 90s of hip-hop and “R&B” (much of which has neither rhythm nor blues), the rap video's evolution began in the 80s with DIY, low-budget efforts by the legendary Grandmaster Flash:

Later, in hip-hop's first entree into mainstream pop, concurrent with MTV sufficiently extricating its head from its ass to start airing videos by rappers other than Run-DMC, we started to see a tip of the hat to the Duran Duran template. For one of the funnier examples, I present Rakim Allah, esq.

Throughout the history of hip-hop there have been internecine struggles between artistic integrity (a focus on the MC and the DJ) and the trappings of commercial success (gold chains, girls, conspicuous consumption), but rarely a focus on the creative possibilities afforded by the music video form. For a while in the 90s, it looked like Wu-Tang would manage to “keep it real,” sell shitloads of records, and put out beautifully strange videos:

However, as RZA and company overextended themselves and oversaturated the market, the rap video became defined by Puff and his mountains of money, leading to the massive budgets of the late 90s, helicopter shots, the same old shots of bored-looking girls without lots of clothes, and nouveaux riche tackiness griming up every frame:


The 90s, and the Disappearance of the Video

Once MTV started showing director credits on videos, stars were made out of people like David Fincher and Spike Jonze, who would later take their talents to Hollywood and make features. This, of course, was partly due to their videos being so creative and entertaining, but also the unfortunate, ratings-motivated decision by MTV in the mid-90s to abandon the “music” part of the acronym for “music television.” As videos got more interesting, they also got more expensive. And, lest we forget, the 90s were notable for the widening schism between the good and the popular in pop music, so the more likely a band was to have an interesting video, the less likely it was for the mass teenage audience to want to see that video. And so it became that the above-mentioned Puff hegemony solidified, as by the end of the decade, the only place you could see videos on MTV was on Total Request Live, and only the same 10 decadently-conceived pieces of crap ever found their way onto the air.

This led to the music video, as an art form, appearing to recede into history, as a curio of the 80s and early 90s, and the increasing relegation onto channels like MTV2 (which eventually stopped showing videos). Amazingly, VH1, started as the vanilla stepchild to MTV, took the lead in reviving interest (however niche it may have been) in the music video by launching VH1 Classic, a reliquary for the great videos of the 80s and before, which was a fantastic and important thing. Initially, they showed no commercials, just videos. And it was good. They showed shit like this—

—all the time. Alas, eventually niche channels catering to nostalgic nerds need to pay the fiddler. VH1 Classic started showing commercials. And so began its slow decline.


A Savior Appears!

Much like in The Hunt For Red October, the submarine ex machina keeps Stellan Skarsgard's torpedo from vaporizing Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery, prompting Courtney B. Vance's “WAY TO GO, DALLAS!” the Internet would save the day. February 2005. YouTube.

Without sounding like a commercial for the fucking place—though note where all the embedded videos came from—YouTube saved the music video by, in true Internet fashion, giving the audience the freedom to watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it (the odd unavailable-due-to-copyright infringement lacunae aside), and leading to bands actually making music videos again! This leads to such wonders as Grizzly Bear's beautifully strange clip for “Two Weeks” (probably the best single of the last decade)—

—being just as available as Lady GaGa (who, to the equal parts dismay and delight of millions, is here to stay):


It's this last development, the archive and breeding ground that is YouTube, that make it possible to study the music video as art, without wasting months watching MTV in the middle of the night, hoping to catch the one time they ever play Grizzly Bear. Being able to write this post in an afternoon is infinitely preferable.

Music videos, as the way most people, for the last three decades, see (occasionally) avant-garde short-form cinema, have served as a kind of Trojan horse to expose the otherwise aggressively uninterested American teenager to techniques and visual concepts to which they'd otherwise never be exposed. This is not to say that suddenly the average dipshit mallrat suddenly sees this (NSFW, as if anything on this fucking blog is SFW)—

—and runs out to MoMA to see Matthew Barney retrospectives, but you gotta start somewhere.

But more than any high-minded purpose as art, music videos are fun. Being short-form, you can watch one in four minutes or thirty in two hours, depending on the mood. At their best, videos can increase one's appreciation for a singer or band, and even at their worst, they're over fairly quickly.

I leave you with the two videos that inspired this post, two of my very favorite ever, from the one, the only, Michel Gondry. Enjoy.

Let Forever Be (Best. Transitions. Ever.)
Je Danse Le Mia (You know why . . .)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX, VOL. 4: DARK STAR, AN EDUCATION, & THE INFORMANT!

In this modern age, there's so much to keep track of. I started tweeting (follow me!), there's baseball; and good God have I been getting annihilated at fantasy baseball, this clip is a perfect visual metaphor—

—there are pretty girls to talk to, movies of my own to produce (details forthcoming), theater to see. With all this (and I'm not complaining, except about the fantasy baseball) I've been falling a bit behind on those little red envelopes. These things happen, since even at the best of times the shit on my queue tends to be the kind of thing I've been “meaning to see.” Things I really want to see I see. There isn't all this fucking hesitation that crops up when I'm watching an Oscar also-ran, or something I saw when I was high years and years ago, or some overtly “experimental” picture by a talented yet mercurial and aloof auteur.

But there comes a time when even the most neurotic among us have to man up and deal with our eclectic taste in cinema and get those fuckin' Netflix sent back. Because erudite, profane crankiness loves company, I share the experience with you:


Dark Star (1974) dir. John Carpenter

I saw this years and years ago and remembered it as being goofy and fun. Upon rewatching, it was goofy and confusing. While there are some priceless bits—the 2001-satirizing existentialist conversations trying to convince the cheerful bomb not to blow up, the beach ball alien, having the crew of the spaceship being a bunch of devil-may-care bearded longhairs—trying to listen to the poorly-recorded sound to follow what was going on gave me a headache, so I ended up self-medicating and getting nicely buzzed (strictly legal!) for about the second half of the movie, improving the experience greatly.

This leads to a very important point, that I would like to make as a Movies By Bowes ™ public service announcement: only watch Dark Star if you're high. It thus joins the following restricted list (as in, blaze first at all costs):

Head
Buckaroo Banzai
The Room
Barbarella

Roland Emmerich's entire career (Expert Level)


An Education (2009) dir. Lone Scherfig

Watching this basically on a double feature with Dark Star was an interesting experience, and probably made me like this a whole lot more in a weird way. An Education tells the story of Jenny Millar (Carey Mulligan) a smart, intellectually and culturally ambitious 16 year old in early 60s England who's being pressured by her dad (Alfred Molina) to ascetically pursue her studies so as to get into Oxford.

Jenny meets an extremely charming older man (Peter Sarsgaard, not only rockin a top-notch Brit accent but appearing heterosexual, impressively) who soon sweeps her off her feet and introduces her to a world of parties, and concerts, and cocktails, weekend trips to Oxford and Paris . . . and no small amount of shadiness and criminality. Peter Sarsgaard and Dominic Cooper are sort of like the Kray twins as co-written by Scott Fitzgerald and Christopher Isherwood, so they're not dangerous or anything, but Jenny still doesn't entirely approve.

Impressively (and kind of implausibly), Peter Sarsgaard also seduces Jenny's parents (not in the biblical sense, but in a “wow, our daughter's older boyfriend is awesome!” kind of way), to the point where when Jenny finds out Peter Sarsgaard is married, Alfred Molina is just as brokenhearted as she is.

Over the course of Jenny's seduction, she's drifted from her academic ambitions, growing to see devoted, severe teacher Olivia Williams (whose character I want to drink tea and hold hands with) as dead inside and headmistress Emma Thompson (who is fucking hilarious in this) as a fascistic twat. But, after she splits with Peter Sarsgaard—having dropped out of school before taking her A-levels—Jenny tries to get back on the plan, only to have Emma Thompson tell her no, and it takes Olivia Williams getting excited in an extremely British way (oh, Olivia Williams, I want to quote Coleridge to you . . . ) about getting Jenny back on the path to see that Jenny gets the titular schooling, on the literal level.

But, “an education” works on a secondary level too, to wit the kind of knowledge and life's wisdom one can't glean from books. Losing your virginity in an anticlimactic way. Learning that glamorous people are often shallow. Learning that many art collectors are in it for art's value as a commodity rather than the love. Learning that when you're a kid you should be a kid (and, in Jenny's case, appreciate the awkward boy who worships her more) rather than aspiring to be an adult (and have Rosamund Pike get excited on your behalf that you don't have to read books anymore now that you've dropped out of school).

An Education is an example of the kind of movie that's completely insufferable when Americans try it but for some reason the Brits hit all the notes just right, and although it's totally formulaic it still manages to involve the audience emotionally. Part of that, in this movie's case, is that Carey Mulligan is so unbelievably good as Jenny. Apparently she never acted before, which is astounding, and makes An Education a companion piece to Billy Elliott, which although a much better movie, also starred a novice in the lead, and is also one of those paint-by-numbers Rembrandts the Brits crank out once or twice a year.

Hopefully, Oliver Stone doesn't torpedo Carey Mulligan's career with Wall Street 2: Are You Fucking Kidding Me, because wow.


Oh, and on a random note, fuck Nick Hornby. YOU KNOW WHY, NICK.


The Informant! (2009) dir. Steven Soderbergh
“Four guys in suits meeting in the middle of the day? That's not a business meeting, it's a crime scene!”

—Tony “Buster Bluth” Hale


And, rounding out our trilogy of the long unwatched, we have evil white guys in suits! Hell yeah. Directed by Steven Soderbergh in full-on ironic detachment mode! Ah, shit, Steve, do you have to . . .?

Ol' Steve's a tough nut to crack. After he dropped the one-two blockbuster combo of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, he's spent the last decade alternating between Ocean's movies and seemingly deliberately off-putting experimental pictures. Some of them, like Bubble, work (because, amateur cast aside, Steve kept it simple and told a fucking story). Some of them, like The Good German, are hideous. Others, like The Girlfriend Experience, are total head-scratchers (making a movie starring Sasha Grey without any sex in it is kind of like putting Arnold in a Woody Allen movie).

The Informant! actually didn't need a ton of help from Soderbergh to be weird. The guy Matt Damon plays in it, Mark Whitacre, is fucking crazy. He spent years lying to the FBI, taping people, trying to hide his own embezzlement by ratting out his bosses, watching Tom Cruise movies, hiring and firing lawyers, and ending up getting tossed in jail for three times as long as his evil white guy bosses.

Matty Dames lets it fly as Whitacre. His narration goes way past “unreliable narrator” into a whole new category; Matty spends the whole fucking picture yammering at us about Japanese perverts, The Firm, and fictional-sounding exploits while driving the FBI's blood pressure into the 200/160 range and amusing the living shit out of his bosses.

It's a fairly interesting story, but does kind of drag a bit. The whole “corporate shenanigans as comedy” schtick was done a lot better in Barbarians at the Gate, because Steve kind of overdoes it with the jokey-jokes (just about everybody in the supporting cast is a stand-up comedian) and the Marvin Hamlisch music and the 70s-textured images—even though the movie took place in the 90s—and all.

One stroke of absolute genius, though, was casting Clancy Brown as Matty's evil white guy boss' lawyer. Clancy Brown walks into boardroom. Commands respect. Tells you what the fuck is up. Leaves. Possibility for resistance: nil. It's Clancy Brown. Now that he has white hair, he can be the lawyer, where when he was younger he was the guy with the gun, but it's good to see that badass is a growth industry.

Scott Bakula and Joel McHale are both really good as the Feds Matty Dames drives nuts, even if they don't get much to do other than reaction shots like “is this motherfucker serious?” about the increasingly bizarre shit Matty pulls on them. And the woman who played Clooney's sister in Up in the Air is really good as Matty's wife.


You know, as insignificant a thing as it actually is, there really is a sense of accomplishment about finally getting through those damn Netflix that have been sitting around since May. It'd be so much easier to sit around watching movies by myself if I didn't lead such an interesting life . . . grumble grumble . . .

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

KEANU BARADA NIKTO


“I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more... profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

—Michael Rennie, The Day The Earth Stood Still, 1951


Jennifer Connelly: I need to know what is happening.
Keanu: This planet is dying. The human race is killing it.
Jennifer Connelly: So you have come here to help us.
Keanu: No, I didn't.
Jennifer Connelly: You said you came to save us.
Keanu: I said I came to save the Earth.
Jennifer Connelly: You came to save the Earth from us.
Keanu: We can't risk the survival of this planet for the sake of one species.
Jennifer Connelly: What are you saying?
Keanu: If the Earth die, you die. If you die, the Earth survives. There are only a handful of planets in the cosmos that are capable of supporting complex life.
Jennifer Connelly: You can't do this.
Keanu: This one can't be allowed to perish.
Jennifer Connelly: We can change. We can still turn things around.
Keanu:: We have watched. We have waited and hoped that you would change.
Jennifer Connelly: Please.
Keanu: It has reached the tipping point. We have to act.
Jennifer Connelly: Please.
Keanu: We will undo the damage you have done and give the Earth a chance to begin again.
Jennifer Connelly: Don't do this. Please, we can change. We can change.
Keanu: The decision is made. The process has begun.

The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2008



The original Day The Earth Stood Still is one of the best SF movies ever made. It kept things simple, had both intelligence and clear purpose—one of many obliquely stated analogies for the global pissing contest with the Soviets—and managed to be fantastically entertaining. It's probably the best picture Robert Wise ever directed, and he directed a lot of good ones. It's one of a handful of perfect movies, one that really didn't need a remake.

Of course, in a world where Psycho was remade—and not even that many years into the current (re)cycle—no picture is safe. So it was that The Day The Earth Stood Still's number “won” the remake lottery.

Now, as previously stated, there are occasionally legitimate reasons to remake a movie. One is having a go at fixing the flaws in an interesting but imperfect picture, but remaking a better movie can make sense as well. In the case of The Day The Earth Stood Still, the Michael Rennie version had Michael Rennie land on Earth and be like, “The Cold War and nuclear escalation will kill you all, and unless you desist, I shall be forced against my will to show you how unpleasant aliens can be.” In 1951, that was the main threat to humanity and the planet Earth, nuclear chess between the U.S. and the Soviets. By 2008, the Soviets were no longer commies, and despite Putin's nostalgic autocracy and frequent “suck on this” gestures directed at Washington, no longer the primary antagonist for the U.S.

Interestingly, the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still recognizes who America's primary antagonist is: ourselves. The alien who comes to earth with his giant phallic robot this time around has come not about nuclear war, but our willfull ecological destructiveness, which in light of the oil diarrhea in the Gulf of Mexico, is very relevant. Whaddaya know? A legitimate reason for this remake to exist. Guess we can put this on the select list of remakes that are worth a shit, right?

NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!! Looks like you're not getting our cash prize, but take this home version of our game and a complimentary set of steak knives.

See, if you're gonna remake a picture like The Day The Earth Stood Still, you need to recognize that a big part of what made the original great was the quiet dignity of Michael Rennie in the lead. Quietness and dignity are not qualities we see a lot of these days, but there's one guy who could have killed shit in an intelligently written re-imagining of The Day The Earth Stood Still.

David Straithairn, ladies and gentlemen. Quiet. Dignified. Capable of rocking the house to its knees as an alien. One of an incredibly short supply of actors capable of intoning the classic phrase “Klaatu barata nikto!” without looking like a twat. Sure he's not a movie star, big effects movies don't need A-listers anymore, and often do better without them. There you go. Layup. But no. Fox decided, in the face of intelligence and good business sense, to go full retard.

I defend Keanu, more than I should arguably. He's held it down in a lot more of his movies than people give him credit for, and on one level it makes perfect sense to cast him as an alien, because he kind of is. But not here, dude. Despite Keanu's ability to not suck, the times when he doesn't do not hinge on his intelligence to seal the deal. Klaatu needs to be intelligent, otherwise the whole shithouse goes up in flames.

This was but one blown decision in this creative process, however. The supporting cast would have been fully capable of covering for Keanu (containing no fewer than two Oscar winners, John Cleese, Don Draper, James Hong, and incipient megastar Jaden Smith) had the script not been composed of the kind of feeble-minded shit you hear in stoned “philosophical” discussions freshman year of college. Dialogue is not dialogue, but sparring matches between two clunkily articulated philosophical viewpoints. Character relationships require half a scene to explain (why Jennifer Connelly couldn't have just been Jaden Smith's mom is a case in point: his dad is dead and we never see him . . . so why couldn't Jennifer Connelly have been married to a black guy? Our fucking president is biracial, people, come on).

The single biggest swing and miss though is that Keanu lands on Earth having already decided to fuck shit up. Michael Rennie got here and said, “All right, ladies and gentlemen, let's discuss this like civilized beings.” Keanu hops out of his UFO, telepathically melts everyone's central nervous system on some “I . . . am an F . . . B . . . I . . . agent!” trip, and basically acts like a dick. The whole movie from like the twenty-minute mark onward consists of Jennifer Connelly urgently pleading with Keanu to change his mind. In spite of all that, it takes Jaden Smith being precociously charismatic for Keanu to decide, “Brah . . . I'm going to spare Earth! Whoa!” So the whole fucking movie, ultimately, is a gigantic waste of an hour fifty, as Keanu's grand solution seems to consist of frying all the technology on earth, thereby basically making The Day The Earth Stood Still an unofficial Mad Max crossover/prequel.

Then there's Kathy Bates. The point that the leaders of Earth are supposed to be shitheads is a strong one (because the vast majority of them are). And the point that presidents don't often call all the shots is a stronger one. But these points are blown to shit by writing her character as a one-note swipe at Hillary Clinton. I've gone back and forth on Secretary of State Clinton over the years, and I'm glad Barack's president instead of her, but she's intelligent, capable, and her heart's in the right place. The fact that she's not a size 2 and her hair being occasionally unfortunate have nothing to fucking to do politics, and the way she rhetorically .12 gauges anyone who fucks with her is actually a good thing for a politician. Do I like her? No, but I respect her. The tendency to paint her as a fuckhead autocrat is unfair (and reductive, intellectually feeble, sexist, etc etc), and Kathy Bates' character in this movie is one of the dumbest bits of Hillary pastiche yet seen in pop culture. Just like David Straithairn should have played Klaatu, change Regina Jackson to “Reggie Jackson” and give everyone a good laugh by casting James Rebhorn.

THIS MAN CAN PLAY AN EVIL WHITE GUY IN A SUIT BETTER THAN ANY AMERICAN ALIVE, GODDAMMIT. PUT HIM IN MORE MOVIES.

Final verdict: stick with the original. Stick with Michael Rennie. And someone find Jennifer Connelly's agent and throw him down an elevator shaft: the only good movie she's been in since her Oscar was The House of Sand and Fog, and that was seven fuckin years ago.

Monday, July 26, 2010

COME WITH ME IF YOU WANT TO LIVE


The Terminator movies have loomed large in many ways since the first picture's release in 1984. They made Arnold such a big star that he's now the governor of California (and even then cats call him the Governator). They gave Jim Cameron a running start on his path to become one of the most commercially successful movie directors of all time. The second movie gave Hollywood such a long-lasting boner for CGI that one hopes a physician was consulted. And the last movie gave us the marvelously entertaining mp3 of Christian Bale verbally sandblasting his DP for fidgeting during a take.

Like any SF franchise worth its salt, it's spawned a convoluted mythology, spinoffs, abundant chances for actors like Paul Winfield, Xander Berkeley, Joe Morton, Jane Alexander, and Michael Ironside to pay the rent and chip teeth on scenery, and of course led to lots and lots of shit getting blown up. Its best lines have become permanent parts of the pop culture lexicon. And last but certainly not least, the Terminator cycle provides fertile ground for me to sustain my doomed and fucktarded quest to champion Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting ability. Fortunately this will not be lasting legacy of the Terminator series.


The Terminator (1984) dir. James Cameron

Where it all started. Jim Cameron, having previously directed some piece of shit called Piranha 2 that everyone diplomatically agrees no longer exists, was unable to secure a terribly large budget, and so for the last time in his career had to find creative solutions to the problem of modest means. But holy mother of fuck did he ever. Let us count the ways:

1) Hiring Stan Winston
The late Stan Winston was one of the great geniuses of the noble art of special effects. At the time Jim Cameron hired him to scare the shit out of everyone with the Terminator, Winston was still affordable (his greatest prior achievement was uncredited work on the effects in John Carpenter's The Thing, which were stellar), but after those glowing red eyes and malevolently gleaming metal endoskeleton, he never would be again.

Winston would go on to the only principal creative to be around—actively (explication forthcoming when we get to Terminator Salvation)—for all four movies, as well as lending his talents to Aliens, Predator (the crossover was not a Stan shoutout), Jurassic Park, the first Iron Man, and Avatar (if he was still alive I'd make fun of him about Inspector Gadget, Lake Placid, The Relic, and End of Days, but it'd be mean now, and anyway working on shitty movies is where effects dudes get all their good stories, and in F/X, shitty movies are where Bryan Brown gets all the toys he uses to take down the bad guys).

Stan Winston died way too soon in June 2008 after a years-long battle with a really nasty kind of cancer, but he was still puttin in work while he had cancer, thus (and I mean this a lot more respectfully than it sounds) making Stan Winston the dark horse candidate for biggest badass in the Terminatorverse.


2) Arnold

Another good example of catching a soon-to-be-expensive talent before his rate got massive (and being the driving force behind that rate getting so massive). This was a perfect example of actor and role meeting serendipitously—Arnold, of course, did not come to the cinema through the world of conservatories, Stella Adler, and the stage. Arnold was in movies because he took a lotta fuckin steroids and had really big muscles (and refused to take no for an answer when people pooh-poohed his ambitions due to his goofy accent and, to be kind, stylized approach to written text). He was also blessed with a face that made him look really intimidating when he was pissed (which made the x-ray scene in Total Recall really funny: “Holy shit, Arnold has got some fuckin jaw, boy!”) But, there were the parenthetically mentioned goofy accent and—you will not get me to call it shitty under penalty of death—unconventional (there we go) acting. What to do? Civilians, were the problem left to them, may have spent years and sacrificed millions of lives arriving at a solution, but James Cameron pulled Occam's Razor and cut that fuckin Gordian knot in twain: “I'm casting Arnold as a robot.” Boosh.

3) Shoot the whole picture at night

Because a) it'll look cool, and b) cheap stuff looks less cheap in the dark. Did you just have an epiphany about the visual aesthetic of film noir and its semiotic representation of the protagonists' psychology and the entire holistic ethos of the genre being derived from fiscal practicality? You're welcome.


That leads us to exactly what makes The Terminator such a great movie. Even though it cost considerably more ($6.4 million) than the amount my dad always told me it was ($1 million; source, his ass), $6.4 million isn't a ton of fucking money in movie dollars, and the craft services on Avatar probably cost more than that. So, speaking of Avatar, instead of Jim Cameron being able to fuck around forever showing off his flashy special effects he was forced to strip everything to the bone and just tell a fucking story.

And what a story it is: in a post-apocalyptic future in which self-aware robots are trying to destroy the last of the dwindling human resistance, they send a humanoid cyborg (Arnold) back to 1984 to kill a woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to her son John, who grows up to be Victor Laszlo. John Connor and the resistance (off-screen) seize the time machine the robots used to send Arnold back to send sinewy solider Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back to protect Sarah Connor at all costs. That's the whole movie. Keep her alive. (Well, and inadvertently get her pregnant at the end of act two).

What makes this so suspenseful is, in retrospect, obvious: when Arnold wants to kill you, your motherfucking ass is dead. The fact that Kyle Reese doesn't die until the end of the movie is, completely independent of all the other mindbogglingly badass things he does in the movie, one of the most impressive achievements ever captured on celluloid. Robots may be big and strong and indestructible and afflicted with incongruous Austrian accents even though their voice software enables them to sound like any person they want to, but human beings have balls. Note the gender neutrality there, because Sarah Connor has 'em too. She not only survives. SHE KILLS THE FUCKING TERMINATOR. WITH A BROKEN LEG. WHILE PREGNANT. Fuck the sequel, read that chain of accomplishments again. God, I love that woman. J. Cameron and I clearly have similar taste (Sarah Connor, Vazquez, Kathryn Bigelow . . .)

The Terminator, completely aside from being the lost cyberpunk classic of cinema (lost as in people forgot it was cyberpunk until nerds' due dilligence set the historical record straight), is executed with complete sincerity, is ferociously suspenseful, and has a fucking great cast. Arnold is legendary (“I'll be back,” “Fuckyou assHOOOOLE,” the eye-razor scene), Linda Hamilton progresses from airhead waitress to Mother Of The Resistance without missing a beat, Michael Biehn was so fucking awesome that if he hadn't also been Johnny Ringo his tombstone (ba dump bump) would have read: “Kyle Reese: 2002-1984,”and the supporting players all get a chance to be on point until they get killed by Arnold. Rick Rossovich gets in a couple nice moments in a nice pre-Slider turn before Arnold fricasees him with his bare hands, Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen are great as a couple world-weary cops, making it particularly sad when Arnold lights them up like Blade Runner, but it's Bill Paxton who wins Man of the Match in the supporting cast, for establishing the template for the retarded Bill Paxton performance (also known as Bill Paxton appearing in a movie). With but two lines (“I think he's a couple cans short of a six pack!” about Arnold, and “Fuck you, asshole!” to Arnold, the latter an invaluable service as Arnold adds it to his memory bank for later classic use) Bill Paxton launched a storied career as cinema's pre-eminent shithead.

And, oh, when Arnold uses that line later . . . when he's loading his guns in his fleabag apartment and he's been shot up a bit and his flesh casing is probably not smelling too good, and the cigar-chomping landlord knocks on the door and goes, “Ey, buddy, ya got a dead cat in there or what?” That Arnold POV shot where he scrolls through possible responses: “Yes/No, Go Away, Fuck You, Fuck You Asshole,” before deciding on the last, and the way he says it, is one of the funniest things that ever has been and ever will be.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) dir. James Cameron

James Cameron's first Most Expensive Movie Ever Made! (Ed. Note: each subsequent entry in the Terminator series would continue to be the most expensive movie yet released, and James Cameron's last two pictures have similarly been the most expensive movies ever at the time of their release)

If it hadn't been spoiled way in advance, and it wasn't totally obvious from the scene in the biker bar where a naked Arnold beats the shit out of everyone but doesn't kill anyone, the revelation that Arnold was the good guy would have been one of the greatest twists ever.

At the same time, it kind of lowers the stakes. As does the fact that thanks to all the intel Kyle Reese apparently gave Sarah Connor off-screen in the first movie, Sarah and John (such a mensch in this picture he's already going through puberty and riding motorcycles at age 10) know what's going on, and the confusion was part of what made the first movie so scary. But make no mistake, Terminator 2 rules. With extreme prejudice.

The deal here: Sarah Connor is in a mental institution. John is being raised by asshat foster parents Xander Berkeley and Jenette Goldstein. Arnold beams in and swaggers naked into a biker bar to show off his post-steroidal physique and get some clothes and a ride, stylishly fucks everybody up, and in one of cinema's most regrettably obligatory needle-drops, rides off with his cool new threads on his cool new bike to George Thorogood's “Bad to the Bone.” (Another way Arnold being the good guy is telegraphed).

Robert Patrick beams in and, despite not appearing to be armed, apparently knifes a cop in the guts (another way Arnold being the good guy is telegraphed) and steals his threads and car, complete with a cop computer on which he looks up John Connor's record.

Young John (president of the Future Crackheads of America, Edward Furlong esq.) and his buddy, the immortal Danny Cooksey of Dukes of Hazzard and Diff'rent Strokes fame, go to play some video games, where Arnold and Robert Patrick converge. But it's Arnold who tells Eddie Furlong:

“Git dawn.”
Fortunately, Eddie Furlong has heard all about Terminators and their Austrian ways from mom, so he's able to decipher this command, just in time to see Arnold empty a fucking shotgun into Robert Patrick . . . but instead of bloody viscera spraying everywhere, there are these ripply metal Silver Surfer looking things. Which heal almost immediately. We're gonna need a bigger boat.

While Arnold and Robert Patrick destroy the mall in their robot male-bonding ritual, Eddie Furlong gets his bike and rides off. Arnold's bike goes faster, so Arnold catches up to him, transfers him to his bike, and they try to outrun Robert Patrick, who has caught up to a giant truck on foot and commandeered it.

What ensues is one of the finest chase scenes ever, with brilliant camerawork and editing, the iconic shot of the truck plowing through the barrier and nosediving into the L.A. River that ushers in the climactic act of the chase, and the only way Arnold and his young ward are able to elude Robert Patrick is by blowing his truck the fuck up (a feat that singlehandedly won T2 the Oscar for Best Sound Effects; the sound of the spark that blows up the gas tank is the greatest thing to happen to sound since the Wilhelm Scream). But Arnold's no dummy, he knows Robert Patrick's probably not dead, so he hightails it the hell out of there so they can have some peace and quiet for the exposition scene.

Arnold explains that Robert Patrick is a T-1000, a prototype terminator made out of a “mimetic poly-alloy,” (you people have no fucking idea how many times I had to watch this fucking movie to make sense of that phrase through Arnold's accent . . . my liver hurts just thinking about the frustration). What “mimetic poly-alloy” means is that Robert Patrick can take on the physical appearance of any object of comparable size by touching it (mimetic) and he's able to seamlessly do so because he's made out of liquid metal (poly-alloy). Arnold explains that he was sent back by the future John Connor to protect the kid John Connor, and that he was to obey every order the little brat gives him (clearly future John Connor forgot what an impulsive, scatterbrained twathead he was as a kid, like so many do . . .) This is put to the test immediately when a bunch of dudes try and save him from Arnold—he'd been shrieking—and Arnold immediately goes to kill them, before Eddie Furlong squeaks at him to stop. The dudes run away.

Eddie: Jesus, you were gonna kill that guy!
Arnold: Of coo-ahss. I'm a tuhmeenatuh.
This, of course, will not do in polite society. Eddie decides to order not to kill anyone. Then he decides to make sure the order took.

Eddie: Swear?
Arnold: Whut?
Eddie: Okay, put up your right hand and say “I swear I won't kill anyone, okay?”
Arnold: (puts up right hand): I swea-uh I will naaat keel enna-wun.
Eddie: Okay, let's go.
Since the T-1000's next probable move is to find Sarah Connor and emulate her to lure young Eddie in for the kill, Eddie Furlong starts squeaking at Arnold that they have to go save her. Arnold, being rational, protests that this is retarded, but wouldn't ya know those orders get in the way and Arnold is forced to accompany Eddie on his doomed rescue mission.

Meanwhile, while the above shit was going on, we've been introduced to the new, improved Sarah Connor—muscular, distrustful of institutional psychiatry, and fucking crazy. Earl Boen, the shrink from the first movie, gets in a bit of exposition leading a group of med students around the facility talking about Sarah's “intricately constructed delusion” (ain't nothin crazy like the truth, baby), and we see that her life in the institution basically consists of them shooting her up with John Belushi-overdose shots of Thorazine and sexually molesting her. That last—a creepy orderly licks her face while she's asleep—led to one of the funniest overheard conversations ever, in the theater the second or third time I saw T2:

Little girl (about 6) to her mother: Ewww, he licked her face. (With cold disdain) His name is Licky-Face.
Mother: Don't worry, honey, the Terminator will get him.
Little girl: Yay!
That lady's precognitive abilities were slightly off: when Linda Hamilton picks the lock on her restraints, she's the one who nails the dude, with a purloined nightstick, in one of those classic George Miller splice-in-a-frame-of-white moves to make the hit seem even harder (accompanied, as well, by those dope Oscar-winning sound FX). And she begins to make good her escape.

But Robert Patrick, as Arnold predicted, is also on the scene, transforming into the floor and then into a cop who walks on him. Linda Hamilton's escape draws the attention of the orderlies, but she's almost gotten away from them . . . when Arnold comes out of the elevator. She shits a brick—this is no failure of courage, anyone with a working nervous system would shit themselves if Arnold swaggered up with a shotgun, especially after going through what she did in the first movie—and runs right back into the arms of the orderlies.

Cue Robert Patrick. In a landmark FX shot, the T-1000 melts through the bars of a locked door, only to have his gun clank against the bars; he turns his wrist slightly and gets it through. Earl Boen, watching, just checks the fuck out.

Eddie is able to convince Linda Hamilton that Arnold is okay, since at least Arnold is shooting at that crazy metal thing. Another long chase scene, in which our heroes get away.

This time they get out to the desert, following the Hunter S. Thompson model for stressful situations—not “When the going gets tough, the tough get weird,” the one about going out to the desert and arming yourselves to the teeth. With no T-1000 about, Arnold relays the exact timeline of how Skynet came to take over, and mother and son Connor get a chance to bond emotionally, as do Connor fils and the Terminator (this last bonding led, through a series of events entirely beyond my control, to my cat Mickey briefly answering to the name “dickwad.”)

Eventually, Sarah gets it in her head that if she kills the guy who invents the thing that turns Skynet smart, she can undo the whole future (which would negate the existence of her son, but whatever, she's pissed, she hasn't thought it through to level two yet).

Young John is not pleased by this development, and he insists to Arnold that they go save the scientist. And a damn good thing, too, because the scientist is Joe Morton, and Joe Morton deserves better than to be assassinated by some crazy white lady in military fatigues in the middle of the night while he's typing on his computer. She gives it a good try, and scares the crap out of him, his wife, and kids, but Arnold intervenes, and everyone has a nice little chat.

Once Arnold explains to Joe Morton what will inevitably happen if he continues researching the chip and CPU from the first Terminator that his company hid the existence of after the first movie, Joe Morton realizes, yeah, let's go to the office and destroy any evidence that the shit ever existed. And we're off!

Of course, the cops know someone who looks like Arnold killed a bunch of cops in 1984, and a guy who looks like Arnold sprung Sarah Connor from the bug house, and when they break into the office, the security guard drops a dime.

Eddie: We've got company.
Joe Morton: Police?
Linda Hamilton: How many?
Eddie: Uh, all of 'em, I think.
Everything goes apeshit. To top it all off, the T-1000 catches up with them again. So the whole fucking building blows up (Joe Morton martyrs himself for the cause) and the last chase scene of the movie takes our heroes to a conveniently located steel mill, where their conveniently stolen tanker truck full of liquid nitrogen conveniently tips over and cracks open, and Robert Patrick conveniently T-1000s his stupid ass right through the middle of it and freezes solid. Arnold pulls some heat, and, as per a conversation he had with young master Furlong about “the way people talk,” composes an epigram for the occasion.

“Hasta la vista . . . bey be.”
BANG. T-1000 shatters into a zillion tiny pieces. Ya know, Arnold's lucky he's Arnold, because there may not be a single other human fucking being on this entire fucking planet who can get away with saying the stupid shit Arnold says in movies. “I'll be back” worked in the first movie because it was simple, ironically understated, deadpan, all kinds of wonderful minimalist things in keeping with the first movie's lower budget, smaller scale, all that jazz. Bizarrely enough, “Hasta la vista, baby” works in the sequel because it's bigger, gaudier, stupider, and because Arnold's trademark was saying stupid shit (still is, too, if you watch one of his gubernatorial addresses).

Anyway, the final showdown in the steel mill is great, and manages to survive the multiple false climaxes, the first being when the liquid nitrogen evaporates and the place warms up enough for the T-1000 to liquify and re-assume ass-kicking mode. The second, after some truly spectacular special effects, the T-1000 “kills” Arnold. The third is when Arnold's eye is flickering out, we cut to a POV shot and the phrase “ALTERNATE POWER” starts flashing—which caused the audience to cheer like fuck in the theater—and Arnold limping after the T-1000 to settle his metal hash. The fourth is when Linda Hamilton, with one arm, pumps about eight shots from a semi-auto shotgun through the T-1000, but right before the last shot that would drop him into the vat of molten steel below, runs out of bullets.

Fortunately, this sets up the actual climax, when Arnold shoots the T-1000 with a grenade, which explodes and tips ol' T-1000 down into melty oblivion. (Cue my dad, after taking a rather large hit off a joint: “You know . . . metallurgically . . . he'd just integrate into the surrounding . . . [exhale] yeah, that mill would be pumpin' out some strange steel.”) But that's not all. Arnold explains to a crying Eddie Furlong that in order to set things right, Arnold has to go down into the molten steel as well. So he does, but not before one last godawfully cheesy bit where Arnold gives them a thumbs up as he melts.

Cue my dad again, so pissed off that he's forgotten he's holding the joint:

Dad: “If the two of them are still standing there . . . by . . . by the internal logic of this movie . . . it didn't work! They're clearly setting it up for a sequel!”
Me: “You're telling me you're not going to go see another Terminator movie?”
Dad: “Well . . . yeah, I'm gonna go see it. . . As long as Arnold is still in it, though. Though that reminds me, Arnold should make another Conan movie!”
[three hour monologue about the Conan movies and comics redacted]
Terminator 2 is often cited by people as one of the rare sequels that betters its predecessor. I'm a little reluctant to make that claim, partly because what I liked about the first one—the leanness, the simplicity, the literal inability to figure out how the fuck the good guys were going to win until the third act—was exactly the opposite of the sequel. Terminator 2 is a Big Movie with a lot of talking about complicated shit in between action scenes, where Arnold is the good guy. As cool as the T-1000 is, it's just . . . he's going up against Arnold, dude. Arnold's going to win. Therein lie the only flaws with Terminator 2, though. It's the most popular movie in the series for a reason, and that reason is, it's really fucking good.


Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) dir. Jonathan Mostow

Yeah, this is one of my least favorite things about Titanic. Fuck the stupid dialogue, the reductive “poor people good, rich people bad” bullshit, all the other stupid things about that movie, my least favorite thing about it was that suddenly Jim Cameron came down with George Lucas disease, whose symptoms include getting trapped underneath a huge pile of money and are unable to make it to the set to direct a movie anymore. Suddenly that Spider-Man movie he was talking about making? Gone. The Terminator 3 treatment he wrote and was idly fucking around with? Bloop.

This meant that when Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna suddenly found themselves short of cash and in need of a new Terminator movie, Jim Cameron was at the bottom of the Pacific inventing 3D cameras and shit and so they had to go get the guy who directed the unfortunate Kurt Russell vs. J.T. Walsh snoozefest Breakdown but also one of the most hilarious comedies of our era, the wacky submarine farce U-571.

To make Terminator 3, Arnold was necessary. And Arnold, having not made a good movie since True Lies (The Sixth Day was fun but minor) was leaning toward running for governor, and wasn't about to make a Terminator movie without Jim Cameron. Kassar and Vajna were pleading, though, which led to Arnold having a sitdown with Jim Cameron, paraphrased thus:

Arnold: I dun want to make a Tuhmeenaduh moofie unless you duhrect it, Jim.
J. Cameron: Fuck 'em. Tell 'em you'll do it for 30 mil.
Arnold: Thurdy meel? Dat's CRAZY. I dun eefen mek thurdy meel.
J. Cameron: Think of it as a way of telling them to go fuck themselves.
Arnold: Tail dem to go fuck thumsailves. I like eet.
J. Cameron: No, problem, babe, don't say I never did nothin' for you.

So Arnold told them to cough up $30 million ha ha ha. But Kassar and Vajna called his bluff and said sure, we'll give you 29 and a quarter of first dollar gross. I'm sorry, artistic integrity is cool and everything, but if somebody offered me $29 million and points that basically amount to $100 million more (perspective: that's what Terminator 2, the most expensive movie of all time when it was released, cost), I'm going to do it. And Arnold—all my goofing on his accent aside—is smarter than me. So he did it.

The resulting movie actually wasn't all that bad. It shat on series continuity right and left but somehow managed to turn that into a narrative asset. Arnold gets to carry a coffin full of machine guns and blow a bunch of stuff up; the action scenes are by and large quite good if lacking that Cameron pizazz. Nick Stahl does a decent job playing John Connor (Edward Furlong being unavailable due to personal—coughcoughheroincoughcough—issues). Kristanna Loken plays a new-school Terminator, and being a model, is similarly suited to playing a robot as Arnold was/is.

The one really inspired aspect to T3 is the ending. Even the first movie, where Sarah Connor rides off into the desert with storm clouds brewing overhead, at least had the heroine getting away, large with child, safe for the time being. T3 literally ends with the end of the civilized world, with John Connor and his girlfriend hiding in a bomb shelter while Skynet nukes the whole planet. And it turns out there's nothing anyone could possibly have done to prevent it. Any movie with the balls to end like that gets at least a mild tip of the cap.


Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-9)

I never saw it, but my mom did: “Lena Headey is really good as Sarah Connor. And the girl Terminator [Summer Glau] is too. Oh, and Brian Austin Green. It's fun, I like it.” That may sound dismissive, but my mom watching an SF television show every week until it got canceled and not talking about how retarded it is all the time, in mom shorthand basically means it must have been pretty good. Even if it wasn't, any enterprise that endeavored to keep Lena Headey and Summer Glau employed and in the public eye is all right by me.


Terminator Salvation (2009) dir. McG

Billed not as a sequel in the classic mode but as the terribly trendy “reboot,” Terminator Salvation is the first movie in the series to not involve robots travelling through time to kill any members of the Connor family. It was, again, the most expensive movie ever at the time of its release (though it would be only months before J. Cameron dropped Avatar and raised that bar once again). And it was, once again, directed by a guy with a heretofore questionable resume.

McG had previously directed the Charlie's Angels movies, which were the aesthetic equivalent of that slightly sick feeling in one's stomach that comes from eating too much candy in one sitting, and We Are Marshall, which consisted of Matthew McConaughey practicing his serious face and Matthew Fox pretending not to be looking at his watch and wondering when he could get back to Hawaii to shoot Lost. But McG got himself the Terminator gig, issued some confusing statements in the press involving the phrase “gritty realism” and invoked Children of Men by way of explanation (which only deepened the confusion), then went out to New Mexico with Christian Bale and $200 million.

This one started out with a pretty interesting script, which told the tale of a death-row inmate named Marcus Wright who donates his body to science. He gets “executed” but then wakes up fifteen years later in a bombed-out wasteland with surprising physical skills and resistance to pain. He runs across a scruffball teenager named Kyle Reese who tells him about the war against the machines and the resistance, and John Connor. They do battle with some machines, Kyle Reese gets abducted, Marcus meets a cute girl resistance fighter pilot who introduces him to John Connor, who discovers Marcus is some kind of hybrid human/cyborg and ties him up, intending to kill him, but does the dumb movie thing of not doing it right away. The fighter pilot springs Marcus and he goes out into the desert, seeking both Kyle Reese and the truth about his new identity.

In the middle of a heavily-nuked zone where a human being would drop dead of radiation poisoning in like five minutes, Marcus finds an idyllic suburban community filled with golf courses and Midwesterners; in a beautifully strange sequence, this guy welcomes Marcus with open arms and takes him to meet some of the other people. But, it turns out these aren't “people” per se, they're hybrids like Marcus. They feed him this whole song and dance about how Skynet lets them be in exchange for something or other, and they fit Marcus with this chip that regulates his mood, at which time it's revealed that these fuckers run Skynet, and basically are Skynet.

After a while, Marcus rebels, rips the chip out of his head, and gets in touch with John Connor, telling him Kyle Reese—in whose safety Connor is, obviously, interested—is in this complex, which he is. John Connor and the resistance come in guns blazing and kick ass, saving Kyle Reese. But John Connor catches one. And John Connor dies. The end sees Marcus assuming John Connor's identity, and giving a monologue about how it's the idea of John Connor that's important, and all the better if the guy pretending to be him is basically unkillable by normal means.

Pretty good fuckin script, all things considered. A couple stupid lines of dialogue aside, it's a page turner, and in the right director's hands, with sufficient money to make the robots look cool, could have made a Terminator sequel at least on par in terms of quality with T3 (which itself wasn't as bad as it could have been), maybe even better.

So. Kassar and Vajna offered Christian Bale the part of Marcus. But Christian Bale decided he wanted to play John Connor, and The Dark Knight was a big enough hit that they indulged him and rewrote the script with Connor as the lead and Marcus as a supporting character. In so doing, they turned what was a pretty solid SF/SFX script with a really bold and surprising ending into a marginally solid SF/SFX picture with a really stupid ending, in which Marcus (without checking his or John Connor's blood type) gives his heart to save John Connor.

But, $200 million buys a lot of bells and whistles, and there certainly are bells and whistles in Terminator Salvation. Sam Worthington (Avatar, the Clash of the Titans remake), as Marcus, is basically a slightly butcher Orlando Bloom, which gives me the idea: reboot The Producers with Sam Worthington as Bialystock, Orlando Bloom as Bloom, and they're producing a movie about two blandly handsome dudes who can't really act, in a movie with a shitload of special effects but nothing else to really recommend it, thinking that everyone will be like “What the fuck? I like good, well-written movies with people who can act” and the movie will flop. Except it breaks box office records and they become massive stars who keep getting cast in movies. And they go to jail. And then the sequel is about them breaking out of jail with a massive special effects budget etc etc.

Even so, Terminator Salvation doesn't suck. It still has just enough of that earlier script (the stuff with Marcus and Kyle, the fighter pilot breaking Marcus out of resistance HQ) to be interesting, and the $200 million bells and whistles make the action scenes watchable—McG, bad as he is, is still a cut above Joel-Michael Schubay in that you can actually see what's happening in those action scenes—but the ending is fucking stupid, and there are way too many unnecessary homages to the first two movies all over the place, because the director of Charlie's Angels just can't stop winking and being clever. Still, the part when the T-800 walks into frame and he's got 1984 Arnold's face CG'd on is pretty cool.


Terminator 5 is being talked about, but unlikely. Even though Terminator Salvation made a fair bit of money, it got dreadful reviews, and the best I ever heard anyone say about it is basically what I did, that it didn't totally suck. I think that's because it's just good enough to be something to watch and enjoy in the middle of the night on cable when you have insomnia, but people want more out of a $200 million sequel to two movies (the first two) that people really liked that doesn't even have Arnold in it. And really, the thing that the ball rolling in the first place was that Arnold was awesome and Jim Cameron once upon a time was a good God almighty action director, before he became so rich that God can't even get a membership at his country club anymore. Also, lest we forget, any Terminator 5 will have to be made without Stan Winston. To which I say, fuck that.

All right, all right, all right. I gotta do this:

I'll be back.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF THINGS THAT SHOULD SUCK BUT SOMEHOW DON'T



There are so many reasons why this shouldn't be funny. Jane Austen for one (it really is a shame she's associated with all these dumbass movies about women fainting in corsets, because her life and work were pretty interesting), the gajillionth Fight Club joke of the past decade, the two gajillionth use of Battle Without Honor or Humanity since Kill Bill, the apparent laziness of the "this thing + that thing = automatic joke" pop culture calculus . . . and yet this video is fucking funny. I almost want to say this being funny is more impressive for how dumb it potentially could have been. Either way, cheerio ladies!

(h/t to Boing Boing)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

MORE FUN WITH ARMOND WHITE

Our Beloved Armond is at it again, this time declaring that no one under 30 should be a film critic (Ya missed me, bitch! 1978 FTMFW!) and that current national treasure Roger Ebert is responsible for the death of film criticism for liking too many movies. Oh, Armond, you crotchety old scalawag, you give such good soundbites . . .

I don't want to repeat myself by bitching about Armond too much---and most of what I have to say about him is said for me in that /Film piece---but boy is he using the wrong dictionary if he thinks "criticism" automatically means being negative in the vast majority of one's critiques. Criticism is analysis, not declaring the entirety of cinema not made by either Jason Statham, Michael Bay, or Steven Spielberg to be worthless. I mean, hell, I'm with Armond on Statham and Spielberg, but no one who liked Transformers 2 more than Inception should be drawing a paycheck for his thoughts on cinema, unless he's on drugs (which I'm fine with) or a troll (which I'm even finer with), except Armond is sober and sincere, which is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious.

Anyway. Keep it coming, Armond, baby. The world is a darker place without you.

(EDIT: Bonus Armond! Courtesy, as is the first link, of devoted Armond chronicler Ken Simon).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

AN AUDIENCE WITH GOD


If you haven't read this, read it. I'm in ten times as good a mood now as I was before I read that, and I was already pretty cheerful.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

THE MOMS ARE ALL RIGHT


This is Andrea Peyser. She writes for the New York Post, a publication that, through my having read it daily from about the third grade until about five years ago, has shaped me (for better or worse) as a writer. It also, through its proudly wiseass tone and shameless obsession with gossip, had an effect on me as a thinker. Without the New York Post, this blog probably wouldn't exist, or would be a lot tweedier and Times-ier. But, as mentioned above, I stopped reading the Post, largely due to Ms. Peyser becoming its dominant voice, and her propensity for columns like this one.





This is Lisa Cholodenko. She made a couple pictures a few years ago that I really liked, High Art and Laurel Canyon, both character studies in which at least some of the characters were queer women (which Ms. Cholodenko is). Her latest picture, The Kids Are All Right, is about a lesbian couple played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore who had kids via donated sperm. The kids want to meet the sperm donor, who turns out to be a what-me-worry scruffball played by Mark Ruffalo, who appalls Annette Bening, intrigues Julianne Moore, and drama ensues. Like Laurel Canyon and (to a lesser extent) High Art, the drama interweaves compellingly with comedy, and though the results are imperfect, they are singularly Ms. Cholodenko's own; she definitely counts as an auteur.

Now, Andrea Peyser is not a movie critic. She writes a column in the Post whose template is as follows: First, something happens (the New York Mets behaving like baseball players, a kid from California joining the Taliban, a mother making a modestly budgeted independent movie loosely based on her own experience). Andrea Peyser, based on no more information about said event than I used as an example, reacts angrily and unthinkingly, has four cups of coffee, screams into her word processor, and the next day the result is printed for the Post's readership to behold. She is not, by and large, someone you want to have angry at you, not because her powers of rhetoric are so powerful, but because the force of her ill-thought-out anger is so overwhelming.

Ultimately, as anyone who has ever tried arguing with an irrational person can attest, there is no winning an argument with someone who refuses to argue rationally, no matter how wrong they are. On the surface, taking all emotional and prejudicial elements out of the equation, Andrea Peyser and Lisa Cholodenko have some important things in common. They are both writers. They are both mothers. They are both roughly the same age, are both white female Americans, and for those two reasons alone one would think that they would be able to reach some sort of mutual understanding.

This, however, is giving Andrea Peyser far too much credit. Her approach to writing is very different than Lisa Cholodenko's, and the result she seeks to achieve so dissimilar as to exist in another universe. Lisa Cholodenko observes and reports; her scripts look at people as they are and attempt to come to some sort of emotional understanding of them. Her male characters are not as fully realized, at times, as the women, but even Christian Bale in Laurel Canyon (an unsympathetic philanderer) and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right (a "hey duuuude, fockin CaliFORnia brah" type) are allowed to be recognizable as human beings, if not terribly deep.

Andrea Peyser, however, reacts with irrational anger, and with the blunt, simple—but effective—rhetorical skills at her disposal, seeks to elicit the same irrational anger in her readers. She is a propagandist, and a very successful one, because she has the advantage of believing (to whatever shallow and fleeting degree) what she says.

Thus, her main critique of The Kids Are All Right—that it is pro-gay Hollywood propaganda—is especially ironic. People often see their own faults in others, or project their own faults onto others undeservedly. To call a naturalistic character study, that spends its running time rounding out its cast as human beings, propaganda is particularly rich. It would be intellectually dishonest if the accuser was operating intellectually, and morally bankrupt if the accuser had any conception of morality that was not repeated rote from millenia-old books. This claim should not be taken seriously in the slightest, especially when considered that Andrea Peyser might not really care about the movie, Lisa Cholodenko, or the issues at hand at all. The tone of her article is actually much less angry than she can be (calling for John Walker Lindh to be shot in the back of the head without trial being, and hopefully will continue to be, the definitive example) indicating that she might not really be all that moved by the issue.

This does not absolve her of responsibility for stoking the fires of anti-gay hatred, or for committing the cardinal sin of journalism, described by sportswriters as “writing the lead on the way to the ballpark,” and known to non-journalists as guiding the results of an experiment to conform to a previously formulated hypothesis. As a blogger who can be described as not exactly a critic but occasionally a critic of critics, this particularly gets on my nerves. No matter how much I'm looking forward to a movie (or, alternatively, dreading it) I always remain open, and will always acknowledge faults in something I'm predisposed to enjoy, and give credit to the successes of something I'm not. This holds true for political content as well. And never, ever, EVER, should a critic claim a thing is what it is not. Amateur, professional, immaterial. The act of criticism is dependent on reason. Reason is dependent on observation. Observation deals with what a thing is.

And one thing The Kids Are All Right is not is a Hollywood picture. It was independently financed and produced. It is being distributed by Focus Features, the “specialty” division of Universal. Pictures that are acquired and distributed by specialty divisions, in spite of the tacit endorsement of a major studio, are not shaped in any way by that studio. They are acquired for distribution for one reason only: to make money. To point out an obvious truth from the free market economics the Post so loudly supports, demand affects supply. A major corporation would not seek to profit from a product that no one wanted. Thus, the acquisition of The Kids Are All Right for distribution proves the point that—while it may not equal the size of the audience for something like Inception—a market exists that wishes to see movies about gay people.

This point was proven by a movie Ms. Peyser cites, carelessly, in her rant: Brokeback Mountain (also distributed by Focus). Brokeback Mountain grossed nine figures. This was not the result of propaganda on anyone's part. It made money because people liked it and thought it was a good movie. The Kids Are All Right is currently averaging something insane like $28,000 per screen in limited release, bringing it close to the top ten while being in a fraction the number of theaters as everything else. It is making money because people like it and think it's a good movie. People want to see it. People will go to see a good movie no matter what it's about. And, because attitudes like Ms. Peyser's notwithstanding, people are not as narrow-minded and hatefully reactionary as she is anymore. We are evolving, because that is what living creatures do.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

YOU'RE ASKING ME FOR INCEPTION

A while back, I posed the question: Can Christopher Nolan direct? It was semi-rhetorical; he's made a handful of fairly interesting pictures, which have a distinct tone (dark and brooding with moments of pretty sharp humor), the specifics of which mark a picture as his. The open-ended nature of that post, though was attributable both to sleeplessness—I passed out for about a day and a half right after clicking “Publish Post” and fixed the typos later—and to the fact that Chris' latest joint hadn't dropped yet. But now it has, so pull up a computer and let's shoot the breeze.

This afternoon I saw Inception in a packed house at BAM, with friend of the blog YarnGuy and his brother and sister-in-law. It's been a long time since I got as stoked about a new picture as this one. I'd heard it was great. I'd heard it was awesome (there's a difference). I'd heard it was disappointing. I'd heard it was a masterpiece that would save us all. One of my pet theories about pop culture is that if people are arguing, it's worth seeing. Another one is, if people aren't giving away whatever secrets a movie may have, it's really worth seeing. Brief digression: 'member when The Crying Game came out back in '92, and you sorta kinda knew what the twist was, but cats wouldn't tell you about Jaye Davidson's dick at first and told you “Ya gotta see it for yourself?” The Crying Game was fucking awesome. Now, recall The Sixth Sense. People didn't start openly talking about Bruce Willis being dead the whole time for about six months. Now, sticking with M. Night, check the flipside of that shit: everyone walked out of The Village loudly moaning their fucking balls off about how it all took place in the present day and saying “what were those assholes supposed to do when a plane flew overhead?” The less willing people are to blab a picture's surprises, the better it probably is, and the more people are like “GAH RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! THE ALIENS MELT WHEN YOU THROW WATER ON THEM! DO NOT WANT!” you can infer that the movie sucks.

The thing that's been funny to me about Inception is that in this modern age, with leaks and spoilers lurking around every tree in the forest that is the Interwebs, no one has been talking about what actually happens in Inception. We saw the trailers (not to put too fine a point on it, but I haven't needed porn for weeks), we read little teases like “Leo DiCaprio plays a guy who can break into people's minds while they're dreaming,” we saw the cast and went “Holy fucking shit, is everybody in this?” But very little actual “this happens and then this happens and then it ends like this” type of stuff came out. Since it opened, sure, the plot synopsis has been posted. The above mentioned obligatory swipe at M. Night isn't really applicable, as Inception doesn't really have his lame-o type of twist. But it still is the sort of picture that spoilers would fuck up, so if you haven't seen the picture yet, bookmark this post until you have, then scroll down past this picture of Marion Cotillard and continue.

Inception opens with an arresting visual image (woo hoo! Chris is learning!) and some intriguing non sequiturs, like a Japanese guy with a machine gun poking an ocean-bedraggled (and armed) Leo DiCaprio in the back and hollering at him. He drags Leo in to talk to Ken Watanabe, who's under about eighty-five layers of age makeup that make him look like Andy Garcia in Dead Again. Ken Watanabe asks Leo, “Are you here to kill me?”

Then we flash back to how Leo and Ken Watanabe met. There's Joseph Gordon-Levitt with slicked-down hair and some fucking bangin' threads. There's Leo lookin sharp. Hmm, there's Marion Cotillard. Oh, Marion Cotillard, you know how to make oblique, ambiguous dialogue sing, baby. (In what might be a funny deliberate touch, “Non, je ne regrette rien” repeats over and over in the movie.) Leo and Joe pull some James Bond shit, and Leo gains entry to Ken Watanabe's safe . . . but they're all dreaming. Joe wakes up in an apartment somewhere in the Middle East with an angry mob fucking shit up outside and tells Lukas Haas they might have a problem.

Leo is vexed by Ken Watanabe and Marion Cotillard before he can get the document he needs. Bullets fly, shit starts exploding because they're in the Middle East, and eventually they have to wake Leo up, so they toss him in a bathtub (in a fucking hot slow-mo shot), which causes water to come in all over the place in the dream.

Once everyone wakes up in the Middle East, Ken Watanabe pulls some heat, but Leo pins him to the ground, whereupon Ken Watanabe's face is mashed into the carpet, and he calls out Lukas Haas. The carpet is supposed to be wool, which makes Ken Watanabe realize he's in a dream (the whole thing with the safe was a dream within a dream), which means Lukas Haas fucked up. So, Leo and company have to get themselves out of that dream, which they do, and find themselves on a train in Japan with a still-asleep Ken Watanabe. They make their exit.

Leo, in his hotel room, talks to his kids on the phone, revealing his kids as a random pair of kids he saw in the opening scene, and when they ask when mommy's coming home, he has to tell them she's not. Because mommy is Marion Cotillard, the mysterious broad from Leo's dreams. And she's dead.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows up looking awesome (this is the biggest surprise in this movie: when in the sweet living fuck did Joseph Gordon-Levitt turn into the coolest motherfucker in the universe? I mean, Brick and The Lookout were both great, but wow this sonofabitch is wearing tailored suits and firing guns and all kinds of crap now . . . they grow up so fast!) and there's a bit of terse dialogue about how the Cobalt (sp?) Corporation is going to want them dead now and about how Leo can't go back to the States for Unspoken Mysterious Reasons. They go up to the roof to find their chopper . . . where Ken Watanabe is sitting there chilling with an ass-kicked Lukas Haas, who has given Leo up to the Cobalt Corporation (who we're left to safely assume are evil white guys in suits), so Ken Watanabe does the whole Kyle Reese-as-a-Japanese-plutocrat “come with me if you want to live” routine, so Leo and Joe say, hey, sure.

On the chopper ride, Ken Watanabe pitches an idea to them. Usually, what Leo and team do is “extraction,” breaking into people's minds to steal information (somewhere William Gibson is watching with his lawyers saying, “Wait, let's watch the rest of the movie . . . if it's good, I won't sue.”) But what Ken Watanabe wants to do is called “inception,” which is to say, breaking into someone's mind to plant an idea. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, being the pragmatic dude who gets Leo's haunted, unstable ass out of trouble, scoffs, says inception is impossible. Ken Watanabe ignores him, turns to Leo, and says, “If you can pull this off, I can make one phone call and all your problems are gone and you can go home to your kids.” Leo replies, “You know, now that you mention it, it is possible but it's going to be really fucking difficult and we might not make it out alive, but what the hell? We're only twenty minutes into the movie and we've got two-plus hours to go, we got some time to kill, let's give it a try.”

Because this is for all practical purposes, all the SF shit about dreams vs. reality and the dangerous power of the subconscious aside, a heist movie (I could seriously hug Chris Nolan) they need to assemble a team. They need a slick-talking English con man/forger/thief, so they get Tom Hardy, who was in Layer Cake and Rocknrolla and a bunch of other stuff (who broke my fucking Geiger counter he's so radioactively fucking cool in this). Lukas Haas flaked on them (Ken Watanabe, when Leo asks what's going to happen to him, says ominously “Nothing”) so they need a new “architect,” someone to physically construct the world of the dream. Leo drops in on his dad (Michael Caine, bow yer 'eads in rev'rence) who's a professor of some non-specified but relevant subject and asks him if he has any promising students. Michael Caine busts Leo's balls a bit and then introduces him to Ellen Page, which by the way, it's really good to see Ellen Page in something watchable again, that two-thirds of Juno that didn't suck was a long time ago now. She gets very excited at the possibilities when Leo tells her about building dreamscapes, and wary when Leo warns her about not changing too much (all the extras in the dream turn and glare at you in this really creepy way when you do; another really fuckin cool visual idea for our Chris . . . again, they grow up so fast). Ellen Page immediately realizes that there's something not all right about Leo, that his fixation on Marion Cotillard and their kids—and the inherent instability of his mind being haunted by guilt—is going to fuck everything up.

But, because what they're trying to do is making Joseph Gordon-Levitt's blood pressure go up and might make him shvitz up one of the fucking jaw-dropping suits he wears in this (and we can not have that) Tom Hardy brings in a chemist he knows, Yusef (Dileep Rao, from Drag Me To Hell and Avatar) who has this tailored sedative that they can use on their mark. So he comes aboard and they start to prep.

Part of the prep involves a bit of exposition involving the dream-reality. Joseph Gordon-Levitt explains to Ellen Page that if you keep one small item that only you ever touch on you (so you're the only one who knows its weight and feel) you can figure out whether you're in your own dream or someone else's. Suddenly that spinning top Leo's been nervously fucking with for the whole movie makes (a little) sense . . .

Now, the mark. Ken Watanabe tells them that the mind they're all going to be breaking into belongs to evil white guy manque Cillian Murphy, son of dying evil white guy Pete Postlethwaite, who with the help of hench-evil white guy Tom Berenger (who's all of a sudden really fucking old . . . man, next time I watch Major League when I'm drunk I'm going to cry) is essentially going to have a monopoly on energy. Not just oil. Energy. The stakes are that high. Ken Watanabe wants them to make Cillian Murphy wake up one morning and decide to sell off Pete Postlethwaite's empire piece by piece, thus obviating the sinister hegemony that would otherwise follow.

Leo determines that the way they need to make sure the idea sticks when they plant it in Cillian Murphy's mind is for it to have a positive association, so having Cillian Murphy decide to do this to fuck over his old man who he hates won't work. They need to have him come to peace with the old fucker, “realize” that pops told him he's a disappointment (which he did; what a dick) because he doesn't want lil' Cillian to follow in his evil white guy footsteps, that he wants him to take that fuckin' suit off and be good.

For reasons I don't quite understand but make the movie infinitely cooler, it is decided that the way to pull The Inception Job is to create a dream within a dream within a dream. So Ken Watanabe flexes his nuts and buys the airline that Cillian Murphy is flying from Sydney to LA for his dad's funeral (the same route as Oceanic Flight 815, except in Inception all this hideously complicated shit actually makes sense) so they can have the first-class cabin to themselves. With the team all comfortably in place, the stewardess they paid off to help puts them all into a nice dream coma for the trip to LA, and we're off to the mindfuck races!

Action movie gourmands like moi will tell you, there are many ways you can go for your climactic action sequence. Car chases in the rain are always a good one (see King of New York—several times, please, God it's good—or the pleasant surprise that was the rain car chase in We Own The Night, otherwise not an action movie at all), or there's also the hotel shootout, good because there's elevators and stairs to fuck around on (most notable variant, John Woo going off his meds and doing it in a hospital in Hard-Boiled), and then there's the snowy mountain fortress angle (YarnGuy mentioned On Her Majesty's Secret Service and was polite when I meatheadedly brought up True Lies and xXx). In short, there are many options. Most directors pick one. Chris says “Fuck it, let's do ALL THREE!” At ONCE.

So yeah, layer one of the dream is Cillian Murphy tied up in the back of a van with Tom Berenger while our heroes are all asleep except for Yusef, who's driving the van while a locomotive (????) and several SUVs and motorcycles full of machine gun-toting henchmen types pursue. Level two, where all the sleepyheads are, is a super-modernist earth-tone hallway hotel, where after Leo tells Cillian Murphy he's dreaming (if ever a movie needed more meta, it's this one, God . . .) everybody goes to sleep in a hotel room while Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes his coat off so he can strut around in his vest. Level three is a snowy fortress where Cillian Murphy has to bust into a vault to find out his Big Secret.

A wrinkle that's introduced by Leo after everyone signs on (to the point where they're already in level one of the dream) is that if any of them get killed, they don't just wake up like they usually do. They go to Limbo, where you risk being trapped for years, even decades, even forever. When Ken Watanabe (who turns out to be a cool guy; remember, evil white guys in suits) gets shot in level one and they can't get him to a hospital, they realize they're up against the clock to keep him from getting trapped in Limbo forever. Leo is especially motivated to get him to wake up safely, since if Ken Watanabe doesn't wake up, Leo gets arrested and sent straight to prison the second they touch down at LAX.

Action ensues. When Ken Watanabe dies and Leo takes Ellen Page to level four of the dream—Limbo—there's a big-ass confrontation where it finally comes out that the reason Leo was so convinced inception worked was that he pulled it on Marion Cotillard to get her to want to leave Limbo. Leo tells Ellen Page the whole story about Marion Cotillard, how she died, and why her death meant Leo had to leave sweet home Estados Unidos. Leo fesses up that he and Marion Cotillard had been experimenting, and that they actually spent about 50 years subjective time in Limbo, where Marion Cotillard had invented a top that never stopped spinning if they were in a dream (just like the one Leo carries IRL, which tips over if he's IRL but keeps spinning if he's dreaming, giving Leo, who's a little addled, a much needed leg up on the universe) flipped out and lost touch with “reality,” so Leo pulled a murder/suicide to bring them back to the “real” world, where Marion Cotillard was still convinced that if she iced herself one more time, she'd be back in real reality. Only problem is, she died. And left a whole bunch of false evidence that he'd been threatening to kill her, meaning if he stayed around instead of killing himself to be with her, he'd end up in prison. So that's why Leo had to leave the country and become a globe-trotting dream thief who made enough money to keep his right-hand man outfitted in Savile Row's finest (sorry, I know we're not even talking about him but goddamn Joseph Gordon-Levitt dresses well in this movie).

All the action comes to a head and eventually Leo manages to triumph over the vagaries of dream-reality to find Ken Watanabe and wake him up, just in time to make the phone call to keep Leo from getting tossed in the shithouse. So instead of cops, Leo is greeted by Michael Caine, who takes him home to meet his kids. Leo sets his top spinning to figure out whether he's dreaming or not. And his kids turn to greet him, Leo gets to see their faces for the first time. Then we pan to his spinning top. And god fucking dammit, Chris Nolan cuts to black before we see if it tips over or not! BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!

Oh the glorious troll that is the ending of Inception. Dude, the BAM Rose almost fucking rioted; seeing the kind of people who go to BAM get that pissed was almost as entertaining as the movie. Now me, I'm a little different. I'm with Chris, who was probably tittering like a shithead in the editing room imagining how pissed people were going to get and deciding to do it anyway. But I was also raised on Total Recall, which has the same ending, which I always loved. And seriously, a little ambiguity once in a while never killed anyone. I'm damn proud of Chris walking into the office at Warner Bros with his dick in one hand and the Dark Knight box office receipts in the other and announcing to them “I'm going to spend $160 million of your money on a picture where the audience has to decide whether any of it actually happened or not.” Because what are you going to say to a guy who—as one critic pointed out—made a three-hour allegory about terrorism with a straight-up, unvarnished anarchist for a villain and grossed almost a billion dollars? No? Child please.

Ending aside, let's get down to brass tacks. Yes, Inception has enormous balls. Yes, it pulls off the alchemy of being cerebral and intelligible, but does it win the treble by also being entertaining? And, apart from being entertaining, is it actually good?

“...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Motherfucker, if I have to quote James Joyce to tell you how good a movie is, it's fucking good. It was like they did market research to find out what kind of movie I personally wanted to see, edited out the lesbian sex so they could have a PG-13, and released it. I'll have none of this silly debate about whether people only like Inception because we grade Chris Nolan on a curve, or some wiseass looking at the part of that quote where Molly's like “as well him as another” and start lit-critting at me that I'm still being ambiguous about whether Chris is a good director or not. At this point, the only thing wrong with the guy is that the tops of people's heads are still getting chopped off unnecessarily. That's the last frontier he has to cross on his next picture. Everything I broke his balls about back in February has been replaced by sheer joy.

The glimpses we got in The Dark Knight that Chris finally learned how to direct action bloomed (all right, I'll stop with the Joyce) into all-time classic sequences (and one beautiful bit where, when Leo's machine-gunning guys, Ellen Page goes, “Are you really killing them?” and Leo says “No, they're just projections.” Best. Meta-cinematic joke. Ever.) One of the rules to the three-layered dream sequence at the climax is that whatever happens one layer up from you has an effect on your layer (i.e., IRL affects layer one, layer one affects layer two, layer two affects layer three), so when Yusef is trying to keep the van from getting shot to shittereens by all the machine guns and subsequently drives it off a bridge and creates a freefall, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets thrown around all over the place in the fancy hotel. While fighting with bad guys.

The first fight was motherfucking ridiculous. The van was swerving around and going up on two wheels and shit. So Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while fighting this large black stuntman, was fucking running up walls and throwing him against walls that turned into floors that turned into ceilings and holy fucking shit. WHEN THE FUCK DID JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT BECOME THE GOD OF ALL THAT IS MALE? Did I miss a Facebook bulletin? Seriously. In a movie with Ken Watanabe and Michael Caine, JGL is the alpha badass? I mean, sure, the English guy is cool, and he cracks a couple jokes about JGL being a tightass. But . . . JGL is the one who gets to kiss Ellen Page. Score one in Joe's column.

The zero-gravity fight, when Joe was floating around trying to figure out how to drop people in zero-gravity (did I mention how much I love cinema, Chris Nolan, and Joseph Gordon-fucking-Levitt?) and the one henchman comes out of nowhere and they fight IN ZERO FUCKING GRAVITY and JGL wins without even breaking a sweat? Yeah, that one was kind of all right. In the sense that cold beer, orgasms, and Low are kind of all right.

But we find ourselves falling into a trap set by critics like Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline, who wrote, “If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be 'awesome,' which isn't nearly the same thing.” Her review was negative, mine is kind of orgasmically positive, and yet we come to the same conclusion. I don't think Inception is great, but I do think it is awesome. However, I would argue that Inception succeeds fantastically well in being what it, on one level, is: a summer movie you can nosh popcorn to and whose fight scenes (the first JGL hallway fight, por ejemplo) make the audience (read: me) audibly gasp “Get the FUCK outta here!” I would further argue that, with Inception, Chris Nolan failing to be Jesus Christ and transubstantiate the summer movie into Serious Cinema is not the death knell of Serious Cinema. As long as there are expatriate Iranians and Romanian feminists and hipsters in Williamsburg there will be Serious Cinema. Chris Nolan is a hybrid—he's as smart as all these people making all their serious little art pictures, but his aesthetic influences as a filmmaker are pop directors like Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, and the Wachowskis (comparisons borrowed from the New York Times) instead of Tarkovsky, Godard, or Maya Deren (and I'm not talking shit about them, especially Maya Deren). It's like pop music. You'd be a dipshit if you walked around comparing Paul McCartney to Beethoven (or, to keep the metaphor closer, Penderecki), but that doesn't mean “Things We Said Today” isn't a staggering fucking pop song.

So yeah. I had a great goddamn time at the movies today, man. I leave you with a sign of how mysterious and strange the world we call home truly is; ladies and gentlemen, our new sartorial overlord:

Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Wonders never cease.