Friday, July 23, 2010

Inception, a review and discussion

So, I shall start with a non-spoilered review. Its an excellent film, of a level you simply do not see for blockbuster films. This is up there with the Matrix quite easily as a massive, big budget film, that has actually thought about what its doing (yes, I know the Matrix's ideas have been ripped off other things, but its an ultimately clever film despite that). I am pretty confident that it will go into my list of favourite films that I've seen.

At its core its a heist film, but by setting it in dreams it gets to explore a lot more. In particular, its a heist with astonishing, inventive active sequences that is actually mostly about DeCaprio's emotional status. This film is about things, more of which i'll explore in the spoiler section.

Are there some flaws? Kinda- some of the film drags a tiny bit- in particular I don't think the snow fight works entirely, because its not entirely clear where everyone is in connection to each other, so it feels like a sequence of disconnected fights. Its still pretty breath taking along with that, with some lovely moments, but I think it could have been better done. Theres also a couple of moments of unnecessary exposition later in the film, but for the most part these are well done and explain the film well.

Whats terrific about this film is that while its complicated, and at its climax a lot is going on, its sufficiently explained its world that you should be able to follow whats happening at any point.

A must see film. I really want to see this film do well, because as Mark Kermode said, if it does well it'll show that blockbusters really don't need to be brainless to succeed.

And now, spoilers. Please see the film before reading this next part. Seriously. totally going to spoil the film.

You better have seen the film if you're reading this part. It would be a real shame to not experience all the joys of this film by itself.

OK, so. What I love about this film is that its all about DeCaprio's guilt. One thing the Matrix did not really explore was the idea that maybe staying in the Matrix was fine. Cypher was the only character who wanted to, and he clearly wasn't meant to be someone the audience was meant to like. Inception, however, is actually fine with the idea that maybe reality isn't all its cracked up to be.

The film does appear to reject the notion of staying in dreams- Mal (had to look up the spelling for that) would seem to represent the notion of staying in fantasy. Yet really she doesn't. Its made sort of explicit, but Mal represents Caprio's guilt. Consider his only dream space, where each level contains a memory of his past live. But, crucially, these aren't good times, happy moments- these are his failures, the moments he desperately wishes he could change, so much so that he keeps coming back and looking at them. Staying with Mal, on the level she wants, would be to give in to his guilt about his wife's death, not to succumb to a healthy fantasy- its not just that the dream of Mal is unreal, its that its a horrifying dream of her.

To me, the final spinning top, with its ambiguous nature, is the entire point for me. It doesn't MATTER if that final moment is a dream or not- the point is that it is a healthy one. Getting to see his children means that Leo has moved on from his wife, and accepted emotionally that he is allowed to see them. His exile from America, is, on some level, self imposed, and only by letting go off his wife is he able to end it.

So, was it all a dream? Possibly, but I'm not sure if I'm satisfied with this explanation. For it to work, I think it has to be Caprio's own dream, with Mal having successfully escaped, but he is still trapped.

Why? Well in the "waking moments" of the film, the spinning top settles. I suppose its possible that Caprio has so accepted the dream that he has given up on his totem- stealing his wife's, which won't work for him. I'll consider both cases, and point out issues with both.

The first scenario is an incredibly dark one. It implies that Mal is now awake, but her husband is still trapped. Worse yet, this means the entire film is not about Caprio dealing with guilt, but accepting the fantasy. After all, Mal has escaped- she was right, and he was wrong, yet Caprio is instead struggling to ignore that. This scenario explains the other characters lack of back story. The film is all about Caprio, of course, but the only other character (excluding Mal) to get back story of any real kind is Fisher, which is interesting in of itself. What Fisher represents here I'm not sure. Potentially Caprio's own father issues? Or merely a clever puzzle for him to solve?

There are some issues with this theory- the darkness of it is a little off putting, as the message of the film is overwhelmingly positive, and this would undercut it heavily, which would be an odd choice to say the least. Also, in the "real world", Caprio comes under attack. But this theory would imply this was own subconscious attacking him. This still can be explained- obviously his subconscious is attempting to protect him, to draw him from the dream. If so, Saito represents temptation to stay- note that Mal actually attempts to stop him from doing this.

The other theory is that this isn't Caprio's dream. He's the subject, or possibly the dreamer (but the latter doesn't make much sense). In which case, its not entirely sure who the dreamers ARE. Who they are matters a lot, as it changes the tone. Saito and Aradaine (Ellen Page) seem the most likely in this situation. So, in turn, whats their motivation?

In Saito's case, the same motives might apply. How on earth could he get the US to drop the charges? So instead he takes Caprio into a dream level, (which means the film starts in the third level of dreaming!), and convinces him and his partners to do this job. He then brings Fisher in, and the scenario plays out as in the film. The ending is then definitely a dream, which makes sense.

This is quite nice, and clever on Saito's part. It certainly makes sense, with the agents in the "real world" once again playing the part of Caprio's unconscious trying to wake him up, and ties up any holes that the film might have. The only issue with this as a theory is that thematically its a little disappointing- Saito would be doing it out of greed, and thematically thats not really very interesting, and doesn't really tie in to what else is going on.

Finally we have Ellen Page. This is stolen from another site, which sadly I lack a link to, but she could be Caprio's therapist. Caprio is in need of saving- he needs to badly deal with his guilt, and at every stage Page manages to push him to deal with his problems. In fact, she even goes in to investigate his subconscious (within his own unconscious!). She claims this is because she wants to know the truth about him before she works with him, but it also makes sense that she is analysing him. This would also explain her rapid pick up of the concepts of the dream world. There are a couple of issues here- Fisher becomes a bit of a cypher then, and also it makes the ending difficult to explain- why is Caprio still in the dream, and not woken up?

I'm not sure which explanation I accept, but I like that there are so many of them, and that the film is open enough to allow all of them.

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Monday, July 12, 2010


So I had certain preconceptions going into this film. I certainly didn't think I'd enjoy it all that much- after all, it wasn't targeted at me- but I did think that it would be competently made. After all, this was a fairly high budget film, and had a lot riding on it. Remarkably, the film failed to meet even those standards.

Theres a lot to go over here, so I'll break it down

-The acting

Twilight is, at its heart, about a romance (although I'll get to to this later). To sell such a story, you must have decent actors. Sadly our leads fail utterly here. I don't know if they have put in good performances elsewhere, but here they feel like they are desperately trying to over act every scene. Watching Kristen Stewarts face in every scene was really very funny, as her face went through a gamut of expressions in an attempt to display emotional complexity. A lot of the lines came out flat and emotionless, and while I get that they were going for awkward conversation between her and Edward, it came across as if they had forgotten their lines and needed prompts every 10 seconds. I've seen better performances in the Hills. Of course, performances can often be blamed on:

-The direction

The entire film has an irritating colour filter put over the top of it that makes it look like the characters are in the matrix. I don't entirely get why this choice was made, as it gives the entire world a sheen of unreality- but not in a fantastic way, as one might expect with the gothic romance tone that one might imagine this film could aim for. The action in this film looks kind of shoddy and cheap, and feels like its escaped from a music video.


Now I have no idea what Bella is like in the books, but in the film I don't see why we are meant to like her. She is our protagonist after all- she gets a voice over for crying out loud- but she comes across as utterly unlikable. She doesn't appear particularly smart, or funny, and rarely talks, yet everyone at school likes her. Initially there is an indication that maybe she is going to become an outcast, after her car gets mocked, but very shortly everyone in the school decides they like her despite Bella rarely ever talking to her. This is the female hero we're meant to like? She does or says nothing to earn our affection, and spends most of the time mooning over Edward. Bella is actually the central reason this film fails, and I'll come back to her later.

-The romance

I have a serious issue with this kind of romance, it has to be said- Buffy the vampire slayer has exactly the same problem. A 16 year old (Bella might be 15, not sure), fall in love with a century (or more) old immortal being. A bit squicky, certainly, especially as both in Buffy and in Twilight the love is not based on any kind of deep connection, rather the "love at first sight" thing. That is a hard thing to sell, and Twilight fails at doing so- Edward and Bella have mostly awkward conversations, split up by (admittedly romantic) dates where Edward does something impressively super human. It doesn't feel like a real relationship. Of course the failure of the leads to act is a big issue too.

Note that this kind of romance can be sold. Romeo and Juliet is a good example- their romance is really based on sand, but, in, for example, the Baz Lurhmann version we get a good feeling that THEY believe it- there is a strong sense of infatuation at least, which just isn't sold here.

-The script

One reason we don't buy many of the relationships is that the script doesn't sell them. People really only talk in this film to advance the plot, which sounds fine, but this film should be about relationships, and if everyone is having exposition dialogue, you don't get a feeling of a relationship between characters. Which is disastrous for you caring about them.

-The plot

This is a major failing of the film. Where is the conflict in this film? What is it about. Lets summarise the plot (OMG spoilers!)

-Bella comes to a new town, feeling like an outsider, but its ok because everyone there thinks she's awesome
-Bella spies a hotty named Edward, and wants to get into his pants
-She's meant to sit next to him during Biology, but he becomes uncommunicative and then doesn't show up for their remaining classes
-A car almost crashes into Bella, and Edward saves her
-Turns out, he's a vampire
-She's cool with that
-he saves her, again, from some thugs in town
-They get together
-She meets his family of vampires, who are actually utterly supportive. One of them is a bit moody about it but nothing comes of it
-They make out a bit, and Edward mumbles that apparently he can't control himself, but its not very well sold.
-Edward meets her dad, who, again, is FINE WITH IT
-They bump into some evil vampires (this is very close to the end of the film)
-One of the evil vampires decides to kill Bella, primarily because not only is he a dick, he's a really stupid dick
-He tricks Bella (not hard to do, folks!) into coming alone to a dance studio alone, almost kills her but then Edward turns up and saves her
-The film keeps going on, the audience dies of boredom

So, wheres the conflict here? There could be an issue with a new school, but, as mentioned, there isn't. There is a minor conflict with Edward not liking her, but its done really poorly, and I'm not sure why we're meant to care. Bella cares, but only because hes a cutie, as far as I can tell- after all, the rest of the bloody school loves her.

The romance itself should have a conflict at its heart- Edward has to hold himself back from hurting her. But bear in mind Edward isn't the protagonist, so we don't care about his pain. What should be happening is that the romance is palpably dangerous, and Bella has to make a choice to continue it- it should be about Bella having to change and emotionally grow, but Bella really doesn't change. From the moment she sees Edward she want to be with him and this desire is utterly constant. This is why she makes a terrible protagonist.

This theme of Edward being the only character who's actually changing remains constant to the end of the film, where the bad vampires, who have been built up a tiny bit (in a sub plot that feels disconnected from the rest of the film), decide to kill Bella. Yet again, the threat feels dulled- theres one bad vampire against 7 good vampires, after all- it'd be a hell of a lot better the other way round- and feels tacked on, as if the film needs an exciting conclusion. The threat is an external agency, and I think would be a lot more tense if it had, perhaps, been one of the Cullen family.

so Bella goes to save her mother, not telling anyone else in an act so appallingly stupid she should really get a prize, and then Bella gets beaten up in a surprisingly distressing film. Then Edward has to save her, as she has vampire venom in her, and will turn. So Edward has to show self restraint, and fight against his instincts to save her.

So once again theres the problem that while this should be Bella's film, the only person who has to become a better person is Edward. Bella doesn't change. She doesn't treat her friends or family any better, she doesn't become more or less active, she just continually mopes. You cannot have your protagonist do this and expect the audience to care. She has to have something about her to care about. Its just insane.

I was really disappointed by Twilight. I understand thats its not made for me, but it doesn't seem to be made for people who understand stories, for crying out loud. It just feels terribly incompetent. Now I've only seen this film, so defences that tell me that the book, or the sequels, are different, are not terribly convincing. As a stand alone piece of film, this is absolutely, unremittingly, dreadful.

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Friday, July 09, 2010

Why the last epsiode of Buffy the vampire slayer is the worst, and best, episode of Buffy the Vampire slayer.

The final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Chosen, is a great piece of television. It brings together themes that have existed in the show from the beginning, and the victory is entirely about female empowerment.

The episode begins with Buffy splitting Caleb, the embodyment of misogny (and a terrific villain) in two, and a quick unification with Angel reminds us of Buffy's journey. She returns home triumphant, with the spoils of war, and forms her plan for the final fight.

The final battle is triumphant and epic. Hordes of vampires descend on to girls who quickly become women as the power of the slayer is finally taken from men (in the form of the watchers, who are usually male), and given to all the potentials there. This is the reason why they win, because they have dared to do something different, something unthinkable.

Along the way we tie together loose ends, and we have a lovely moment with the original 4 which ties directly to the start of the series again.

In a moment of sheer genius, the whol of Sunnydale gets dragged into the earth, meaning Buffy has to make an exciting roof top, leading to that final moment of joy as Buffy realises she is finally free of the burden of responsibility she has carried for seven years.

Of course, thats all nonsense.

Caleb is a terrific villain who brings a sense of pace this series badly needed. So he is killed at the start of the show, a massive mistake. Next, the conflict set up only last episode is apparently resolved, but not well- the writing basically resets half the characters to earlier status (including Giles). While this means that we get back our likable cast, it makes no goddamn sense. The magic axe, and plan associated with it, seems to come straight out of the writers arses, and worse yet, its not even the item which ensures the heroes victory. Instead a magic amulet found in a different series is what really kills off the horde of evil vampires.

The entire episode sacrifices sense for theme, with vampires who were originally incredibly hard to kill going down more easily than standard vampires and Buffy collapsing from a fatal wound and then apparently being fine. With the main villain dead, the First evil, represented by a ghostly Buffy, lacks menace, as she has all series, and while her army presents a threat, its a somewhat mindless one, and certainly has no deeper thematic meaning behind it.

While Spike's death makes sense, Anya's does not. Understandably Joss Whedon wants to show that this is a battle where people will die, but by having the deah off stage we have to be fine with it in the space of a few minutes, which is more than a little frustrating.

Ultimately the final episode of buffy is a blending of the problems and successes of the rest of the show. It doesn't really hold a candle to the Gift, an episode which was originally intended to be a possible end to the show, even if the ending to that was a lot darker.

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Monday, July 05, 2010

A mini-rant

I haven't blogged in a long while, thanks to holidays, conferences and workloads. The latter hasn't changed, but I don't like not blogging. So, a small comment on the lack of rationality some people demonstrate. In this comment thread, after a typically tiresome article by Andrew Brown which I shan't get into now, someone says this

""If people consider all the options, they will arrive at the same conclusion as me". Dawkins is ridiculous!"

Given the same information and perfect rationality, on a matter of fact two individuals should come to the same conclusion. If we accept there is one truth on the matter of the existence of a deity then if everyone had the same information and thought rationally, they would come to the same conclusion.

Now obviously this isn't actually going to happen in real life- people are often not rational, and individuals are not presented with the same information. However, if you believe yourself to be rational then you must suppose that the factual position you hold is one others would come to given the same information and rationality. If you don't, then why are you holding that position? If you are uncertain, then you should step back and become agnostic, for example.

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