See my first thoughts on Inception here.
I don’t remember the last time I kept wanting to go back to see a film at the cinema this many times. Every ticket I buy for Inception is worth the price, though. And the box office returns, while they’re not as high as I would hope, are very encouraging. As Inception ticks closer and closer to a worldwide gross of US$400 million, it’s clear that there is a significant portion of the mainstream cinema-going audience that enjoy intelligent cinema. I highly doubt that films like Synecdoche, New York or A Serious Man will ever be mainstream. Yes, there is a place for independent cinema, but that doesn’t mean that mainstream cinema has to be patronising. In a year of shoddy remakes, poor sequels, and story-less effects-driven extravaganzas, Inception stands as an all-too-rare reminder that films don’t need to insult the intelligence of their audience to be successful. Let’s remind studios of that. Go see Inception at the cinema, and then go see it again. Take this from someone who has seen it three times and counting – it’s worth it.
[Once again, SPOILERS for Inception follow]
If you live in the United States and were old enough to read the news in the 90s, then chances are that you know who Jack Kevorkian is. For those of you who don’t, a short introduction: Dr Kevorkian is one of the world’s most vocal activists in favour of euthanasia; he practised physician-assisted suicide in Michigan during the 1990s before an escalating series of events ended in him being imprisoned for eight years. You Don’t Know Jack follows his life from the beginnings of his campaign and rise to the national stage to his eventual conviction.
Every film that dramatises a real-life story brings up questions of bias towards or against the people and issues it documents. This is particularly the case here, what with the huge controversy surrounding Dr Kevorkian’s actions. You Don’t Know Jack presents a biased view – but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a film about Dr Kevorkian’s life, and it takes a look at its subject from his perspective. The film presents the man through his public actions and his interactions with the handful of people who were a part of his personal life, and it does so in a balanced manner. The film doesn’t make judgements about the man, nor does advocate Dr Kevorkian’s views – but being a film about Dr Kevorkian, it presents the views that were so integral to his life. Is this film biased? Yes. Unfairly? Not at all.
The driving force behind You Don’t Know Jack is its performances. Al Pacino immerses himself in the role of Kevorkian completely, becoming him in the way he speaks, the way he walks, and the erratic passion he displays. Rather than merely imitating one image Kevorkian, he shows Kevorkian as a man who grows and changes over time. The low-key nature of the film, especially in its first half, allows the actors time and space to slowly embody their characters. The resulting power and force of their performances give this story’s emotional core a great authenticity.
This is a film that expresses the opinion of a man by examining his life unflinchingly and wholeheartedly. Its tone is complex and layered, as any one person’s life is. It never lets itself slip into the common biopic schtick of trying to focus solely on one emotional aspect of their subject, which inevitably shows them as caricatures, undermining the point of the whole exercise. You Don’t Know Jack is a gripping tale, and an important one. It brings with it the full emotion of one man’s personal journey, and the incredibly pertinent issue he fought for. In other words, this is essential viewing.
[SPOILERS for Inception in this post. Besides, it won’t make sense if you haven’t seen the film.]
A few minutes ago, I finished watching Inception for the second time in as many days. I’m not one for rewatching films at the cinema, but this film, like most of Christopher Nolan’s work, almost demands it of me. Inception is a film that engaged my imagination, a film whose ideas took hold in my mind, a film that dares to tell a story with no holds barred. In this dreary year for English-language cinema, Inception reminded me of why I came to love this medium of storytelling in the first place. I have no qualms in calling Inception a masterpiece. A perfect combination of spectacle and intelligence, it is bursting with imagination and layered, complex storytelling that maintains a simple core. I don’t know yet if it is my favourite Nolan film, but at the very least it is on par with Memento and The Dark Knight.
Cinema is an audio-visual experience, and has been that ever since someone came up with the idea of accompanying motion pictures with music. One of the things that modern English-language cinema tends to forget about the beauty of its medium is how the audio part of that audio-visual experience can enhance the quality of a film just as much as the visual part can. In a time of lush landscapes, intricate art design and innovative cinematography, filmmakers too often ignore the effectiveness of a good soundtrack mixed and employed well, witty dialogue dispensed with proper pacing, and the clever combination of those two things.
Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, written by Tony Burgess based on his own novel, is an excellent example of how this can be done very well. The story of the film follows morning radio talk show host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) as he begins his stint in a local radio station in the small Canadian town of Pontypool. As the day progresses in the radio station, Mazzy and his two colleagues begin to receive more and more information about strange and inexplicable happenings that are occurring in the world outside. With more and more information eeking out, they discover that people are becoming infected, but they don’t know with what or why or even how. It is a zombie/infection film of sorts, but it is so unconventional in parts that it is difficult to categorize this film. It’s a horror film by definition, but it plays out more like a psychological thriller with some darkly comedic elements. All the action of the film is set inside the radio station; creating a claustrophobic atmosphere to the film that is used brilliantly to interplay with the frustrations of the characters.
It is telling that the film was created from a script that was simultaneously made into a radio play – that is not to say that McDonald fails to exploit the visual aspect of the medium as well, however. Making a film about radio broadcasters broadcasting over the radio may seem like an odd decision, but McDonald uses the setting of the film to highlight its themes and its progression. Every scene where Mazzy broadcasts on his own is filmed slightly differently; some with very small variations and others with entirely different approaches altogether. At one point, we cut to a shot of Mazzy slowly and quietly scratching his beard as he speaks. This is something which we’ve seen him done before, but never really thought about. After that shot, we start paying more attention to his facial ticks and body language, both of which give us specific insights into Mazzy’s character – a testament to the brilliance of both the way in which the film was shot and McHattie’s performance.
Pontypool explores why we talk so much, and what it all means. Our words are more than a collection of sounds only because we make them that, and Pontypool questions whether we’ve taken the tool we created for communication to pointless extremes. What makes something really worth saying? Is that even a question worth asking? And in the end, doesn’t a lot of it boil down to nonsense? Written and executed with a wit that matches the likes of In Bruges, this film takes the aural experience to the next level. Regardless of how you interpret it, Pontypool is definitely a must-see film.
The Projectionist’s Nightmare
This is the projectionist’s nightmare:
A bird finds it’s way into the cinema,
finds the beam, flies down it,
smashes into a scene depicting a garden,
a sunset, and two people being nice to each other.
Real blood, real intestines, slither down
the likeness of a tree.
‘This is no good,’ screams the audience,
‘This is not what we came to see.’
This is a fairly simple poem, but in its nine lines it expresses a powerful idea extremely well. The essential theme of The Projectionist’s Nightmare is one that I love to explore. No matter how much we escape from life, it always threatens to come crashing straight back in front of us.
The actual content of the poem is fairly simple to understand, and while it is beautifully written, there is not much to talk about. The bird comes crashing into our escapism, bringing the horrors and gore of the real world into the dark reclusive cinema.
What piques my interest most in this poem is that the scenario presented is not the audience’s nightmare, but rather the projectionist’s nightmare. It is the audience that is shocked back into reality, but they do not anticipate or fear it beforehand. The projectionist, the person who is providing the distraction for the unsuspecting audience, is the one who cannot himself escape the dark realities of the outside world. Even in his domain, where he helps others do the very same, he is unable to take that leap of escapism. I find beauty in the fascinating darkness of that idea. Make of it what you will.
This review contains spoilers. But if you haven’t seen this … well, go watch the original series first. Then watch this.
Before we delve into this film, let me make one thing clear – I am a sucker for stories about Artificial Intelligence. I even enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s AI. The idea has always appealed to me; especially the way in which it relates to some of the most common themes of science-fiction: the quest for knowledge, playing god, and the fear of the unknown.
Star Trek – The Motion Picture stands at a curious position in the Trek chronology. The adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are clearly divded into their days in the first five-year exploratory mission (Star Trek: The Original Series) and their romps across the galaxy over ten years later (the Star Trek films). The latter part invokes images of the crew of the Enterprise in their red uniforms, breeches and all, not the admittedly laughable one-piece pyjama suits that the crew wore in The Motion Picture. The sequel to the film, Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan, entirely ignores this film in more ways than the uniform. The Motion Picture ends with Kirk and his crew off on another exploratory mission; Wrath of Khan abandons that to put Kirk in his mid-life crisis.
Although it received a lukewarm response at release and grossed massive figures at the box office, The Motion Picture was shoved into a corner by both Paramount and the fanbase. It is regarded today as one of the worst films in the Trek franchise. I went into the film knowning all of this, but I came out throughly sastisfied. That surprised even me.
Let’s get the obvious flaws out of the way first. The uniforms on this particular venture are terrible. I don’t even know what to call them – they’re a cross between a jumpsuit and pyjamas with a strange belt-like device on the waistline. And it’s all grey – that terrible drab grey of old paint on old buildings. No matter how beautiful the refitted Enterprise is, we do not need to see it for six minutes (although I must say that it looked magnificent). And it is very true that the plot of The Motion Picture owes a lot to the original series episode The Changeling. Obviously, originality was not of concern to those involved in writing the script.
While all of that is very true, the first act of this film is sheer genius. From the first glimpses of the dingy interior of the Klingon ships and the massive dust cloud surrounding V’Ger, each shot is beautiful. As we watch Spock fail to attain the kohlinahr, we see some of Leonard Nimoy’s best acting. The human disappointment and distractedness that occupy his eyes for a brief moment give way to Vulcan acceptance. The reintroduction of the other characters we know so well are equally satisfying, especially that of McCoy (with a beard!). In a sense, this whole act reinforces the nature of The Motion Picture as a kind of prologue – whether or not that was the intention of its creators.
As the Enterprise finally begins its journey, the already slow pace of the film becomes even slower. I think I will be one of the very few to defend this, but I will be defending it anyway. Imagine if you were in the Enterprise, slowing entering V’Ger, an unknown entity which threatens to destroy the Earth and will most probably destory your ship. Of course time will move slowly, excruaitingly so, as you approach what seems to be certain doom. The Motion Picture is slow for the same reason that 2001: A Space Oddyssey is slow. No, we didn’t need to go through V’Ger for five minutes before something actually happened in the plot, but a pace as snappy as that of Wrath of Khan would have destroyed this film.
The ending of The Motion Picture is, for the lack of a better word, breathtaking. While the revelation of V’Ger as a childlike artificial intelligence and later the Voyager VI probe is not the greatest twist in cinema history, it is particularly poignant in parallel to Spock’s search for answers similar to its own. As much as this is Kirk’s story, it is Spock’s story.
It could be argued that The Motion Picture is not a very Trek-ish film, and to a certain extent I would agree. The brooding, slow sequence of events that occur in the second act would never have been found in an episode of the original series. But as the film ends, and Kirk decides to go “thataway”, I felt there was nothing more Trek than that – just going out and doing it, exploring the galaxy right in front of us. Even as an unintended consequence, The Motion Picture serves as a fitting prologue to the trilogy of films that followed it (The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home) much as Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country acts as an epilogue. If we ignore Star Trek V – The Final Frontier (as we should), then this film and The Undiscovered Country act as bookends to the excellent trilogy of films inbetween them.
I understand the criticism of The Motion Picture, and I do indeed agree with most of them. It is, without a doubt, an incredibly flawed film., but I do feel that it deserves its place as the beginning of Star Trek’s adventures on the big screen.
Update: upon re-examination, while I would change nothing in the review, I would bump up the rating to 8/10, which I do believe is well deserved.
Here’s the poem:
Piano and Drums
When at break of day at a riverside
I hear the jungle drums telegraphing
the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw
like bleeding flesh, speaking of
primal youth and the beginning
I see the panther ready to pounce
the leopard snarling about to leap
and the hunters crouch with spears poised;
And my blood ripples, turns torrent,
topples the years and at once I’m
in my mother’s laps a suckling;
at once I’m walking simple
paths with no innovations,
rugged, fashioned with the naked
warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts
in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.
Then I hear a wailing piano
solo speaking of complex ways in
of far away lands
and new horizons with
coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,
crescendo. But lost in the labyrinth
of its complexities, it ends in the middle
of a phrase at a daggerpoint.
And I lost in the morning mist
of an age at a riverside keep
wandering in the mystic rhythm
of jungle drums and the concerto.
Piano and Drums is quite clearly a poem about the cultural dichotomy of traditional and Western cultures in post-colonial Africa, but the raw emotion of the poem makes it an expression of confusion that anyone tied to more than one culture (which is a lot of people in this day and age of globalisation) can relate to. Even failing that, the imagery of the poem is powerful enough to express his confusion – we can almost feel Okara’s indecision seeping through the page.
Okara’s metaphors are simple but fitting: the drums represent traditional African life, while the piano represents the Western world. What I love so much about the writing in this poem is how his reaction to each “instrument” is portrayed. Both the first stanza (drums) and the third stanza (piano) are arranged in a similar way. There are essentially three parts to each one. First, we hear the sound of the instrument. In the case of the drums, it has a “mystic rhythm” that is “urgent” and “raw”. As for the piano, it is said to be “wailing” and “a tear-furrowed concerto” is being played. We get an impression that while it is seductive, it is far more complex and multi-layered. Next, we find what the music “speaks of”. The drums speak of primal life. The piano, on the other hand, speaks of “complex ways” and of “far away lands and new horizons”. Each stanza closes with his base reaction to hearing each instrument. The drums induce memories and images of hunting in a primal lifestyle, and the simple life with natural beauty surrounding him that he can lead in that culture. The piano, while seductive, turns it to be too complicated for itself.
The expression of those ideas only works on the level it does because of the way each line of the poem flows into the other. Although it appears simplistic, exposition is handled very well here, in a way that many authors of prose could learn from. As the poem begins, the drum beats recall in him the primal nature of traditional life as a hunter-gatherer. The placing of the word “telegraphing” here is interesting due to its difference from the rest of the diction in the stanza. It conveys to the reader a subtle feeling that Okara is no longer part of the beating of the drum; it is implied to be a kind of message – although it brings out raw and fresh emotion in him, it is telegraphed, not played in all its purity.
As the hunters stand poised to take action, Okara’s memory shifts from a situation of primal aggression to memories of his childhood. He revels in remembrance of being in his “mother’s laps a suckling”. Here there are “no innovations”; paths are shaped by the pulse of life in all its simplicity and glory.
However, his love of the drumming is not strong enough to prevent his distraction. In a mere moment, his focus is on the “wailing piano / solo”. The complexity of the piano is seductive; the “far away lands” and “new horizons” present a counterpoint to the simplicity of his reminiscing of traditional life – but its complexities reach a point where it stops abruptly, lost in itself.
It might sound at this point as if Okara has already made up his mind to follow the path of the drums, but he still finds himself lost. This confused me the first time I read the poem, but on re-reads it makes perfect sense. Despite the fact that the piano seems to crumble upon itself, he is still seduced by it – its arrest at a “daggerpoint” almost adds to its layered and complex nature, which is what attracted Okara to it in the first place.
The last stanza, seemingly calmer and more restful in its rhythm than the first three, feels to me as if fueled with raw, pure emotion. He is lost, wandering aimlessly as the music of the two instruments meld around him. Confusion surrounds him and, for the moment, he succumbs to it.
I always got the feeling that this poem was the kind that would be interpreted slightly differently by each reader. I also wonder whether I love it so much only because I can relate to it to a small extent. So, go on, leave a comment. Tell me what you think.