Friday, July 30, 2010

Suture

Scott McGehee and David Siegel are part of a generation of American independent filmmakers that capitalized on the surprise success of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989) at the Sundance Film Festival. That film helped kickstart a very prolific period of indie cinema during the 1990s where the rise in prominence of Sundance and boutique movie studios like Miramax pushed through unusual material, like McGehee and Siegel’s Suture (1993), that wouldn’t normally have been made or distributed. These two filmmakers even managed to get Soderbergh to executive produce their film and he championed it in interviews. Sadly, the studio distributing Suture had no idea how to market this cerebral neo-noir and it quickly faded into obscurity where it still resides to this day. Even back then it was a hard sell with an unconventional premise and no movie stars but should now be regarded as a bold genre experiment.


Vincent (Michael Harris) and Clay (Dennis Haysbert) are brothers. The only thing is that Clay is African American and Vincent is white – something that is never once acknowledged or commented on by anyone. Amazingly, at one point, Clay even remarks at how much they look alike even though they don’t actually resemble each other in any way. They reconnect after the death of their father that, unbeknownst to Clay, Vincent murdered. He ends up stealing Clay’s identity and blows him up in a car, leaving him for dead. However, Clay manages to survive the explosion but has to undergo extensive surgery and wakes up with amnesia. He is told that he’s Vincent. Dr. Renee Descartes (Mel Harris) helps reconstruct Clay physically while Dr. Max Shinoda (Sab Shimono) tries to fix him psychologically. Clay has to somehow rediscover his own identity and clear his name.

Dennis Haysbert, who would go on to appear in such diverse films as Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), is quite good as Clay, a man framed for a crime he did not commit by his own brother. He comes across as quite sympathetic as Clay tries to rebuild his life and figure out who he is. His dreams may be the key to unlocking his true identity. By casting Haysbert as Vincent’s brother, McGehee and Siegel weren’t interested in commenting on race relations in the United States but wanted to keep the film in the “parameters of sociology than of race, the way the homogeneity of society affects the construction of a personal identity.” The narrative says that Clay and Vincent look alike and they don’t know that they’re different. We are acutely aware of it and reminded visually by the filmmakers

McGehee and Siegel had been working together since 1989. Prior to Suture, their only filmmaking experience was two short films: Birds Past (1989) and Speak Then Persephone (1990). They set up a limited partnership and raised the one million dollar budget by borrowing from family and friends. According to McGehee, with Suture they wanted to “construct a story that was generally about identity.” They decided to shoot the film in Phoenix, Arizona because he felt that it was “almost like an abandoned city, it’s so large and overbuilt and the streets are so dead it feels empty.” They liked the city’s “high modernist, very sparse aesthetic” and used its stunning, timeless architecture to “create a sort of unreal space,” McGehee said.

McGehee and Siegel employ stunning black and white Cinemascope photography that evokes classic film noir. They were actually influenced by mid-1960s Japanese films like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (1965) which utilized widescreen black and white cinematography. They wanted to give Suture an early ‘60s sensibility and loved the black and white Cinemascope films from that period, like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966). According to Siegel, “it’s an absolutely gripping look that’s used so rarely today, and it’s a look from a time period that we wanted to evoke.” The way each scene is shot and the composition of the frame is quite impressive coming from first-time feature filmmakers with no formal filmmaking training. This is an elegantly-shot film and not at all like a lot of indie films that have a low budget look and feel.

After seeing an early rough cut of Suture, Steven Soderbergh became fascinated with the film and helped McGehee and Siegel find completion finances during post-production. Suture had its premiere at the 1993 Telluride Film Festival and went on to be screened at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals. The film was not well-received by critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars and felt that McGehee and Siegel were, “apparently more concerned with how the movie looks than how it plays.” In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “The best way to approach Suture is to consider it a witty, stylish goof on psychiatry, identity and murder mysteries.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum described the story as “clever but ultimately overworked.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe found it to be “constantly engaging – and weird,” while also an “atmospheric B-movie melodrama, modish existentialism and pared-down film noir.”

Suture’s initial conceit of two actors that look nothing alike playing brothers is pretty audacious and the biggest hurdle to pass if one is to get into the story. It does give the story some added resonance as notions of race and class are raised. When we first meet Vincent, he wears immaculate white suits and appears quite wealthy, driving around in an expensive car. Clay, on the other hand, arrives into town on the bus and dresses like a blue collar worker. Suture is also quite a fascinatingly complex psychological thriller. It is preoccupied with the notion of identity. How do we know who we are? How do our memories contribute to our identity? What happens when we no longer have memories to help define who we are? The film asks some pretty deep questions and wrestles with some pretty weighty themes for a noir. Clay has to assemble his identity like a jigsaw puzzle – piece by piece and it is only once he has everything in place that he is able to see the big picture.


SOURCES

Altman, Mark A. “Restitched Noir.” Film Threat. June 1994.


Romney, Jonathan. “How Did We Get Here?” Sight and Sound. February 1995.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

JGL Blog-a-thon: The Lookout

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Joseph Gordon Levitt Blog-a-thon over at the Detailed Criticisms blog. This is also a reprint of a DVD review I did for this film a few years ago.

With his adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel, Out of Sight, Scott Frank demonstrated a knack for crime thrillers with plenty of plot twists and double crosses. Now, he’s finally gotten the chance to direct his own movie and the result is The Lookout (2007), a neo-noir that evokes other crime movies like Charley Varrick (1973) and Fargo (1996).


Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young hockey player with a promising career that is snuffed out in an instant thanks to a car accident that he caused. Four years later, he’s working as a night janitor at a local Midwestern bank located out in the middle of nowhere and dealing with a head injury from the accident. He has to write down everything that he does to get ready every day. His old life is gone and his new one is one mundane day after another. Chris now lives with Lewis (Jeff Daniels), his blind roommate who helps the young man out with things around their apartment.

Chris meets Gary (Matthew Goode) at a bar one night. He’s a genial guy who befriends the young man over beers. Chris also meets a beautiful young woman named Luvlee (Isla Fisher) who is friends with Gary. They quickly go to work on Chris, Gary appealing to his brain and Luvlee to his heart. They make him feel like he belongs which is important to him because his family doesn’t know how to relate to him anymore. Pretty soon Gary tells Chris about a bank heist he plans to pull with his buddies. The bank that they are targeting just happens to be the one that Chris works at. Gary dangles the proverbial carrot in front of Chris with the promise of money and the power that comes with it. He is very persuasive and knows exactly which buttons to push. Like most heist films, things do not go according to plan and the rest of the film deals with the aftershocks.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his knack for offbeat roles. He does a great job portraying someone with neurological damage and the frustration that comes from not being able to do simple things like opening a can of food or remembering someone’s name. He also conveys the guilt his character feels over the car accident that cost two of his friends their lives and robbed him of a promising future. We see how he tries to hide his disorder and the frustration of not being able to do basic things. It’s a performance grounded in realism that is in contrast to this stylized noir world. It doesn’t hurt that he is surrounded by cold, detached characters, and this makes him very sympathetic as well.

Jeff Daniels steals pretty much every scene he’s in as Chris’ genial roommate. The actor displays a dry sense of humor that is very funny to see in action. He and Gordon-Levitt’s character make for very unlikely roommates to say the least but the two actors make it work thanks to the excellent chemistry they have together. Along with The Squid in the Whale (2005) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Daniels is turning out to be quite an excellent character actor appearing in several well-made independent films.

Scott Frank has a keen visual sense, adopting a predominantly dark color scheme in keeping with the neo-noir tradition. With The Lookout, he has crafted a clever little thriller with a fascinating protagonist at its center. What could have easily been a forgettable film is anchored by yet another riveting performance by Gordon-Levitt.

Special Features:

“Behind the Mind of Christ Pratt” features an interview with the film’s star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He was drawn to the complexity of the character and ended up living with the role for almost a year. He talks about how he portrayed Chris and speaks intelligently about his take on the material.

“Sequencing The Lookout” takes a look at various aspects of the movie: the script, casting, the look, and so on in an interesting way. Frank says that he was influenced by European thrillers that emphasized character. He talks about the origins of the story as well.

Finally, there is an audio commentary by writer/director Scott Frank and his director of photography Alar Kivilo. They talk about the challenge of shooting in the wilds of Canada. It was spring when they started but the temperature was very cold. Frank isn’t afraid to point out the mistakes he made as a first-time director. With Kivilo, their comments tend to be about filmmaking techniques like the cameras they used, the type of shots for a given scene and locations used. This could come across as kind of dull if you’re not into the technical aspects of film.



Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Images of Isolation

Jeremy Richey over at the Moon in the Gutter blog tagged me with a meme that has been making the rounds. It originally asked that we assemble "a gallery of images ... to stand for so much of what makes Cinema such a rich and exciting medium." This meme began at the Checking on My Sausages blog with MovieMan0283 over at his The Dancing Image blog championing this meme. So, what was the theme that picked? Well, continuing with the Michael Mann vibe from my previous post on Thief, I've decided to pick images from Mann's films that show his protagonists isolated. Almost always, they are loners or people who, often by choice, are apart from others. It wasn't easy picking stills from certain films as the composition of frames are so beautifully shot but here we go.

Here are the rules for the meme if you choose to participate as copied partially from Moon in the Gutter:


1. Pick as many pictures as you want - but make them screen-captures. These need to be moments that speak to you that perhaps haven't been represented as stills before.

2. Pick a theme, any theme.

3. You MUST link to Stephen's original gallery (see above) and my post if I am tagging you and you choose to participate.

4. Tag five blogs.

Here are the five bloggers that I would like to tag (my apologies if you have already):
 
Sean Gill over at Junta Juleil's Culture Shock
 
John Kenneth Muir over at John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film/TV
 
le0pard13 over at Lazy Thoughts from a Boomer
 
Kevin J. Olson over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
 
The Sci-Fi Fanatic over at Musings of a Sci-Fi Fanatic
 
 
Thief (1981)
 
The Keep (1983)


Manhunter (1986)


The Last of the Mohicans (1992)


Heat (1995)


The Insider (1999)

Ali (2001)

Collateral (2004)

Miami Vice (2006)

Public Enemies (2009)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Thief

While working in television in the 1970s, Michael Mann met Chuck Adamson through a family friend, Nate Grossman, a Chicago Police detective that worked with future Mann regulars Adamson and Dennis Farina. At the time, Adamson was Head of Investigation for the Sheriff of Clark County in Las Vegas. Adamson subsequently introduced Mann to professional thieves John Santucci and W.R. (Bill) Brown (who plays Mitch in the film) in 1975. Santucci spent over eight years as a safecracker and had cleaned up his act after spending three years in prison. He was operating a successful pawn shop and jewelry store in Denver when Mann contacted him. Brown gained notoriety by reputedly stealing London’s Marlborough Diamond, a jewel worth 400,000 pounds back in 1980. The best thieves operated in independent crews working high-line jobs in the United States from the 1940s to the '70s. Most of them came out of Chicago, in particular, a neighborhood known as the Patch. Meeting these people would prove vital to creation on Mann’s next film, Thief (1981).


Thief is Mann’s feature film debut and one that lays out a thematic blueprint for his subsequent work to follow. Frank (James Caan) is an independent safe cracker who dreams of marrying his girlfriend, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and starting a family. To make this happen, he needs to take on some quick, big-time scores. Frank makes a Faustian pact with Leo (Robert Prosky), a local crime boss and soon realizes that he is bound to serve the Mob for life and this so disgusts him that he takes extreme measures to assure that he never has to deal with them again.

The dialogueless opening sequence that has become the trademark of Mann’s films is established in Thief. Frank and his crew open a safe in meticulous detail and it becomes a study of what they do. One partner monitors a police band radio while another monitors the alarms. This sequence tells us a lot about Frank. He is very efficient, wastes no time and knows exactly what he wants, finds it, and then takes it. Thief also establishes Mann’s particular color scheme. Early on, he uses green and red to represent danger and death. As Frank and his partner Barry (James Belushi) leave the score there is a low angle shot of their getaway car on the rain-slicked streets of Chicago. The red of the traffic light is reflected beautifully on the wet streets and the car door with green light also reflected on the street hinting at the possibility of danger. They could get caught at any moment.

The purpose of the opening sequence is to establish the professionalism of Frank and his crew. He is only truly complete when he is working, which is true of all the protagonists in Mann’s films. What is also true is that they are all loners and Frank is no exception. After the job, there is a shot of him walking alone along a lake at dawn with the cityscape of Chicago in the background. Then, he comes across a man fishing and they strike up a conversation. The next shot is a quintessential Mann image that will appear again in Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999). Frank, his back to the camera, looks out at the lake which represents his peace of mind and contentment. He has successfully pulled off a bank job and life is good but this will be the last time he will achieve that kind of inner and outer tranquility.

Frank meets his contact to unload the diamonds he stole and is asked if he wants to meet with someone for another potential job. This only serves to antagonize Frank who replies, “If I want to meet people I’ll go to a fucking country club.” He is fiercely independent and does not need anybody else. He likes to keep his life free of complications, right down to the plain suits he often wears. It is his uniform, as it is with Neil McCauley in Heat and Vincent in Collateral (2004). Mann introduces the things that mean the most to Frank: his girlfriend Jessie and his buddy, Okla (Willie Nelson), who is in prison. The character of Okla was based on Roger Touhy, an Irish-American mob boss who, after 25 years in prison, was murdered within four weeks of his release in 1959 by the Chicago Mob. All of Frank’s dreams and aspirations are encapsulated in a postcard-sized collage he keeps in his wallet. There are images of a luxury car, a nice house, babies, children, women, Okla, and, most interestingly, two columns of skulls. As he later tells Jessie this represents his desire to die in the outside world on his own terms and not in prison which is the worst thing he can imagine.

The first foreshadowing of the trouble to come is signified by the green glass in the background of the bar Frank owns. He calls Barry on the phone to find out that the exchange of the diamonds they stole for money did not happen. Their contact has been killed by a mobster named Attaglia (Tom Signorelli). Frank pays him a visit and he denies taking his money so Frank threatens him with a gun demonstrating that he is clearly not someone to cross. Of note, the walls of Attaglia’s place are white representing authority and conformity – the antithesis to Frank’s worldview. This is carried over in the next scene where Frank visits Okla in prison. He finds out that his friend is dying and will not last the ten months he has left on his sentence. The two men also talk about Jessie and Frank asks Okla if he should tell her what he really does for a living to which is friend replies, “Lie to no one. If there’s somebody close to ya, you’re gonna ruin it with a lie. If they’re a stranger who the fuck are they you’re gonna lie to.” Frank looks up to Okla as a mentor, a father figure who dispenses sage advice.

When Frank meets a local mobster by the name of Leo to get his money it is a similar set-up to the Van Zant meeting in Heat only on a smaller scale. Both Frank and Neil have one of their crew hiding out in a sniper position in case things go bad. Leo tries to entice Frank to come work for him but he is not interested. Frank tells him, “I am self-employed. I am doing fine. I don’t deal with egos. I am Joe the boss of my own body so what the fuck do I have to work for you for?” Leo offers him a very attractive deal: big scores, minimum risk, protection from the cops, and only diamonds or cash jobs. On the surface, Leo appears to agree to a limited partnership of two or three jobs but alarm bells should be going off in Frank’s head when the crime boss says that he will be his new father. That is Okla’s role. As with what happens to Neil in Heat, Frank is blinded by his desire to realize his dream of a family and he makes a decision that he would not normally do, one that goes against his personal code. It is this betrayal of his beliefs that will cause his downfall.

The centerpiece of Thief, as it is in Heat and The Insider, is a conversation between two characters in which they espouse their worldviews to each other. This is a chance for Frank and Jessie to come clean with each other, she tells him about her past and the bad relationships she has been in. She also hints at an involvement in drug trafficking but all of this is behind her now. “My life is very ordinary, very boring which is good because it’s solid.” She is tough, honest and Frank’s equal. She does not put up with any of his nonsense and is one of the strongest female protagonists in Mann’s films despite her limited screen time.

Frank then tells her about his stint in prison and the mentality he adopted in order to survive. “You’ve got to forget time. You’ve not got to give a fuck if you live or die. You got to get where nothing means nothing.” He recounts a story in prison where he endured a severe beating from a powerful gang leader but the man died as a result of messing with Frank. Once out of the prison hospital he expected to be killed in retaliation, “’Cause I don’t mean nothing to myself. I don’t care about me, I don’t care about nothing. I know from that day that I survive because I achieved that mental attitude.” These lines are crucial to what Frank does later on in the film in order to survive.

Frank shows her his postcard and how it represents his dream and the passage of time. He tells Jessie, “I have run out of time. I have lost it all. And so I can’t work fast enough. And I can’t run fast enough. And the only thing that catches me up is doing my magic act. But it ends.” Being in prison took ten years of his life away. He has little time to realize his dreams and this affects his decision about Leo. Hooking up with Leo will allow Frank to realize his dreams much faster and, at first, it does. The mobster gets him bigger scores; he helps Frank adopt a baby when he and Jessie cannot get one through legal means; and the money Frank makes allows him to buy a big home in the suburbs and pay off a judge to release Okla early from prison. However, making a deal with Leo is akin to making a deal with the Devil. It seems good initially but comes with a horrible price.

Okla gets out of prison only to die in a hospital. Afterwards, Frank and Jessie eat at a Chinese restaurant and through the color scheme, Mann foreshadows the bad things to come with the deep red of the seats and in the background of the scene are green glass and walls. Sure enough, Frank is roughed up by corrupt cops because he will not pay them off. However, Mann offers a brief glimmer of happiness for Frank and his crew. After they successfully pull off a complex safe-cracking job in California, we see Frank, Barry and their families cavorting in the ocean. As is customary in all Mann films, water symbolizes safety but it will be short-lived.

Things get worse when Leo does not deliver all the money for the California score as promised because he thought that Frank would change his mind and work with him for the long haul. For the safe-cracker it is strictly a short-term gig and this causes friction between the two men. Leo resents Frank’s attitude and thinks that he should be grateful for all of the things that he has provided. So, Leo punishes Frank by beating and then killing Barry on Frank’s car lot and capturing the thief. Leo tells him to do what he is told because in effect he owns Frank and his family and he will work for the mob until he is burnt out or dead.

Frank’s only way out is to revert to his prison mentality where life means nothing for that is the only way he knows how to survive. So, he cuts himself off from everything. He sends Jessie and their child away in a cold, calculated way because he has now become dead inside – his face an impenetrable mask. Frank then blows up his home, his car dealership and the bar he owns because it has all been tainted by Leo like some kind of cancer. By destroying it all, Frank is systematically removing the virus. Before he sets out to punish Leo, Frank crumples up his postcard of dreams and throws it away. Symbolically, this represents his last shred of humanity and now he is free to perform a task that may be his last. He no longer cares if he lives or dies. Finally, Frank goes to Leo’s house and systematically kills the mobster and all of his men with a final shoot-out on Leo’s front lawn. Mann shot the climactic shoot-out at different camera speeds to create a staccato effect that he would use again in the climactic shoot-out in Manhunter. The final image of the film is Frank walking off into the night, his mission complete. He is back to square one with nothing but at least he is free.

Mann was working on the screenplay for what would become Thief, which was in fact based on the book The Home Invaders: Confessions of Cat Burglar by real-life thief, Frank Hohimer. Mann needed someone to provide him with inside details on safecracking. He was so impressed by Santucci's knowledge that he not only hired him as a technical adviser on the film, cast him in a small part as a corrupt police sergeant, but also based a significant portion of Thief on Santucci's experiences. Mann used his connections with members of the Chicago Police Department to gain access to real thieves. One man, John Bardolino, stole over $10 million in jewels, cash, rare coins, and precious metals over his career.

James Caan agreed to do Thief based on the writing of a nine-minute conversation between Frank and Jessie in a restaurant where he tells her his personal philosophy about life. Caan spent four weeks before shooting hanging around many Chicago thieves but spent most of his time with Santucci and even used most of the man's tools in the film. The actor learned how to drill through a safe and performed all the safecracking in the film himself. He was also trained to handle a gun like a professional and trained on his tools until everything became second nature.

In keeping with his documentary roots and his continuing quest for realism, Mann cast real cops and criminals in minor roles. When he began casting real life cops in his film, Chuck Adamson recommended Dennis Farina. Adamson remembers that “Michael was looking for a couple of rough, ugly guys to play henchmen and I was like, ‘I got just the guy.’ I called Dennis and said, ‘You gotta get down here.’” Farina was a detective on the local police force but was interested in acting on the side. Mann cast him in a small role near the end of the film.

Thief is perhaps the most pure and essential variation on Mann’s themes. Frank’s entire reason for existence is to create a family with Jessie. That idea was the only thing that got him through his tough stint in prison. He carries around with him a homemade postcard that is a collage of the things that are important to him. For Frank it is a physical, tangible reminder of his goals. As with all Mann protagonists, he works with single-minded determination to achieve what he wants. There is a kind of desperation to his actions; however, the deeper Frank gets in with the Mob and the tighter he tries to hold on to what is near and dear to him, the more his dream begins to slip away. The ideal of family togetherness is ultimately unattainable for Frank and so he reverts to his prison mentality where nothing matters.

While Mann was shooting Thief, he gave editor Dov Hoenig several tapes of music by German group Tangerine Dream to use as temporary cues for the film. By the time he assembled the first cut, Hoenig had produced almost a complete score based on the band’s cues with the occasional guitar piece by David Gilmour. Tangerine Dream agreed to score the film and when they arrived in the United States, Mann showed them a cut without telling them that he had used their music to score it. They were happily surprised and their final score was quite close to the temp soundtrack. Mann worked closely with the band, restructuring cues, asking for specific instrumental combinations and changing the original mixes in order to achieve a certain emotional effect.

Thief received a mixed reaction from critics of the day. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out four and wrote, “Every important performance in this movie successfully creates a plausible person, instead of the stock-company supporting characters we might have expected. And the film moves at a taut pace, creating tension and anxiety through very effective photography and a wound-up, pulsing score by Tangerine Dream.” In his review for Time magazine, Richard Schickel called the action sequences that came at the end of the film, ‘flashy but, empty exercises, pseudotragic searchings for a big finish. They make one tired and edgy—and dissipate the promise that has energized much of Thief.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “The movie is loaded with so-called production values. This neonlit, nighttime Chicago is pretty enough to be framed and hung on a wall, where, of course, good movies don’t belong ... The music by Tangerine Dream sounds as if it wanted to have a life of its own, as if it were meant to be an album instead of a soundtrack score.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Mann’s compressed, profane, associative dialogue – a hyperized, stylized and poeticized stream of semi-consciousness – is integrated expertly into the High Tech of Tangerine Dream, despite the handful of lines that run awry.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Caan’s performance seems dubious in direct proportion to his attempts to sound spontaneous. There’s a studied undercurrent in his would-be casual or aggressive behavior.” He also wrote, “Tuesday Weld’s leading lady ... suggests that Mann hasn’t a clue to the thought or behavior of women. Her role is painfully arbitrary and artificial.”

Caan found the role a hard one to play because his character was not "emotionally available." This existential outlook on life bled into the actor's real life. “For three months, I was a lunatic, I had migraines 24 hours a day, I lost about 20 pounds. And then when I looked at the movie, I couldn't stand it. My eyes were like two pieces of glass. They scared me. I said, ‘That guy's a killer.’” Caan faced the same problem that William Petersen would go on to face in Manhunter. Both actors delved so deeply and intensely into their dark, brooding characters that they had a tough time letting go of the character after filming had ended. But the end results certainly speak for themselves as Thief announced Mann as an up-and-coming talent to watch who had a real understanding and knack for depicting criminal types in a gritty, urban environment.




Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Inception

This review first appeared on Edward Copeland's blog earlier today. I've given it a few tweaks and a polish here and there.

Ten years in the making, Inception (2010) is the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s career to date. It mixes the ingenious plot twists of his independent film darling Memento (2000) with the epic scale of his Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight (2008). His new film takes the heist genre to the next level by fusing it with the science fiction genre as a group of corporate raiders steal ideas by entering the dreams of their targets – think Dreamscape (1984) meets The Matrix (1999) as if made by Michael Mann. While Nolan and his films certainly wear their respective influences on their sleeve – and this one is no different (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Heat, The Matrix) – there is still enough of his own thematic preoccupations to make Inception distinctly his own. This film continues Nolan’s fascination with the blurring of artifice with reality. With Inception, we are constantly questioning what is real right down to the last enigmatic image.


Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team extract thoughts of value from people as they dream. However, during his jobs, he is visited by his deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful femme fatale character that serves as an increasingly dangerous distraction from the task at hand. The film’s opening sequence does an excellent job establishing how Cobb and his team extract information from the dream of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman, in a visually arresting sequence. He catches up with Cobb in the real world and offers him a new deal: plant an idea in Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind that will help break-up his father’s vast empire before it becomes too powerful, and do it in a way so that it seems like Fischer thought of it for it to work. This is something that has only been done once before and Cobb was the person that pulled it off but can he do it again? In exchange for completing the job, Saito will make the necessary arrangements so that Cobb can return home to the United States where his children live but where he is also wanted by the authorities in connection with his wife’s death. So, Cobb recruits a literal dream team of experts to help him pull off the most challenging job of his career.

Inception delves into all kinds of aspects of dreams as evident in a scene early on where Cobb explains how they work, how to design and then navigate them. While there is a lot of exposition dialogue to absorb during these scenes, Nolan also keeps things visually interesting at the same time. This is arguably the most cerebral part of the film as he explores all sorts of intriguing concepts and sets up the rules for what we’ll experience later on – pretty heady stuff for a Hollywood blockbuster. And when he isn’t examining fascinating ideas, he’s orchestrating exciting and intense action sequences. There’s an incredible sequence where Nolan juggles three different action sequences operating on three different levels of dreams that are all impressively staged while also a marvel of cross-cutting editing. He anchors Inception with the character of Cobb and his desire to return home to his children while also dealing with the death of his wife. It gives the film an emotional weight so that we care about what happens to him. It also raises the stakes on the Fischer job.

Cobb continues Nolan’s interest in tortured protagonists. With Memento, Leonard Shelby tries to figure out who murdered his wife while operating with no short-term memory. Insomnia (2002) featured a cop with a checkered past trying to solve a murder on very little sleep. The Batman films focus on a costumed vigilante that wages war on criminals as a way of dealing with the guilt of witnessing his parents being murdered when he was a child. With The Prestige (2006), magician Robert Angier is tormented by the death of his wife and an all-consuming passion to outdo a rival illusionist. Inception’s Cobb also has a checkered past and is haunted by the death of loved one. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers what may be his finest performance to date, playing a complex, and layered character with a rich emotional life. Cobb must come to terms with what happened to his wife and his culpability in what happened to her. DiCaprio conveys an emotional range that he has not tapped into to this degree before. There’s a captivating tragic dimension to Cobb that the actor does an excellent job of expressing so that we become invested in the dramatic arc of his character.

Nolan populates Inception with a stellar cast to support DiCaprio. The indie film world is represented by the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy while also drawing from international cinema with Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy. Gordon-Levitt and Hardy, in particular, are stand-outs and their banter provides several moments of enjoyable levity during the course of this intense, engrossing film. And it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without his good luck charm, Michael Caine, making an appearance. As he has done in the past, Nolan plucks a once dominant actor from the 1980s, now languishing in relative obscurity – think Rutger Hauer in Batman Begins (2005) or Eric Roberts in The Dark Knight – and gives them a high-profile role. Inception gives Tom Berenger some well-deserved mainstream exposure after languishing in direct-to-video hell, reminding everyone what a good actor he can be with the right material.

Regardless if whether you like Inception or not, you’ve got to admire Nolan for making a film that is not a remake, a reboot, a sequel or an adaptation of an existing work. It is an ideal blend of art house sensibilities, with its weighty themes, and commercial conventions, like exciting action sequences. Capitalizing on the massive success of The Dark Knight, Nolan has wisely used his clout to push through his most personal and ambitious film to date. With Inception, he has created a world on a scale that he’s never attempted before and been able to realize some truly astonishing visuals, like gravity-defying fight scenes and having characters encounter a location straight out of the mind of M.C. Escher. It has been said that the power of cinema is the ability to transport you to another world and to dream with our eyes open. Inception does this. Nolan has created a cinematic anomaly: a summer blockbuster film with a brain.

Devin Faraci over at CHUD offers some great analysis and one of the best theories on what the film means. Over at Cinema Blend is a great visual guide that breaks down the various dream levels in the film. New York magazine has a fantastic interview with one of the film's stars and he offers some fascinating insights into the meanings of the film. Sam Adams, over at Salon.com has a great, in-depth look at the film that lays it all out in incredible detail. Finally, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell offer a fantastic, in-depth analysis of how Inception works stylistically on their blog Observations on film art.
 
Feel free to offer your observations, opinions, insights and theories on Inception in the comments section below.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Christopher Nolan Blogothon: Batman Begins

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Christopher Nolan Blogothon over at the Things That Don't Suck blog.

The fact that it took eight years for a new Batman film to be released illustrates how freaked out the studio was over the commercial and critical failure of Batman and Robin (1997). Warner Brothers gave the franchise a much needed rest while they quietly looked for someone to reboot it. At first, it looked like Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller might be the ones to do it but the studio didn’t like their vision of the character. Then came screenwriter David S. Goyer and then up-and-coming director Christopher Nolan who decided to return the Dark Knight back to his roots. They wanted to explore what motivated Bruce Wayne to dress up like a giant bat and wage war on the criminals of Gotham City. By all accounts, their effort, fittingly entitled Batman Begins (2005), was a resounding success. The critics loved it and audiences flocked to the theaters to see it. So, what did they do right?


The casting. While anyone can disappear into the bat suit and look scary it’s playing Bruce Wayne that is the real challenge. To date, only Michael Keaton has pulled it off because he brought a complexity and a refreshing unpredictability to the role. Christian Bale, who has proven that he’s got considerable acting chops with an impressive resume, perfectly captures the essence of the tortured billionaire. Also gone are the obvious casting of marquee names like Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger in favor of reliable character actors like Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy and Rutger Hauer. They bring sincerity and just the right amount of believability to their roles. The only weak bit of casting is Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s childhood friend. She’s just not believable as a tough prosecutor who works for the District Attorney. Holmes is also too lightweight of an actress and is unable to bring the gravitas needed for the role.

The story. Goyer and Nolan remain true to the spirit of Batman’s origins as depicted by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, right down to how Bruce’s parents are killed and how this torments him throughout his life. Their death will provide the motivation for what he will become and the filmmakers never lose sight of this. They understand that it is Bruce’s single-minded obsession with fighting crime and keeping the darkness at bay is what motivates him to become Batman and Bale embodies his character’s inner turmoil perfectly. The first half of the film is devoted to Bruce’s transformation into Batman and the last half sees him defend Gotham City against a plot to poison the city with a deadly psychotropic drug. And for good measure, they also throw in the threat of local mobsters and the wild card bad guy known as the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). The screenplay is smart and well-written, hitting all the right emotional notes and thankfully keeping the cheesy one-liners down to a minimum.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Batman Begins is the League of Shdows, a secret society that trains Bruce and gives him the physical skills to fight crime. However, their overtly fascist philosophy repulses Bruce who believes that he can’t be completely ruthless when it comes to fighting criminals. Compassion is what separates him from them. It’s a key point in showing that amidst the darkness lies a spark of idealism in Bruce. He truly believes that Gotham can be saved from the criminals that wish to corrupt it from within.

The tone. The campiness of the Joel Schumacher films is gone, replaced by a darker, brooding vibe. Nolan brings an art house sensibility to a big budget superhero film which gives it more substance. He treats the source material with the respect that it deserves. Even more interestingly, he incorporates elements from the horror film genre. Early on, when Bruce Wayne as a young boy accidentally discovers what will become the Batcave, Nolan imagines the entrance as dark and foreboding, decorated with dangerous, jagged rocks. Then, many bats come flying right at the frightened Bruce. Meanwhile, the Scarecrow uses a hallucingenetic drug to induce nightmarish visions in his victims.

One of the reasons Batman Begins works so well is the choices Nolan makes, like sticking close to Batman’s origins in the comic book and filling in the gaps that the comics had created. Nolan and Goyer worked closely with D.C. Comics, picking and choosing aspects from various issues during Batman’s long run. For example, Nolan’s depiction of James Gordon (Gary Oldman) was influenced by Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Like in that comic, we meet Gordon early in his career as an honest police sergeant surrounded by corruption. Gary Oldman even looks quite similar to the way David Mazzucchelli draws him in Year One. Also, gang boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) is taken from this comic. Batman Begins’ primary villain is Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his League of Assassins (League of Shadows in the film) is the creation of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams. They returned Batman to his darker, grittier roots in the 1970s.

One of the main themes of Batman Begins is the power of fear. Bruce must overcome his before he can truly understand its nature and then bask in the fear of others. He learns to embrace the darkness and understand the nature of evil so that he will be better equipped to fight it. After the campy Joel Schumacher era, it is nice to see Batman return his roots. Nolan’s film even manages to surpasses Tim Burton’s first one. While Burton certainly got the look of Batman’s world and even understood the character’s tortured psyche, he injected moments of silliness that took one out of the film (i.e. the Joker shooting down Batman’s plane with a handgun?!). Nolan does not make this same mistake and created an excellent comic book adaptation that deserves to be ranked alongside other superior examples of the genre. What’s even more incredible is that he went on to top this film with the much superior sequel, The Dark Knight (2008).

For a more in-depth analysis of this film, check out Peter Sanderson's fascinating, exhaustive essay over at Comics in Context.





Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shatnerthon! Free Enterprise

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the William Shatner Blogathon over at She Blogged By Night.

Free Enterprise (1998) takes William Shatner’s famous Saturday Night Live sketch where he tells a group of Star Trek fans to get a life and runs with it, expanding this idea into a feature-length film while also directing those sentiments back at himself. It’s a film that cleverly blends the sensibilities of My Favorite Year (1982), Clerks (1994) and Swingers (1996) while managing to simultaneously celebrate and poke fun at the man and the legend that is Shatner. While you don’t have to be a Trekkie to watch this film, it certainly helps if you’ve seen a few episodes of the original Trek and maybe one of the films. What High Fidelity (2000) did for music fans Free Enterprise does for film buffs, specifically Star Trek fans. It was made by film geeks for film geeks.


The film takes us back to the heady days when laserdiscs were about to make way for DVDs, so the first thing that strikes you is all the references to that out-of-date media. If you thought Kevin Smith dropped a ton of popular culture references in his films then you ain’t seen nothing yet. Free Enterprise’s prologue alone refers to films like Touch of Evil (1958), Manhunter (1986), The Player (1992), and Seven (1995), as a young man named Mark (Eric McCormack) pitches a high-concept project about “the death of ‘70s suburban bliss which gives way to the angst of ‘90s dystopian fatalism” – a serial killer who only stalks women named after the three girls in The Brady Bunch. Mark enthusiastically acts out the film’s ambitious first shot for the first scene. Amazingly, Eric McCormack pulls this all off with a straight face during this hilariously absurd movie pitch.

We meet the film’s two protagonists as kids during pivotal moments in their lives. It is at these moments that they are visited by a vision of William Shatner (“I’m one of the top ten imaginary friends kids have – just behind John Travolta, Reggie Jackson and Farrah Fawcett-Majors,” he tells one of them). He is surprisingly funny and self-deprecating during this scene and this flashback establishes what an important figure the veteran actor is in these guys’ lives.

In the present, Robert (Rafer Weigel) is being dumped by his girlfriend. He has no problem buying some cool action figure from 1974 worth lots of money but forgets to pay an insignificant utility bill. So, he seeks consolation and counsel from his best friend Mark, the editor of Geek Monthly magazine. They banter back and forth, trading quips and references to all kinds of films and television shows. They drown their sorrows at a fast food restaurant where Robert, a film editor, tells his friend that his latest gig is editing some schlock called Beach Babe Bimbo Fiesta, to which Mark replies, “Okay, it’s not Grand Illusion, at least you’re working in your profession of choice, not slinging hash at Norm’s.”

Mark is bitter, sarcastic and apprehensive about turning 30 soon to which Robert responds with the obligatory Logan’s Run (1976) reference, natch. Robert is quite the ladies man, always hitting on attractive women with the pick-up line, “Is that Mack lipstick you’re wearing?” These guys banter and bitch like characters out of a Kevin Smith film only way more motivated – at least in Mark’s case. And like in Smith’s films, women are their blind spot. A pre-Will & Grace Eric McCormack and Rafer Weigel do an excellent job conveying the longstanding friendship that exists between their characters through the verbal shorthand that exists and how easily they get on each other’s nerves. They know just what buttons to push. Mark is Robert’s conscience, reminding him of his faults. In Trek terms, Robert is the Kirk to Mark’s Spock. Robert is definitely the more romantic of the two but also the less sensible one and this is why he and Mark are such good friends – they complement each other.

Later that night, while browsing through a local used book store, Mark and Robert spot Shatner in an aisle checking out a porn magazine. Naturally, being the fanboys that they are, they approach him. Mark and Robert get to talking with him and Shatner tells them that he’s suffering from writer’s block on a project he’s been working on – a musical version of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He plans to do the complete text with three intermissions and he’ll play all the parts, “except for Calpurnia. I want Sharon Stone for that.” It’s admittedly a crazy idea but there’s no denying Shatner’s passion for this project.

Robert meets his match at a local comic book store when a beautiful woman snags a Sandman graphic novel he was planning to buy. Impressed by the titles she collects and her beauty, of course, he manages to get her phone number (the film’s glaring flaw – she writes it on the cover of comic book worth $60 and instead of copying down her information on his hand, he pays for the issue!). Robert starts dating Claire (Audie England) and they hit it off but his irresponsible habits kick in and the money thing rears its ugly head yet again. With Shatner’s help, the boys attempt to improve their personal lives and do the same for him.

William Shatner is quite good playing a variation of himself or, at least, what Trek fans imagine him to be like. He actually comes off as fallible and not afraid to portray himself as a little crazy, unable to hold his liquor and unlucky with women, like when he drunkenly tries to pick up the owner of a bar (played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh no less!) in what can only be described as an awkward moment. While giving Mark and Robert advice on their love lives, his own is a mess. When he admits to being dumped by a woman he was in a long relationship with, Shatner actually shows remorse and disbelief that someone would leave him. He isn’t in Free Enterprise a whole lot but he makes the most of the screen time he does have. He also gives out sage advice, like when Robert tries to put him up on a pedestal and Shatner tells him, “People are people, Rob. Everybody expects actors to be like the characters they play, not like who they really are.” Shatner’s big moment comes at the film’s climactic scene – a musical number in which he performs a rap version of Marc Antony’s eulogy from Julius Caesar with rapper Rated R in a hip hop song entitled, “No Tears for Caesar.” It is a performance that has to be seen to be truly believed.

After working a series of menial jobs in the film industry for both Hollywood studios and independent companies for years, Robert Meyer Burnett met Mark A. Altman at the San Diego Comic Convention and they became fast friends. Burnett was working for Full Moon Pictures and Altman was the editor-in-chief of Sci Fi Universe magazine where he ended up making Burnett the Critic-at-Large. However, he soon became a freelance film editor. The genesis of Free Enterprise came out of a conversation Altman and Burnett had with a mutual friend, Kay Reindl, a T.V. writer on Millennium and The Twilight Zone, after a day of shopping for laserdiscs and action figures at Toys R Us. She suggested that they could make a film out of their clique’s obsession with Star Trek.

One day, Altman called Burnett and a read a scene he had written where he was beaten up in junior high school for wearing a Trek uniform. Then, William Shatner appeared to him as a vision and told him to fight back. Burnett gave his friend some ideas and two weeks later, Altman came back with a 250-page screenplay called Trekkers. From there, Burnett rewrote it, getting the script down to a more manageable 180 pages. They spent months going back and forth until they had a script that could actually be made into a film. They showed it to producer Dan Bates, who they had worked with previously on Day of Atonement, a supernatural thriller that was never filmed. He was instrumental in lining up investors interested in backing this project.

After Altman and Burnett secured financing for Free Enterprise, they approached Shatner’s manager. At this point, the script had the actor playing an imaginary character giving out advice to the two protagonists a la Play It Again, Sam (1972). They did not hear from him and even considered making a version of the film without Shatner. A few weeks later, he called them back and told them that he found their script funny but was uncomfortable playing a character that was “for all intents and purposes, God,” Burnett remembered. “I had played my (Kirk) persona as far as I wanted to go and probably as far as anybody wants me to go,” Shatner said. He told them that he might consider doing the film if they rewrote his role and made him “a real person with real problems.” At the time, Altman and Burnett had a set start date for filming and were depressed at being rebuffed by their idol. However, they had to ride the momentum and push onward. They rewrote Shatner’s part, tweaking his character to be more like Peter O’Toole’s in My Favorite Year and incorporating several anecdotes from Shatner’s actual life. They gave him a copy of the revised script which he still wasn’t comfortable with so they asked him for input and he finally agreed to do the film.

Free Enterprise was shot over 25 days in February 1998 on location in Los Angeles. Altman and Burnett shot on practical locations in order to cut costs and get the most of their small budget. Shooting on location also gave the film an authenticity. According to Altman, “I don’t think you can achieve the verisimilitude that we captured on stages and sets. The only way is to actually go to the real locations to capture the flavor, tastes and smells of Los Angeles.”

The U.S. premiere for Free Enterprise was on October 23, 1998 at the AFI Festival in L.A. and was given a subsequently tiny theatrical release in only nine L.A. theaters with little promotion. What critics did see it gave the film positive notices. The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas felt that it breathed “new life into the Hollywood-set romantic comedy genre” and was “funny, sharp and engaging.” The L.A. Weekly said it was a “very funny, likable comedy about geeks in love.” Finally, in her review for the Washington Post, Jen Chaney praised “the often funny and, strangely enough, sometimes touching performance by Shatner.” Despite the critical praise, Burnett said, “Nobody went to see it. It was really disheartening.” But then a funny thing happened. Once the film was released on DVD, it began to develop a cult following as word-of-mouth spread the gospel that this film was something special, so much so that Anchor Bay released a special edition DVD in 2005.

At times, Free Enterprise feels a little like Swingers as both films deal with single guys looking for love in Los Angeles while trying to also make it in the entertainment business. It doesn’t hurt that both film feature Patrick Van Horn as the brash friend of one of the protagonists. In Free Enterprise, he’s Robert’s wingman, interested only in keeping him single so he has someone to party with. If anything, this film feels more like a better shot, more focused Kevin Smith film complete with comic book collecting film geeks that have to grow up if they’re going to have any kind of meaningful relationship with a woman. However, unlike Smith’s films, Free Enterprise doesn’t rely on (admittedly hilarious) foul-mouthed, scatological humor and instead goes for clever, funny pop culture references, like when Mark and one of his friends talk about Robert’s obsession with Claire whom they compare to Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct (1992) and how their friend wouldn’t mind meeting his end much in the same way she dispenses with her victims: “Killed by a naked blond who doesn’t wear underwear to the strains of a Jerry Goldsmith score,” to which Mark adds, “Come to think of it, I’d sorta dig that myself.”

Free Enterprise was clearly a labor of love for Altman and Burnett and it shows. They have described it as being “semi-autobiographical” and “somewhat based on a true story, unfortunately.” It is a romantic comedy for genre fans and loaded with tons of film and T.V. references while also imparting a few poignant observations about relationships. In some respects, it is the best Kevin Smith film not made by Kevin Smith.


SOURCES

“Interview with Filmmaker: Robert Meyer Burnett.” Film Threat.

Snider, Mike. “These are the voyages…” USA Today.


“The Making of Free Enterprise.” San Diego Comic Convention Panel. August 14, 1998.