Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Review and Analysis of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One


Ever since the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the wonder and sparkle of the magical world that Harry Potter dwells in has gradually become less awe-inspiring, less colorful, less foreign, and increasingly more realistic. By now The Sorcerer's Stone and The Deathly Hallows do not look like they could even belong to the same franchise but for the continuity of characters. Harry, Ron, and Hermione began their journey as children, and now seven movies later childhood innocence and marvel has eroded, and even in a world of enchantment, the characters see their lives (and by extension their world) through the eyes of battle-weary adults, and no amount of magic and shine can sugarcoat it.

When Harry Potter entered the world of Hogwarts, all things were new and phenomenally intriguing. Even the simplest things, like candy, had varying degrees of novelty that were completely absent from the Muggle (non-magic) world. Without even interacting directly with spells or enchantments, he could not walk through the grand halls of Hogwarts without an overwhelming eyeful of mysterious and wonderful sights like distinguished ghosts roaming about, candles floating alight in midair, staircases that move, framed portraits that live and speak, and teachers that periodically take the shape of animals. A now older and more experienced Harry has traded in the wonder of wizardry for the horrors of war. 

When young Harry began his journey at eleven years old, he certainly had more to deal with than your average eleven year old. Before his school days at Hogwarts Harry was raised by verbally and emotionally abusive relatives that are never (onscreen at least) brought to account for their cruel negligence. After a few short life-changing moments Harry is bound for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He learns that his deceased parents were in fact murdered by the darkest wizard of all time, who has now targeted Harry. While these things are no easy matter for a child of eleven, by the time Harry and his friends reach the point of The Deathly Hallows more is at stake than just Harry's life; the conflict has escalated to proportions so mammoth, the fearsome trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione is not enough anymore. At the beginning of the franchise Harry survived a series of deliberately malicious events. Now at the beginning of the end, the character Harry Potter is the centerpiece of a war in which everyone must fight or fall. Or both.

The first moments of The Deathly Hallows make it clear that there will be no joyful moments wandering Diagon Alley or fantastic discoveries in the hallowed halls of Hogwarts. Hermione's opening scene depicts her erasing herself from her parents' memories to protect them from reprisals, while Harry watches his abusive relatives flee the house for the same reasons. The characters that we met as children have grown up ahead of their time. Harry is no longer swept away by the delight of riding a broom in a game of Quidditch, but by the tender wonder of a kiss. His worries expand far beyond his own safety as his survival will determine the fate of the world as he knows it. Ron is no longer jealously overcome by Harry's fame, but by the false image of Harry and Hermione in a lovers' embrace. Hermione in turn does not concern herself with homework and knowledge anymore, but with the crushing weight of loneliness and fear.

The power of fear is easily identifiable as an overlying theme that penetrates all levels of the magical world. Harry has been named “Undesirable Number One”-- a catchy way of saying that Harry Potter is the Ministry of Magic’s most wanted. On the note of Ministry of Magic, the entire system has been permeated by the dark side and leads a holocaust on anyone found guilty of the unspeakable crime of blood fraud. Suddenly the Ministry of Magic determines that only pure bloods are able to wield magic, and trials are held to investigate the “blood status” of witches or wizards that are suspected of having corrupted lineage. At the helm of this movement is the saccharine, pink-loving Delores Umbridge, who is herself guilty of blood fraud but uses a valuable artifact as counterfeit proof of her family line. In a particularly suspenseful sequence of events, the heroic trio infiltrates the Ministry of Magic disguised as employees. Inside, they witness the horrors that fear has impressed upon the once shining world of magic. Purebloods are to the now hostile magic world, the Aryan race. In a movement reminiscent of the Third Reich, pamphlets and fliers are printed from the Ministry advertising the purge of all who, regardless of social or political status, are deemed "impure."

While the trio must deal with the oppression of Lord Voldemort's influence, the evil side of the conflict faces its own struggles. Despite evil's saturation of the land, the servants of The Dark Lord are as fruitless in their pursuit of Harry as Harry is in his pursuit of the horcruxes. Both sides of the conflict take in varying degrees of victory and defeat, though victory at times seems overwhelmingly in favor of the Dark Lord. But just as fear rules the administration of the Ministry of Magic, fear rather than loyalty drives Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters. Times are difficult for the servants of Lord Voldemort, as evidenced in the disgraced state of the once-aristocratic Malfoys. Not so long ago the wealthy Malfoys wielded their influence in the Ministry of Magic as well as in Hogwarts. Lucius, once a powerful Death Eater, has been reduced to a trembling, cowardly pawn whose own master is disgusted by being forced to have such dishonorable subjects. The elite Death Eaters were in the past the most dangerous force to be reckoned with other than Lord Voldemort himself. Harry, Ron, and Hermione now dodge the snatchers-- sordid mercenaries employed by the Dark Lord to hunt down and arrest those that protest the new regime or are in league with Undesirable Number One.

Harry, Ron and Hermione spend weeks and months on the run, camping in forests and seeking clues regarding the whereabouts of the horcruxes. Their friendships are tested, patience wears thin, and the bond that has sustained the three through the last seven years of their lives begins to fray. Although their mastery of magic is useful, it is no longer any comfort. In one especially tense moment, Hermione stands face to face with a squalid snatcher. There is a charm that is hiding her from view, but the other can smell her near enough to touch her, and Hermione can do nothing but stand absolutely still, as if evading a predator. In multiple instances throughout the film the three (or for a while two) barely escape perilous situations and while magic is indispensable to them, it is their wits and courage that ultimately save them.

The Harry Potter franchise has had its fair share of problems, and of the kind that would inevitably sink any other series. The illustrious saga has been handled by no less than four directors, and yet each movie has carried off the transitions with grace. Every film in the series is distinctly unique in its delivery of the script, but remains cohesive with the other films. Even the strikingly stylized Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban flows with the two previous (albeit lighter) films, while simultaneously setting up the darker tone for the films that follow. The sparkling, colorful styles of Chris Columbus that launched the first two movies would not work with the dark and gritty themes of the later movies. The Deathly Hallows is appropriately the most serious and foreboding film so far. 

The evolution of the style of Harry Potter closely mirrors the characters' own journey from childlike wonder to mature realism. It is this mature realism that sets The Deathly Hallows apart from its six predecessors. Harry and company have faced life-threatening situations since year one, but circumstances are more intense this time around. Rather than being caught up in climatic battles or sequences of peril, their lives are consistently, relentlessly at stake-- a fact that takes a serious toll on their relationships. In one particularly sweet scene, Harry and Hermione are so overwhelmed and exhausted that they do not exchange words, but Harry offers his hand to Hermione and they dance together. It's a well-placed, necessary scene to temporarily relieve the tension and heaviness that runs throughout the rest of the movie. Elsewhere in the film, characters endure chases, narrow escapes, brutal captures, and plenty of fights. So intense is a scene involving Hermione being tortured by Bellatrix that most of the scene was left on the cutting room floor to avoid an R rating. Reportedly, filming of these sequences was so intense that actress Helena Bonham-Carter felt the need to approach Emma Watson to ensure they were still on good terms.

On the subject of intensity, another element that sets The Deathly Hallows apart is the number of casualties. In previous installments viewers endured the emotional passing of Cedric Diggory and Sirius Black. In The Deathly Hallows Part One, three previously seen characters meet their demise; a number that promises to climb in part two. Only two of these supporting character deaths are seen onscreen, but viewers that have been keeping up with the names and characters from previous films will understand the gravity of the losses, and certainly feel deeply the emotional departure that closes the film. This particular character death ends more than just the film; it is the final nail in the coffin of childhood. As this innocent supporting character draws his last breath, all that was childlike and innocent and safe in Harry's life is gone. An unceremonious death earlier in the film drives the same point, but happens so quickly and in such an intense moment that there is barely time to grieve. By the time the last character death closes the movie, it is clear that the days of Hogwarts are gone forever and that no part of Harry's world is untouched by this evil. 

On more technical levels, The Deathly Hallows usage of music is flawless. The score is used sparingly in favor of the natural sounds of the forest, enhancing the feelings of solitude and fear. Newcomer to the franchise, composer Alexandre Desplat scores an appropriately melancholy score ranging from mellow and mournful to intense and panicked, subtly communicating a variety of moods in between. Furthermore the special effects are seamless, effectively blending into the story rather than distracting from it. Even in sequences where CGI was undoubtedly used (such as the escape from Privet Drive), it is wielded with such craft and style that one is completely lost in its magic. 
All the actors turn in sterling performances, but especially Rupert Grint, whose frequent function as the comic relief is appropriately absent. Here, Grint displays his dramatic range in ways that the script did not previously allow. As a result, the character of Ron is given layers of complexity that were only hinted at in preceding installments. His moments of comic relief still appear, but with less consistency than his shining comedic turn in The Half Blood Prince. Grint's Ron was never meant as a sidekick to Harry Potter, nor was he particularly molded into the cliché best friend role, but now more than ever Grint proves that he can carry a movie with just as much charisma as the other leading actors, and his character is a hero all his own. Grint has developed steadily as an actor since the first film, with each performance capitalizing on the last. True to this tradition, The Deathly Hallows is a standout performance from Rupert Grint. 

Emma Watson's Hermione has been the anchor of reason and logic throughout the saga, and "The Deathly Hallows" is no exception to this trait. Watson elegantly communicates the inner conflict and extreme emotional stress that her character endures without becoming whiny or weak in any way. Hermione's journey from childhood to womanhood has been guided by textbook knowledge and ingenuity born of dedicated study. Watson clearly portrays how Hermione has met her greatest challenge in matters of the heart as they are not solved through her crutch of intellectualism. Furthermore Watson proves that there is more to Hermione than academics, as her foresight and quick wits save the trio on many occasions. As the lead female, Watson is a striking presence whose femininity is tastefully rather than sensually used (most of the time) as a welcome contrast to the scruffy and dirty environment that hosts the bulk of the movie.

Daniel Radcliffe is probably the most harshly criticized actor in the franchise, and opinions about his talents vary greatly. From a personal perspective, after seven movies it is hard to imagine that anyone but Daniel Radcliffe could portray the leading character of Harry Potter with such feeling and connectable personality. He may be the Boy Who Lived, but Radcliffe gives Potter a life that also makes him feel like the Boy Next Door. Radcliffe's range as an actor has certainly been tested adequately in the course of the first six films, but "the Deathly Hallows" is a grand display of his abilities. In the course of the film, Radcliffe's Potter runs a gambit of emotions from romantic nervousness to lonely solitude to fuming rage, and never once does he seem insincere or unconvincing. Early in the film Harry is shown walking through his aunt and uncle's recently abandoned house and looking into the cupboard under the stairs. No flashbacks are shown, no words are said, but Radcliffe's execution of the moment leaves the viewer in no doubt of what Harry is thinking and remembering. Radcliffe has been criticized for lacking a wide range of facial expressions and inability to deliver his more passionate lines. This stems from simply a difference in style rather than a lack of talent.  

The supporting cast of The Deathly Hallows has a small but powerful role. The movie follows Harry, Ron, and Hermione almost exclusively with very little interaction with others. However, each supporting cast member gives their few moments of screen time devoted treatment, and the result is memorably effective. Scene-stealer Helena Bonham-Carter has a somewhat reduced role this time around, yet her menace is absolutely chilling in her brief moments. Reprising the role of Lucius Malfoy is the always pristine Jason Isaacs, who is a welcome return to the series after an absence from The Half-Blood Prince. His screen time is brief, his lines are few, but his moments perfectly communicate his disgraced state. Furthermore there is never enough of Alan Rickman's unforgettable Severus Snape, but his short (almost silent) scene at the opening of the film will keep the non-readers wondering about his motives and intentions. 

If The Half-Blood Prince felt like a long buildup to a grand finale, the Deathly Hallows Part One is a continuation of that buildup, and only the start of the grand finale. As is the case with the other "Harry Potter" movies, "the Deathly Hallows" is one of a series, not a stand-alone. It is unique in its style, theme, and tone, but remains faithful to the spirit of the first six movies while avoiding redundancy. It is successful as the beginning of the end, a deeply contemplative character movie, and a clutching drama. Fantasy movies of this caliber are rare and difficult to come by, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One not only satisfies, but excels on all levels except one; that we now have to wait for Part Two.

(In writing this review, I deliberately suspended my knowledge of the book or commenting on its comparison to the written material. Perhaps at a later time another piece will be published discussing the differences. But for the purposes of commenting on the movie alone, this review does not take into account the departures from the book, nor do these considerations affect its rating or quality as a movie. "You should never judge a movie by its book" -- Roger Ebert)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Oscar Review: You Can't Take it With You (1938)


"As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends. "
The more I am acquainted with the work of Frank Capra, the more I appreciate how his movies can so sharply throw morals in the face of the audience without it being the least bit sugared down, and yet still be so thoroughly enjoyable. In the Academy Award winner for Best Picture of 1938, Frank Capra delivers yet another delightful and heartfelt story of love, family, and the cost of success.

At first glance, You Can’t Take it With You appears to be an unlikely choice for Best Picture when weighed against the other contenders of 1938. The romantic adventure The Adventures of Robin Hood was also nominated in the Best Picture category, boasting not only stunning color, but grand swordfights, medieval costumes, and splendid sequences of swashbuckling entertainment in every setting from the forest to the castle. Robin Hood won in the categories of Best Art Direction and Best Music, both of which were well-earned. Also in the category of Best Picture was the French masterpiece The Grand Illusiondetailing the lives of a few prisoners of war from the moment of their capture through their liberation by escape. The Grand Illusion was the first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, and is hailed by director Woody Allen as the finest picture ever made.

The social and political commentary of The Grand Illusion is possibly the most profound ever to be depicted onscreen. The Adventures of Robin Hood became a founding film of the epic adventure genre. Why then did You Can't Take it With You take home the Oscar that year? The reasons are far deeper than the fact that Robin Hood lacked depth and The Grand Illusion lacked English. You Can't Take it With You resonates on a level that is deeply close to home and emotionally accessible to the average viewer.

The social class divide is not a culture often associated with the United States, but You Can’t Take it With You plainly points out the social divide between the wealthy and successful versus the working middle class. When Alice and Tony find love in each other, Alice is harshly spurned by Tony's rich and uppity family when they tell her "If you had any sense young woman, you'd stay where you belong and stop being ambitious." In many examples of European and British literature, instances can be found in which love was hindered by the social divide and individuals being confined to the class into which they were born. A knighted shopkeeper is still a peasant, and a bankrupt lord is still a noble.

The United States celebrated that all people had the opportunity to advance, regardless of their ancestry. You Can't Take it With You highlights the American social classes, which were purely based on money rather than heritage. But in any social divide, there are always the pioneers and the traditionalists. Alice Sycamore is the pioneer who is not a gold-digger, but she feels she has every right to be in love with Tony, regardless of the difference in their financial circumstances. Tony's family the Kirbys are the traditionalists that thrive upon progress, but only to the degree that it increases their fortune and keeps the lower classes where they belong.

In the course of the story, Alice and Tony are both forced to recognize the great chasm between their two families, and even uproarious circumstances cannot bond the two sides together. Alice recognizes this obstacle earlier than her fiancé Tony, who refuses to see the disastrous collision course that they have set their families on. The title You Can't Take it With You is taken from a speech from the elder Grandpa Vanderhof to the rich and stuffy Mr. Kirby. Mr. Kirby is a symbol of the tireless pursuit of the American Dream. Alice's grandfather embodies a man who may never have gotten everything he wanted, but certainly attained what he needed. Kirby sees success as an acquirement of money and power. Grandpa Vanderhof believes success to be related to family and friends. 
"What makes you think you're such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you're a dull-witted fool, Mr. Kirby. And a poor one at that. You're poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I'll guarantee at least they've got some friends. While you with your jungle and your long claws, as you call 'em, you'll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend. You may be a high mogul to yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you're a failure - failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father. When your time comes, I doubt if a single tear will be shed over you. The world will probably cry, 'Good riddance.' That's a nice prospect, Mr. Kirby. I hope you'll enjoy it. I hope you'll get some comfort out of all this coin you've been sweating over then!"

Thankfully, as is the case with most Frank Capra films, after significant trouble and heartbreak, things eventually turn out. As is also the case with many popular Frank Capra films (It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life), there is just enough tribulation to make one wonder if things really will end happily, and then just when all seems lost, someone bends, and the entire situation changes. By the film's end, a tender moment between old Grandpa Vanderhof and a very humbled Mr. Kirby bridges the great divide, leaving the cast and the invested viewer jubilantly singing together with a feeling of hope for the future. 

What starts as a comedy transforms into a heavy drama and ends with a warm absolution. Delightful, thought-provoking, and heart-warming, You Can't Take it With You resounds just as clearly now as it did in 1938, boldly stating that the American Dream is more than making money and gaining power. In the words of Grandpa Vanderhof, "As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends." 

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Review and Analysis of Inception

     Inception is the movie that I have been waiting for. It has been years since a movie managed to create a storyline truly original and so completely unique that it cannot be legitimately compared to anything else previously made. It is the sleeper hit that everyone will be talking about, debating, and nerds of a specific variety will dissect, honing in on the smallest details. Inception is the movie that every filmmaker on the planet is wishing they had thought of, because it can never be imitated, sequeled, or duplicated. While I fully expectInception to be snubbed by the Academy Awards, this is what true Best Pictures are made of.


     From the very first minute of this unsurpassed cinematic experience,Inception declares that it is not a typical summer movie thrown together for the enjoyment of the temporarily unschooled mob. Rather, it is a deeply contemplative movie that walks a steady line between action and drama, and is not for the simple-minded or concrete thinker. In fact, do society a favor and do not see this movie if you needed The Matrix explained to you. Although The Matrix and Inception are not comparable, they both deal in the metaphysical realm of dreaming. If the somewhat elementary complexities ofThe Matrix confused you at all, then there is no hope whatsoever that you will emerge from Inception without your brain dripping out of your nose. Without giving away too much, Inception presents a final product that is open to interpretation and debate, which is bound to frustrate the more concrete thinkers, and infuriate the abstract thinkers who have to listen to them.

     Inception succeeds as a visually sumptuous indulgence combining physical impossibilities with paradoxical imagery evocative of certain M.C. Escher pieces, poetically wielded in an ingenious and fully engaging construction. In an age where CGI effects are standard, a claim such as “never before seen special effects” is a promise rarely fulfilled. And yet, I felt my mouth fall open during Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s gravity-shifting hall fight. Personally, this particular sequence and the subsequent series of zero gravity scenes were alone worth the theater admission price. Gravity shifting and zero gravity have been done before, but Inception masters the technique so seamlessly that it was only after I exited the movie that I remembered that I know how the effect is achieved. Such is the magic of this illustrious film that I could be dazzled by tricks to which I already knew the secret method.


     The special effects and computer-generated imagery tastefully enhance the surreal dreamscape, while still keeping the ambiance of the dream feeling every bit as warm or threatening as the waking world. For example, there is a moment that is given away in the trailer where Ellen Paige’s character Ariadne is walking through Paris, bridges and walkways materializing in front of her as she walks. As she admires the dream world, the far side of the city rises up and folds over on itself, leaving cars and pedestrians to move around upside down over the character’s head. This extraordinary sequence pays a beautiful homage to the surreal, bizarre composition of dreams, while still portraying this place in the subconscious as dangerous and unpredictable-- such as when amidst Ariadne’s physics-bending trials, she is viciously attacked by an unprovoked mob of subconscious projections.


     Furthermore, Inception walks a fine line of honoring the common composition of dreams without becoming Wonderland-esque. The film points out that a person can never remember the beginning of a dream, therefore each time the characters enter this abstruse realm the audience is never shown how the characters enter or where they appear. Unlike The Matrixwhere characters entered and exited the induced state via a telephone,Inception simply cuts from one scene to the next and the characters are in the midst of a functioning world without the use of a secret door or rendezvous point. This lack of defined transition will become a crucial point in the last few minutes before the credits roll. Elsewhere, a character morphs faces multiple times, topography is altered, and time has almost no meaning. And similar to real-life, outer forces affect the environment of the dream.

SPOILERS FOLLOW, SKIP AHEAD

     Flawless special effects may enhance the dream ambiance, but they never upstage the delicate and intricately woven story. Inception develops characters while on the move, taking only carefully chosen moments to focus solely on characters and ensuring that each character contribution is relevant to the greater story. Exposition is given almost entirely via flashback, and while these moments are seemingly significant to the character but not the greater story, ultimately everything has a purpose.

     At the heart of the film is Dom Cobb, played solidly and emotionally by Leonardo diCaprio. Marion Cottilard portrays the idealized ghost wife with effortless sensuality and mystery, simultaneously conveying warmth and vulnerability with a general air of instability and danger. Inception’s emotional center is embodied in Cobb, who leads the group of dream raiders in their dubious business of stealing ideas from the recesses of one’s mind. The film’s emotional conflict is incarnated in Mal, Cobb’s deceased wife and the physical representation of his remorse. He is tortured by the guilt surrounding the loss of his wife and frequently enters an induced dream stage so that he can be with her through his memories. His psychological turmoil gradually evolves into a battle that threatens not only himself but also everyone that Cobb works with.

     On a psychological level, Cobb’s personal struggle could be interpreted as a cautionary tale on the destructive power of suppressed guilt and unresolved conflict. While his colleagues are aware of his inner chaos, Cobb deliberately avoids disclosing the details, therefore severing any chance of help from the real world, preferring to continue “visiting” his creation of Mal in his mind. Cobb’s inability to control his own guilt and anguish translates in the dream stages as an inability to control Mal, who turns up several times to sabotage the group’s mission, wounding several of Cobb’s group members along the way.


     Arguably, Cobb is a master escapist. Although he claims that due to the overuse of dream invasion he is unable to dream on his own anymore, Cobb’s true reasons for revisiting the same memories again and again through his dreams are (thankfully) more legitimate than simply a desire to dream. In the real world Cobb feels trapped by his circumstances and unable to change what is: his wife is dead and his children have been legally removed from his care. Unable to deal with the guilt of having mentally manipulated his own wife, Cobb revisits her memory in his dreams repeatedly in an attempt to rewrite the moments in which he made mistakes. He goes back to the night she died and he revisits the day that he last saw his children, hoping each time that he can change the moment. Although Cobb learns that the outcome of his dreams cannot be altered any more than reality can, it does not stop his futile efforts. Despite the plea of his father-in-law to “come back to reality,” Cobb is addicted to the unreal world that he believes is the means to the end of being reunited with his children.

     On a minor side note, it is significant that one of the main supporting characters is named Ariadne. Ariadne, played by Ellen Page, is the young university student pulled into the schemes of Dom Cobb and his crew. In Greek mythology, Ariadne gave Theseus a sword and a ball of red yarn that he might find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. While the labyrinthine themes of Inception are undeniable, the character of Ariadne in the film is especially important because she is not only the architect of the dreams that the rest of the team must navigate through, but she is the only one that learns the complete truth about Cobb’s past and the demise of his beloved Mal. Towards the end of their quest at a pivotal moment, Ariadne leaves Cobb with parting words that encourage him to finish his quest and then leave the labyrinth. Whether or not he ever does is a different matter.

     The final image of Inception somehow bursts a puzzle into a thousand pieces while simultaneously tying together seemingly insignificant details from earlier in the film. In the final stirring moment, I found myself backtracking through multiple sequences to make sense of the end. Earlier in this piece I mentioned the lack of transition between scenes and realms of consciousness. Because of this cunning device, it is impossible to track how far back the illusion began and where or if it ends. The speculation regarding Cobb’s state at the end of the movie is endless. In a way, Christopher Nolan performs an inception of his own on the minds of the audience. In the course of the film, it is revealed that Mal committed suicide, convinced that she was still in a dream and that her death would bring her out of it. This tragic act was rooted in Cobb planting the idea in her mind by making a very slight, very subtle, but hugely significant change in the world that they were trapped in. Mal had to believe that her realization that they were in fact trapped in a dream within a dream etcetera was her own recognition. Therefore, Cobb makes a slight alteration that causes her to question the reality of their circumstance. Similarly, Nolan in the final moments of the film gives the audience just enough of a nudge to question whether or not we believe what we have seen, but not enough to explicitly suggest a distinct answer (if indeed there is an answer). Because of the ambiguity of the final image, individuals will draw their own conclusions. It wobbled therefore it fell. It was still spinning therefore the illusion has not broken.


     To break it down, I will here make a reference that is bound to murder my credibility. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a hologram of Professor Moriarty from a series of Sherlock Holmes simulations becomes self-aware and demands that crew members assist him in finding a way to leave the holodeck (a place where simulations and holograms can be created to suit the user’s purposes). At some point in the episode Data and Commander LaForge realize that they themselves are still in the holodeck, not in Engineering as they thought. Eventually they create a simulation within the simulation to trick Professor Moriarty into believing that he has successfully left the Enterprise. By the end of Inception, Cobb is either reunited with his children, or blindly living in a dream within a dream within a dream and so on up to five levels deep, as unaware as Professor Moriarty because his subconscious expands the world as he moves in it. As previously stated, the speculation is endless regarding the baffling ending, so here I will let it rest and leave it to some face to face discussion, lest this note become a novel. I will simply say that there is sufficient support for both main views on the interpretation of the ending.

     Arthur remarks that Cobb consistently breaks his own rules—a fact that further erodes the degrees of certainty. One example is that Arthur instructs Ariadne not to let anyone touch her totem, as allowing anyone else to know the secret of the object would compromise the integrity of its purpose. Cobb’s totem, a small top, changes hands several times throughout the film—in fact we are never told what Cobb’s totem was because originally the top belonged to Mal. Furthermore, he clearly explains its secret and function to Ariadne. Earlier on when Cobb is walking Ariadne through a dream workshop, he strongly emphasizes that drawing on memory to create these artificial worlds is an express route to losing the ability to discern between what is real and what is imagined. Cobb defies this rule on a normal basis. Combined with Cobb’s careless treatment of his totem, Cobb essentially sets himself up to lose the ability to distinguish between the waking world and the dream worlds.

OKAY, SPOILERS ENDED. YOU MAY SAFELY RESUME READING.

     On a more technical level, Inception is a triumph in not only the exhaustively discussed special effects and excellent writing, but also in fluid cinematography, precision sound editing, glorious music, and inspired casting. Hans Zimmer emerges victorious once again with a perfect score that captures the attention of the listener, but charmingly blends into the moment. Zimmer knows the difference between music that magnifies emotion and music that creates it, and Zimmer is a master of the latter. As regards sound editing, especially in the high-intensity moments, the meticulousness of each sound effect is employed with such perfect sharpness that by the sound effects alone the rattle of the train tracks, the pounding of the rain, and the shattering of glass are stunningly tangible.

     While Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Dom Cobb is the center of the story, he is matched by the solid and convincing performances from the supporting cast. Michael Caine’s role for example lasts no more than five minutes total, but his character is a refreshing anchor of reason and peacefulness in the world of confusion that he lives in. Ken Wattanabe as Saito the ambitious billionaire demands respect as a man of power with an appropriately commanding presence. As the originator of the proposal to plant an idea in the mind of his greatest rival that will dissolve the other’s empire, Saito is a fiercely motivated leader driven by progress, but inexplicably likable somehow. Saito’s motives are understandable enough—his rival Robert Fischer is one step short of total energy dominance and Saito seeks to destroy this monopoly. However, the ethics of invading the mind and stealing or planting a thought are highly questionable. Cobb points out that an idea in its simplest form begins minute and grows into something that could redefine a person in every way. It stands to reason then that the nonconsensual infiltration of the mind for these purposes is a cruel violation of the deepest kind—yet another point of touchy debate that could evolve into several pages.

     Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur seemed an unlikely choice at first glance, but he carries off his role with style and charm, never overshadowed by the other supporting cast members. Arthur has the most memorable action scenes of the movie, and despite his supporting character status, he avoids sidekick character clichés and skillfully holds his own as an individual character, frequently complimented by the wisecracking Eames. Cillian Murphy’s classy but sensitive turn as heir to an empire Robert Fischer is not necessarily a stirring performance, but it successfully captures in very few moments the complicated nature of his life as the son of an unfeeling and tyrannical father. Because Fischer is the subject (victim?) of the inception, it is vital to understand the nature of his relationship with his father to comprehend how the generated notion can successfully take root. Inception skillfully delivers this explanation in simple but meaningful snippets without slowing down the momentum of the story. The most memorable supporting character is undoubtedly Tom Hardy, whose lively wit and sarcasm is absolutely scene-stealing. Tom Hardy is less recognizable as a celebrity than some of Inception's famous names, and yet he manages to upstage his Academy Award nominated/winning co-stars with his timely comic relief and casual treatment of the grand heist.

     The genius of Inception is that the story is unraveled so elegantly and given such intricate detail that only in the last five minutes of the movie did I realize that I had been carefully led and then abandoned in the heart of a perplexing riddle. Up until that point, although there were times when I had to consciously stop and recount the preceding steps, I was confident that I had navigated the labyrinthine turns tolerably well. But just before the credits rolled and I was left with a puzzling final image, I realized that the multidimensional maze in which I had been so thoroughly engaged for the last two hours had changed shape behind me, and I no longer knew my way out.

Review: Salt

Angelina Jolie is more likely to play James Bond than to be a Bond girl. The part of Evelyn Salt was originally written for a male lead, with Tom Cruise attached. When he dropped out, Angelina took the reigns. Although Salt is unlikely to be hailed as a memorable release of the summer season in the shadow of Iron Man 2 and Inception, this movie still deserves credit on a few levels.

One of the most irritating aspects of modern advertising is a trailer that gives away too much. An example of this would be Terminator: Salvation in which the movie’s only twist (being that Marcus Wright is in fact non-human) is shown in the trailer. Admittedly it doesn’t take a brain to figure it out early on, but it still might have been interesting to not know that going in. Thanks to gaffes like this, I thought I had a fairly good idea about what to expect going into Salt; a faithful CIA agent is named as a Russian sleeper spy and spends the rest of the movie proving her loyalty to the Star-Spangled Banner. Thankfully, someone was clever enough not to reveal everything in the trailer, and as a result, there were a few unexpected twists that kept the story rolling. Not that the story isn’t full of plot holes and very unclear character developments, but Salt clearly operates under the assumption that the major plot points and frequent action scenes will sufficiently carry the story. For the most part they do, but only to the degree that one is willing to focus on them. Allover that isn't too hard, considering the fact that every other scene is action, and the non-action scenes make it a point of highlighting the major plot points to distract from the smaller faulty ones.

Salt plays with action clichés, but does them so well that it’s somehow less noticeable. By this point in time chase scenes have little charm left for me, but I appreciate that when Evelyn jumps off a bridge onto a moving vehicle, she doesn't ride the roof while firing a weapon at assailants firmly planted on solid ground—she hangs on like any sane individual would. Despite the fact that there is never any doubt that agent Salt will escape every time, the chases are at least entertaining, albeit predictable. And instead of slinking in and out of risky situations like Mrs. Smith, she gets very bloodied up in this film, and unlike some of her other action roles, she does make jumping from one moving vehicle to the next look a little hard and even slightly painful. Overall the movie turns in somewhat original stunt work and a few forgotten action gimmicks. Furthermore, the filmmakers get praise for finding a way to make the Russians the bad guys just like in the good old days.

The action movie genre doesn't necessarily require good acting, so when it is present that can be counted as a bonus. The bonuses here are Angelina Jolie and Liev Schreiber.
Angelina Jolie turns in a somewhat less-than-cliché performance that is convincing as a trained rogue spy, but never betrays her womanhood. Although she is an able fighter and a conveniently excellent marksman and Olympic athlete, she loves her husband and her dog. She is a fine looking woman but I appreciate that the camera never celebrates her notorious beauty or really even takes advantage of it. The only time we see much of her fit form is in the beginning of the film when she appears in her underwear. But since she is being tortured at the time, one is less concerned with her state of dress, and more concerned with the rubber hose jammed down her throat feeding gasoline into her lungs. The always-underrated Liev Schreiber gives Salt a character to anchor the other side of the story. Evelyn is the fugitive; Schreiber’s character is her former CIA coworker attempting to understand while also trying to catch her. And as Liev Schreiber characters usually do, he has a few surprises up his sleeve.

In spite of Salt’s flaws, it wins on the level that it is 100% entertainment. Of course the situation in which Evelyn finds herself is so preposterously huge that it could launch World War III. Naturally she has a thorough knowledge of everything she could possibly need including how to extract venom from a spider. Thankfully when she takes on Liev Schreiber’s character in hand-to-hand combat she does not last long. I saw that man in Wolverine and I wouldn't have accepted the idea that Miss Jolie could beat a man that Hugh Jackman could not, but I digress. Allover, Salt is a great popcorn flick that should only be taken as seriously as it takes itself—very moderately.



Oscar Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

     In the earlier years of Hollywood when genres were just taking shape, categories such as the romantic comedy and screwball comedy had not yet earned the stereotype of saccharine love stories, overdone plot lines, or ridiculous circumstances that throw unlikely pairs together. It Happened One Night possesses all these elements, but in 1934 it was original, and despite countless knock-offs, this founding screwball comedy still has something of the novelty and freshness that made it an Academy Award Winner.
     
     The years of romantic comedies over the years make It Happened One Night seem predictable, but it does carry a few gimmicks all its own. When in the last act of the film everything inevitably seems to fall apart, it is surprisingly engaging in how it ever so slightly taunts viewers into doubting a happy ending. The story starts out with a spoiled rich girl with no real knowledge of the actual world, and a hard-up reporter looking for a story. They are thrown together on a train and the usual banter-ridden relationship ensues. He’s a cad and she’s stuffy; basic formula for a romantic setup. Ellie is trying to get away from her controlling father and back to the man she impulsively married. Peter is just looking for a good story to run on the front page, and falls for Ellie in spite of himself because that is what men in romantic comedies do. One of the more surprising details was discovering that Ellie’s father was not as controlling as he was deeply caring and aware of his daughter’s stubborn nature. By the film’s end he has proven himself a sensitive and wise father who knows his daughter’s mind, and truly does know best. And unlike other protagonists of the genre, Peter might make a few suggestive comments or take a few verbal jabs at Ellie, but when faced with a moral dilemma, he elects to
marry her. 

     What is especially curious about watching this former Best Picture winner is how scandalous it pretends to be, despite the era-appropriate decorum with which all the subject matter is handled. Put simply, all the interactions between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert’s characters seem to be some very labored foreplay to the finale in which the two finally consummate the relationship (not shown onscreen). Although both characters
act with propriety, their dialogue is provocative, enhancing the tension that keeps the audience asking “will they or won't they?” Had It Happened One Night been made in the present day, the concern would be that every night the couple spends together would end in a tryst. The title seems to hint at some sort of affair, but ironically, nothing happened one night. In this plucky comedy, the couple spends a few nights together in the same
room with a sheet hanging over a suspended rope to separate them— a curtain that Clark Gable’s character Peter calls “the walls of Jericho.” Peter
teases that he has no trumpet in the manner of the Israelites that would fell the great wall. As the story goes on that barrier seems thinner and thinner until in the final scene the characters are implied standing on either side of it waiting for the word that Ellie’s marriage has been annulled, making Ellie and Peter’s elopement legal. The innkeeper brings Peter a trumpet, and Ellie’s father receives a telegram reading “What's holding up the annulment, you slowpoke? The walls of Jericho are a-toppling!” Her father’s classic response “'Let 'em topple” precedes the final scene in which we see nothing more than the curtain falling. Nothing more needs to be seen; it's as sexy as 1934 can get.