Friday, July 30, 2010

The Film That Should Be Set on Fire

The world seems to be abuzz with chatter about the "Millennium Trilogy," as the triple set of blockbuster novels by Swedish author, Stieg Larsson, has been labeled. Not only have all three books been adapted into Swedish films, but now, acclaimed American director, David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, ...Benjamin Button) has signed on to helm the upcoming Hollywood revamps.

I, myself, have read the first two books in the trilogy, and as of today, have also seen the first two Swedish film adaptations. My assessment: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was a good, but not great novel, that received a pretty decent transfer to the cinema. There were some glaring details from the book that were dropped in the making of the film, but I don't really fault the filmmakers for that. It was more a shining example of why it is so difficult to adapt books into films. Even at 2 1/2 hours, there simply wasn't enough room to include everything. Moving onto The Girl Who Played With Fire, you have a great novel with a couple of minor flaws, that has been demolished by a complete and utter hackjob of a film adaptation. If the objective of the filmmakers in this instance was to suck all of the drama, suspense, and emotion out of the story, well - Mission: Accomplished.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, an entirely different creative team was behind the scenes of this second film, than there was for the first. Perhaps that explains the nosedive in quality. Things started off promising. They lopped off an entire story thread from the beginning - one which, in my mind, constituted the most obvious flaw in the novel. So, I was happy to see they did not include it in the film. Then, throwing in a hot lesbian sex scene never hurts. But, from there, it was all downhill. Again, one must be cognizant of the inherent problems involved in the book-to-movie transition. However, this adaptation was just sloppy. First off, certain supporting characters appeared toward the beginning of the film with virtually no introduction or explanation of who they were. I think one hallmark of a great adapted screenplay is that someone should be able to see the movie without having read the book, and still enjoy the experience. That is impossible to do here, because if you haven't read the book, you'd have absolutely no idea what was going on.

Secondly, they changed things that didn't necessarily contribute to keeping the running time of the movie down. There was simply no reason to change them. There was a particularly critical juncture where the heroine, Lisbeth Salander, was supposed to have been at the scene of a double murder around the time that the crime occurred. This lent a sliver of doubt in the readers' minds as to whether she may have actually had some involvement in the killings. In the book, there was also a clear connection between those deaths, and a third murder that took place. Again, placing Salander's innocence in question. In the film, Lisbeth's whereabouts are completely rearranged, as far as what the viewers can see for themselves. There is passing mention made by another character that she was supposedly at the location of the first killings, but it's never explained why we're supposed to know that. That one seemingly minor oversight deflates the power of the entire mystery that is central to the plot. Later, there is another scene in which one of the major villains is entangled in a fight scene with two supporting characters. The way those characters escape the grasp of the enemy is just made up out of thin air by the filmmakers. It's totally and unnecessarily different from what happens in the book. Here, instead of being dramatic, it just makes the entire sequence of events seem hokey and unrealistic.

The third thing that prevented me from enjoying this film, was the editing. I know absolutely nothing about film editing, but despite that, I could tell this was done with extreme incompetence. The movement of the characters in several scenes was so jarring, I literally threw my hands up in the air as if to say, "WTF?" In one instance, Lisbeth had broken into the apartment of her nemesis, and then was seen rifling through his things while he slept. But, without knowing what was going on from having read the book, you almost couldn't tell that she was in the same location. One second she was just inside the front door, the next second, she was sitting at some desk.

Lastly, there were a couple of climactic scenes in the story, where the emotion should have been running high. But the way those scenes played out here on screen, I felt like I might as well have been watching a panda chewing bamboo in a zoo exhibit.

The whole thing was utterly disappointing. Especially because I was looking forward to seeing what Noomi Rapace could do as Lisbeth in this second film. One major reason I liked reading The Girl Who Played With Fire more than I did ...Tattoo, was because the Lisbeth Salander character was so much more developed in the continuation of the saga. We finally started to get a glimpse into her backstory, and instead of being a mysterious supporting character, which is essentially the role she played in ...Tattoo, she evolved into the emotional center of the story. Seeing a couple of English-speaking interviews with Rapace, it was immediately evident what an amazing transformation she underwent to "become" Lisbeth. I really thought we might be in for an award-worthy performance in this second film. But she simply had nothing with which to work. Salander barely even spoke throughout the entire film, once again relegating the character to being a small part of an ensemble.

For those who have read the books and seen the first two Swedish film adaptations, the fear seems to be great that Hollywood is going to completely ruin the trilogy, as it is alleged to do with all reworkings of foreign films. I, for one, am actually hoping that a skilled group of American filmmakers can transcend what the Swedes have done, particularly with this second film. Unfortunately, I'll have to wait a while. The U.S. version of the first film is not due out until Christmas '11. Here's hoping the third book will at least tide me over until then.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

INCEPTION: The verdict

So, I've been building this one up for a while, as have many critics and movie buffs. See one of my previous posts for my explanation of why I was so eagerly anticipating this film. Basically, the director (Chris Nolan), and several of the actors (Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Cillian Murphy) have all been involved in prior favorite movies of mine, so I felt like this was a "can't miss." At the same time that this notion led me to have grandiose expectations, it simultaneously forced me to lower those expectations, because how could I not be somewhat disappointed after already anointing Inception the movie of the year? Bottom line: it was not the epic film I was hoping it would be, but it also was not as much of a letdown as I feared it might be.

I'm going to describe very little about the plot, so as to not spoil things. The film centers around Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), who is a thief-for-hire; his specialty is inserting himself in people's dreams in order to pilfer their ideas for his own (or, presumably, his employers') gain. He has a team of skilled assistants: his long-time right-hand man, Arthur (Gordon-Leavitt); Eames (Tom Hardy) - who can shapeshift himself to take on the physical characteristics of another person; Yusuf the chemist (Dileep Rao); and, for the latest job that serves as the focus of Inception, new hire, Ariadne (Page) - who is an expert architect saddled with the challenge of creating the landscapes of the dreamworld in which all the action takes place. In the movie, a Japanese tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe), hires Cobb and his team to pull off an "inception." This is an instance where the team must insert themselves into someone's subconscious, not to steal ideas, but to plant them. Saito wants to trick a business rival, Robert Fischer (Murphy), into wanting to break up his dying father's business empire, effectively giving Saito a stranglehold on the worldwide energy industry. Inception is a highly dangerous and unpredictable undertaking, and no one is really sure whether or not it can be achieved without dire consequences. The motivation for Cobb is that he has been prevented from seeing his two kids back in the U.S., and Saito claims to be able to rectify this situation, upon Cobb's successful completion of the mission at hand. To explain any further would be inadvisable.

One thing has to be said above all else: you will not understand this film after one viewing. I, myself, am contemplating whether I want to shell out the cash for a second go. I probably won't see it again until it's on cable, but just keep in mind that anyone writing a review after seeing it for the first time needs to reserve the right to change his or her views on the film.

That having been said, let's start with what was great about Inception. There likely will not be a more creative, imaginative, or original movie out this year. Also, DiCaprio was pretty spot on in the lead role. Sometimes, I have a hard time taking him seriously, because he still looks so young, but he's a formidable enough actor that he seems to often be able to make me forget about that and become engrossed in the character. This is at least true for the last four films in which I've seen him: The Departed, Blood Diamond, Shutter Island, and now, Inception. Third, I usually prefer movies that are thought-provoking. If I'm still talking and/or thinking about a film weeks after seeing it for the first time, then that automatically wins some points in my book. I am positive that Inception will be such a film. Lastly, the ending was pretty much perfect. I've written before that one of my pet peeves with cinema, is when Hollywood simply doesn't know how to wrap everything up. There is a tendency in those situations to either try to tie all the ends up in a nice, neat bow, kill off almost every major character (see the hideous Mel Gibson flop, Edge of Darkness, from earlier this year - or, on second thought, don't see it), or create a final scene so ambiguous that it's just plain annoying and unfulfilling (hello, No Country for Old Men!). All throughout Inception, I was 100% positive that I knew exactly how it was going to end, and I was dreading the cop-out, predictable conclusion. And Nolan did end it that way...sort of. He put enough of a twist of uncertainty on the otherwise foreseen closing shots to win kudos from me. I can't describe it in any more detail without giving critical things away.

Now, for what didn't work. First and foremost, naturally, is the overall ambiguity of everything that occurred in the film. Thought-provoking and creative: good. Brain-melting mindfuck: not so good. The average filmgoer simply can't keep track of all the reality-bending layers of plot that Inception throws at us. It makes for an interesting experience, but at the end of the day, we kind of want to know what in the Hollywood Hills is going on. One aspect of the film that has been repeatedly ripped by critics, is that Ellen Page's character, Ariadne, basically serves as a point of exposition for the audience (exposition is when the writer deliberately utilizes the dialogue to explain the story - typically a major no-no in creating a quality film). The fact is, though, that without some exposition, we'd be even more lost. It was simultaneously necessary, yet detracting from the artistic integrity of the film.

Secondly, Ellen Page, as much as I love her, was grossly miscast here. Ariadne, in addition to untangling things for the audience, also served as a confidante and conscience to DiCaprio's Cobb. The character needed to be much more strong-willed and dominant, in my estimation. Like DiCaprio, Page's cross-to-bear is her youthful looks, but being 12+ actual years younger than Leo, it's much more of an obstacle for her at this early stage of her career. Seeing Juno in this movie was simply unsettling. What's more, DiCaprio and Page had virtually zero on-screen chemistry. I didn't believe for a second that they cared one iota about each other (not in a romantic way - that, thankfully, was not what the filmmakers were trying to depict). In fact, the entire "team" of dream invaders felt like it was just patched together, rather than being a tight-knit group of highly-skilled comrades. I just never believed that they were working together because they wanted to be.

That leads me to my next issue. I felt the supporting characters were rather under-developed. When you have a team of players moving the story forward in what basically amounts to an action-thriller, you need to have really sharp writing in order to keep the audience interested in each character. That simply wasn't the case here. Eames (Hardy) was designed to be the wise-ass, sarcastic guy. Yet, he had virtually no funny lines in the entire film. As for Arthur (Gordon-Leavitt), it was unclear to me exactly what role he played on this team. He's been described in other reviews as the "organizer." But I really had no idea what his place was, and generally didn't care about his character at all. They tried to construct one funny scene between him and Ariadne, but it fell somewhat flat.

Another supporting character, that of Saito, presented one significant problem; I could understand virtually nothing of what Ken Watanabe was saying during the entire film. I don't know if it was his Japanglish creating the problem or if he was simply mumbling his lines, but I was unnerved by this the whole time. There were some pretty crucial lines of dialogue that I missed completely.

Overall, Inception was one part action flick, one part heist film, one part psychological thriller, and one part love story. Those last two elements worked...the first two did not. Some of the action-oriented scenes, particularly those set in the snowy mountains toward the end, were just plain boring and confusing. And I was not invested in the caper involving Cillian Murphy's character. The whole thing surrounding Robert Fischer and his domineering and unaccepting father, Maurice (Pete Posthlewaite), was a retread of all the daddy issues we've seen time and time again in film...and these characters were barely even relevant to the most compelling parts of the movie. For me, the love story between Dom Cobb and his wife, Mal (and by extension, with their two kids), was the aspect of Inception by which I was most captivated. Mal was played with perfect sadness, regret, and desperation, by Oscar-winner, Marion Cotillard. This thread was almost a sub-plot, but it was the most dramatic and compelling layer of the film by a longshot. It provided the emotional center of Inception, and served to set up the few genuine plot twists, as well as the craftily-handled ending. I almost wish that Dom, Mal and their kids had been the main focus, with all the other acid-trippy stuff serving as the decorative wallpaper for the film, but I'm not sure how that would have turned out.

In short, Inception is a good film, falling somewhat short of great. Some are saying it is Chris Nolan's masterpiece. I say that accolade still belongs to Memento, a film that likewise, takes the viewer on a mind-boggling journey of what's real and what's not, but that in my opinion, pulls it off with much more flare, and stands as one of my favorite movies of all time. 

I would recommend Inception, again with the caveat that you will be confused, and potentially be compelled to see it more than once. Overall grade: B+