Friday, 26 June 2015

Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Life is Just a Dream Within a Dream Within a Dream

Inception was a thing that happened, hey? Remember when the whole "dream within a dream within a dream" thing was sorta new? Because it was at some point. New, that is. But now Inception has become so part of the popular conscious and incorporated into the pop lexicon that if something is meta or a thing within a thing, people call it 'inception'.

This is despite the fact that's not even what inception means, in the movie or otherwise but since the movie popularised that sort of meta Russian dollness on a scale never really seen before, it's become the shorthand for it.

"Wait, what? But inception means to plant an idea. It doesn't have anything to do with a dream within a dream within a dream. How does that even happen?"

There's also been a lot of debate about whether or not Leonardo Dicaprio is awake at the end of the film because the internet really doesn't like an open ambiguous ending. No really, there are tonnes of theories and arguments about whether he is awake or not in the final scene of the movie. All revolving around his totem since we don't see it stop spinning.

For those who mostly remember Inception as that movie where Jack from Titanic teamed up with Juno and Mad Max to plant an idea in the Scarecrow's dreams, a totem is an object which is unique to the dreamer and is used to determine whether they are in a dream or not.

Only the dreamer knows the weight and feel of their totem and no one else can touch their totem. Now  Cobb Dicaprio's totem is a spinning top that doesn't stop spinning when he spins it in a dream. However, in the final scene [Spoilers for those who don't know somehow] Cobb spins his totem but runs off to his kids before he sees if it stops spinning and the film ends without showing if the totem stopped spinning.

The totem in question. Seen here in the unforgivable act of still spinning.

Now some people, including director Christopher Nolan, have suggested that it doesn't matter whether he was dreaming or not since it is left ambiguous on purpose to highlight the fragility of reality. With all due respect to the director of the film, while that is a valid point and one the movie makes throughout, he goes a step further by suggesting that Cobb doesn't care if he is dreaming...

Sorry but that is ridiculous. The whole movie is about him caring whether things are real or not. If he didn't care, why doesn't he just live with his projection-wife in Limbo? I mean, his entire motivation is about getting back to his children in the real life. While it doesn't matter to the themes of the movie if it is a dream or not, it totally matters to Cobb. The crux of this argument is that based on the totem still spinning at the end but about that:
The camera cuts away just as the top starts to wobble. Which means he's awake! In the dreams, that top spins like a laser-aligned black hole. It won't stop before the universe ends or the dreamer dies, that being its exact described function. When we see it in a definite dream (you know, when he violates his wife's brain without her knowledge or consent), it spins perfectly.

The totem in question. Seen here in the unforgivable act of starting to wobble.

So he's awake at the end. Of course, there is the argument that top isn't even Cobb's totem, it is Talia al Ghul's, so it doesn't even matter if the top spins perfectly or not. since it isn't his totem. Some have pointed out that it is his wedding ring which is his actual totem since it can only be seen on his finger when he is in a dream and isn't wearing it in the real life scenes.

Also, Joseph Exposition-Levitt explicitly states to Shadowcat that no one else can touch someone else's totem when she reaches out to touch his loaded dice totem. However, we see Sato touch Cobb's top in Limbo with no problem. So, unless that is a huge continuity error, it might possibly conceivably suggest that the top isn't Cobb's totem. Just saying.

But I guess all these debates about the ending are completely warranted.

But maybe all the discussion about the ending of Inception is since at some point we decided that all of Christopher Nolan's movies have a mindfuck of an ending even when they don't. That's not uncommon for great works of art, they inspire multiple, often conflicting, interpretations. There is nothing wrong, and a lot good, with that.

The only thing is that there should be evidence in the work of art to support the interpretation and a number of the theories that were tossed about Inception often ignored or didn't consider elements of the film which contradicted the very theory being put forward.

What I'm trying to say is that Inception was an influential movie and the reason I bring this up five years after its release is because I think it's important to look back at influential movies after some time has passed to see how they hold up. Plus I rewatched it this week and needed something to write about for this post.

"That's both incredibly lazy and brilliant at the same time" - Ellen Page, probably.

And in all honesty, the movie still holds up. It looks absolutely gorgeous. Like most of Nolan's films, it is visually stunning and edited superbly. The film provokes a number of interesting philosophical thoughts about the nature of reality vs dreams and creates a rather unique heist story with some twists.

The music is fantastic and encapsulating, I mean the reason we're so sick of the Bwam sound now is because every blockbuster since has copied Inception since it sounded so new then. And the build up is utterly fantastic with a truly well constructed third act.

Now I love Christopher Nolan's films. I think he is one of the great filmmakers of our times, a true visual master and intelligent storyteller. But that doesn't mean his films are without their flaws.

"What are you trying to say?"

And Inception suffers from all the flaws that every Nolan film suffers from. Characters speak more in exposition and stating how grand or important something is than ever sounding like normal people. The emotion in the story comes from the plot or situation rather than from the characters who rarely emote or are developed enough so that we really feel anything for them.

Also, a lot of the ideas being tossed around are pseudo-academic, thinking they're more clever than they actually are. So although there is some intelligence and thought put behind those ideas, they are often presented in such a way to suggest that Nolan thinks his audience isn't that smart and wants us to tell him how clever he is.

Which is fine but I guess I wish he would have more faith in his audience and in the storytelling technique of show not tell, since Nolan is a teller. Everything is explained and detailed. We can't simply experience the visual without Ellen Page asking what that dohingy is or Third Joseph from the Sun describing what that foowhatzit is for.

He's just explained to her how she's the plot-dump.

A complaint that some people have had about that the dreams in the film don't actually feel much like dreams normal people wold have. And I don't know if that is entirely true. While it is true that the dreams do seem rather stiff or seems to stay in a single setting far longer than most dreams I've had, they do follow dream logic where things just happen and we roll with it.

However, what struck me the most about the dreams and limbo is that they built those dreamscapes and there is such a focus on architecture. Seriously, it is nearly all buildings and designs, from the sprawling city Cobb and Mal built in limbo to the Penrose staircase Gordon-Levitt shows Juno Page.

So it makes perfect sense to me that in the interview with Nolan I linked above when he says:
The only job that was ever of interest to me other than filmmaking was architecture. And I'm very interested in the similarities between the way we experience a three-dimensional space that an architect has created and the way an audience experiences a cinematic narrative that constructs a three-dimensional reality from a two-dimensional medium.

Which explains why Cobb and Mal would spend 50 limbo years building a sprawling metropolis instead of literally anything else.

Which also ties in nicely to the theory the film is actually about the process of film-making itself rather then dreams. Where it is all a metaphor for the cinematic dreams created for the big screen which stimulate our imaginations and can lead to genuine catharsis through the fantasy projected on a screen.

What I like about this theory is that films already operate on dream logic more often than we realise it. In the article, Devin Faraci points out the scene where Cobb is running from Sato's men stating that:
During the chase in Mombasa, Cobb tries to escape down an alleyway, and the two buildings between which he’s running begin closing in on him – a classic anxiety dream moment. When he finally pulls himself free he finds Ken Watanabe’s character waiting for him, against all logic. Except dream logic.
However, running into Ken Sato makes all the sense in a film. How often do characters in films find or bump into each other purely by accident in large cities or locations with thousands or millions of people? Films, perhaps more than other forms of storytelling, rely on coincidence and dream logic for plot convenience but this often makes little sense if you actually break down what happened.

"Aren't you supposed to be on the other side of the world in the vaguely Middle Eastern dungeon in the desert I left you in?
How'd you even get here? Did you teleport?"

David Wong has a great example of this type of film dream logic from Friday the 13th Part 2 where Jason Voorhees plants a decapitated head in a fridge which then spooks a girl before he kills her. It's a great scene and real shocking for the audience but how did it actually work?

Like, what are the logistics of that scene? Did Jason plant the head in the fridge and just hide, hoping the girl (well, actually her cat since that's what makes her go to the kitchen) would get hungry for a midnight snack, wait for her to open the fridge, see the head and scream before killing her?

Movies operate on logic that makes sense in the moment but once you look back and think about it, don't really make sense. Just like dream logic which is all about the immediacy of the moment but are completely nonsensical in the cold light of waking day.

It was so awesome seeing the T. Rex save the day at the end of Jurassic Park that we kinda ignored the fact she just appeared without alerting anyone despite the fact her every step before this scene caused ripples in water.

I guess the point of that was to highlight just how expertly the dream logic of Inception mirrors not only the logic in dreams but also the logic in films. That's really meta if you think about it. Like logic within logic within logic. Logicpetion.

And on that high note, I'll conclude by saying that Inception is still a great film with all the tropes of Nolan film, good and bad. Characters talking unlike people have ever talked in real life, check. Raising thought-provoking ideas not commonly seen in mainstream films in a slightly condescending manner, check. Gorgeous visuals and stunning special effects with a beautiful Hans Zimmer score, check. The structure of the film mirroring the theme of the film, check. People over analysing the ending, check.

Essentially, it's still a dream within a dream that still worth having again and again.


Inception Wikipedia page

4 Christopher Nolan Movies No Other Director Could Have Made

5 Classic Geek Debates That Were Settled a Long Time Ago

Friday, 19 June 2015

Wickedly Frozen: The Witches Are Doing It For Themselves

Ever notice how the musical Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz and the Disney pop cultural juggernaut Frozen are kinda the same story? Well, not the exactly the same story but both hit a lot of the same narrative beats and touch on the same themes.

Because everyone knows Frozen, right? How could you not? It was absolutely everywhere at the beginning of last year, an unstoppable phenomenon which comes along once a generation. A film which resonated with the cultural zeitgeist, making its presence felt throughout the popular consciousness.

Don't forget the merchandise, oh god, the merchandise.

Perhaps part of Frozen's success can be attributed to the fact it is a tale of two sisters as the central protagonists, a rarity in Western popular storytelling. This seemed to strike a nerve by identifying a story which society wanted told but wasn't getting.

To be fair, in the light of Frozen's success, people seem to have forgotten that Lilo & Stitch was actually the first Disney movie to prominently feature two sisters as the central protagonists and have the story revolve around their relationship.

Additionally, Lilo & Stitch, while being mostly remembered for having a blue alien in it, featured a rather unique sister-sister dynamic for an animate Disney movie since this is a story about an older sister raising a younger sister after their parents die. It actually dealt with the hardships of parenthood and the frustration of being a substitute parental figure in a meaningful way which gave real gravitas to the sisters' relationship.

"Does it still count as sibling rivalry if I'm now your parental figure?"

Not trying to derail my own argument about Frozen and sisters but Lilo & Stitch is a rather overlooked movie, especially considering that at the time it also had quite the run of success, with merchandise galore, a spin-off TV show and sequel movie. Also I dislike it when people say this movie was the first to do this or say this without doing their research.

Also, Frozen wasn't the first Disney movie to make fun of love at first sight (Enchanted for one did that a lot and was kinda the main point of that movie). This is not to take away from Frozen, which is a great film, but to give credit where credit is due and deflate some of the more hyperbolic claims surrounding the film.

"Can you believe some people think we're the first Disney film to show magic?"

Another thing which played a massive part in Frozen's ridonculous commercial and critical success is its fantastic soundtrack with possibly the best set of songs in a Disney movie since the peak of the Disney Renaissance in the 1990s.

Probably even more critical to that success is that these are definitely the most memorable batch of songs Disney have put out since perhaps Hercules, or maybe even Lion King. While Tangled had some decent songs, none of them really resonated the same way those from Frozen did.

I'm talking about songs like "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?", "For the First Time in Forever", and of course, the colossal mega supernova hit, "Let It Go", which spawned more covers and drove more parents insane than was previously thought statistically possible.

"Awww... you're trying to get this song out of your head. That's adorable"

And "Let It Go" really is the centre piece to Frozen, the song which transformed the film and really captured the zeitgeist leading to the film's massive success. Prior to "Let It Go', Elsa was supposed to be the villain of the film but the song was so uplifting and empowering that it couldn't be a villain song.

But instead of ditching the song, they changed the script to accommodate it, rewriting Elsa's character from a literal ice queen to a young woman struggling to gain her own agency and self-acceptance due to her emotional repressed state from the (near abusive) conditioning from her parents to hide her feelings.

She is legit afraid of her wondrous and miraculous ice powers because of the emotional repression her parents enforced on her.

Before I get into the similarities between Frozen and Wicked, I'd like to talk about Prince Hans for a bit. Since there is a real issue with Hans' completely out of fuckwhere betrayal in the final third of the film when he is revealed to be the villain.

Since there is no indication in the first two acts of the film that Hans is anything less than a nice guy, perhaps not the guy who Anna will get with in the end but definitely not sinister. And then BAM! in the final act, he's bad and apparently had an evil ulterior motive to gain the throne the whole time.

Now, I could completely accept the sudden bad guy reveal for Hans if it wasn't for one moment in the very first scene he's in. If the last 3 second of this scene were cut, while the reveal would still have been a bit out of nowhere, I could have accepted it. But it wasn't and I can't.

This moment. This one right here.

The moment is after Hans and Anna meet, Hans falls into the harbour with the boat capsizing and then lifts it to look at Anna dashing off to the palace and smiles. Who is he smiling for? If he was supposed to be the villain from the beginning of the story, he would have smiled for Anna to keep up the pretense, but she has already run off, so she can't see the smile.

So the smile is solely for himself, which means it is really for the audience. However, it isn't a smirk to indicate something sinister or that he isn't being completely honest. It is a genuine and warm smile. A smile someone would make when they've just seen someone or something they like.

Therefore, this is either a storytelling trick to emotionally mislead the audience by a false cue, or it was a hangover from an earlier draft of the film before Hans was the villain. Either way, it is manipulative storytelling and ruins the ultimate 'bad guy Hans' reveal. Since the sincerity of that smile undercuts the revelation he was supposed to be always bad since he would never have smiled like that in that situation if he was evil.

Yes, that's more like it, but could you be more overtly evil?

Back to "Let It Go". The song completely changed the nature of the story since it gave Elsa's character a completely different character arc than originally conceived leading to a focus on the relationship between two sisters. As Frozen's Art Director, Michael Giaimo, said in an interview:
It changed her into someone that was being driven by fear, ruled by fear and Anna was ruled by her own love of other people and her own drive and then that gave us the foundation so much, that song changed so much that Jennifer Lee (Screenplay by) had to go back and rewrite the first act and then that rippled through the entire movie. So that was when we really found the movie and who these characters were.

The song also makes the most striking or overt link to Wicked since it acts as a big self-empowering YOLO song. A big diva belter which marks the end of Act 1 and sets up the rest of the story, much like Wicked's own "Defying Gravity".

No strings, she's levitating solely on that last high note.

Wicked is based on Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and is obviously based in the world of Oz from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz which itself based on the novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Barum.

As an alternative retelling of The Wizard of Oz, Wicked explores the relationship between the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, and the Good Witch formerly known as Galinda, Glinda, through school, revolution, and rivalry over the same love interest. So like Frozen (or possibly inspiring Frozen), it focuses on the relationship between two women, although they aren't sisters but friends in this case.

Both also feature a young woman who is different and has a talent she is shamed into hiding but then learns to accept and strikes out on her own, gaining her own agency. Subsequently, there is a lot of lyrical crossover between "Let It Go" and "Defying Gravity".

No? Really?

For example, here are a couple of lines from one of the songs:
I'm through accepting limits
'Cause someone says they're so
Some things I cannot change
But till I try, I'll never know!
And here are some lines from the other song:
It's time to see what I can do,
To test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
I'm free!
Can you even tell which lines came from "Let It Go" and which came from "Defying Gravity"? Seriously, can you? I doubt it, at least not at first glance. 

For the record, the first couple of lines are from "Defying Gravity" but without looking them up, if I told you it was the other way around, would anyone know it was wrong?

"You would never know!"

Another thing that cements the whole Frozen is a Scandinavianish version of the self-empowered Wicked witch story is the fact that both Elphaba and Elsa are played by Idina Menzel. Providing her impressive voice to both characters creates an aesthetic link between the characters and their respective Fuck It, I'm Me and I'm Free songs.

I guess I just noticed that these two stories and songs had a lot in common despite not being stories that are told in Western culture all that often. Also, after watching both Frozen and then Wicked, it really seemed like Elphaba is a proto-Elsa, inspiring much of the narrative beats in her character arc.

Plus, I wanted to talk about princesses, queens, sisterly relationships, and witches this week, so this was a nice in and I got to listen to a couple of great soundtracks during the process, so I'm good. Maybe I'll go back to superheroes or gush about Mad Max: Fury Road next week. 

Friday, 5 June 2015

True Mouse Detective

Released in 1986, The Great Mouse Detective was the last animated Disney movie released before the Disney Renaissance in the 1990s which started with The Little Mermaid.

Due to its critical and commercial success, The Great Mouse Detective, which tells the tale of a mouse detective, Basil of Baker Street, was actually the movie that convince Disney studios not to scrap their feature length animation division leading to that Renaissance in the first place.

All this Disney magic because of the success of an anthropomorphic mouse film.

Because it is an anthropomorphic mouse film, a genre which was surprisingly common in the 1980s and early 1990s with films like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and its sequel, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, as well as The Rescuers and its sequel, The Rescuers Down Under.

Now, that may only be six anthropomorphic mouse films (including The Great Mouse Detective) spread over a decade but that seems to be at least four more anthropomorphic mouse movies than I would have thought necessary to inflict on audiences within 10 years.

"Why would you do such a thing?"

Sometimes there would even be two anthropomorphic mouse movies released within six months of each other and essentially compete with each in the box office (or least within the public consciousness since they come out so close to each other) like An American Tail and The Great Mouse Detective. This is also a tradition which has continued more recently with Ratatouille and The Tale of Despereaux in 2007/2008.

Apparently, the film industry believes there is such a great demand for films starring talking mice wearing human clothes that it sometimes decides to push out competing talking mice movies in order to satisfied the insatiable desire to see films with mice in clothes talking.

Seen as the root cause of the public's unceasing need for anthropomorphic mice in film.

Now, I actually have nothing against movies staring anthropomorphic mice (The Rescuers was my favourite movie as a young child with some of my first words being "it's stuck tight") but making a movie star talking mice has to have some point rather than simply having talking mice for the sake of having talking mice.

There should be some thematic or narrative reason for having them be mice, like with The Rescuers or The Secret of NIMH where the fact the protagonists are mice is used as a means of emphasizing the odds they face or the danger they face.

This is because there is such a stark contrast between how small and relatively helpless the mice are compared to the epic adventure they find themselves in, where the dramatic tension comes from that contrast and can be used to highlight the theme that you can overcome any obstacle even if you seem small in contrast to the problem.

The only time when an obstacle could be an owlstacle (I'm so very sorry).

This is why I think a movie like Cars (aside from being a feature length Hot Rods commercial) just doesn't work as a movie. Like with films with talking mice, there needs to be some point for everyone to be cars, something about the story that needed the narrative device of being set in a world of anthropomorphic cars.

For example, the Toy Story movies use toys as the characters to emphasise the film's themes like fears of abandonment and the desire to want to be considered useful and loved. Making the characters toys makes sense since it's the perfect way to get across the type of story they're trying to tell, it adds an extra element that enhances the narrative.

Right in the feels.

But the story in Cars (of a city hot rod being stuck in a small town but growing fond of the small town folk and their rustic ways in lieu of his city lifestyle) could have been told with anything as the characters, although humans make the most sense.

It's a story that has been told a hundred times with always the same narrative beats and outcome [Spoilers: The city hot rod stays in the small town and renounces his city ways]. There's nothing about this type of story which suggests telling it with cars will enhance the narrative in any way.

There is literally no reason for them to be cars aside from making the occasional car pun and while I admit making car puns is very important it shouldn't be at the expense of good storytelling.

Why are they cars? Why even? Why?! 

With that all out of the way, let's focus on The Great Mouse Detective. Based on rather loosely on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Basil actually lives at 221 and 1/2 Baker Street underneath Sherlock Holmes' apartment. Therefore, rather than being Sherlock Holmes as a mouse, he is a mouse who mimics Sherlock Holmes' character and profession (although it's not clear if that is because he purposely copied Sherlock or if it was just the screenwriters trying to be clever).

And actually like Cars, there is very little to no reason that this story needed to be told with anthropomorphic animals/objects. I understand there is a children's book series, Basil of Baker Street, which the movie is based on but it seems like those are just retellings or reimaginings of Sherlock Holmes' tales with mice just because.

They don't often make much use of the juxtaposition between the size of the human world and the mouse world aside from a thrilling climax in the clocktower Big Ben and this is still a detective story with no twists that make it particularly mousy.

"Ah, yes my dear Dawson. Nothing mousy here at all."

However, despite all that, The Great Mouse Detective is such an enjoyable and well crafted animated movie with a couple of genuinely funny moments and memorable characters that the fact it stars mice for no real reason doesn't negatively impact the film.

The story is rather straightforward detective story, even if the details of the villains plan seem a little puzzling (he wants a toymaker to create a robot version of the mouse Queen of England so he can have the robot doppelganger declare himself the ruler of all Mousedom which doesn't sound convoluted at all). Simply put, Basil has to find Olivia's father, the toymaker, who has been taken hostage by Professor Ratigan (so he can make the aforementioned robot Queen).

But the plot isn't the real draw here, although it is told well. Rather it is in how dark the movie is (it opens with a brutal abduction and features a number of murders which, although are offscreen, are shown through shadow play onscreen) and in the fierce rivalry between Basil and Ratigan.

Oh, I know you were expecting a photo of Basil and Ratigan but I forgot to mention how there's a song and dance number with this scantily clad mouse which probably cause a few future-Furries their first confused boner.

Basil is an interesting protagonist, often egotistical and wrapped up in his own genius, doing the right thing for selfish reasons or without really thinking of others although his heart is in the right place. He's energetic and vibrant. Also, you actually get the sense that he is smart rather than the film just telling you he is, it shows him thinking and deducing, working things out.

But it is Ratigan who steals the show. Voiced by Vincent Price, who gives an absolutely marvellous vocal performance, Ratigan is the dark side of Basil taken to extremes. Completely engulfed by his own ego and bloated meglomania, he is utterly flamboyant and a true villain's villain, willing to kill if his ego is bruised. Price is perfectly cast and is obviously having an absolute blast playing the character.

"I couldn't be more gloriously evil if I tried, and belive me, I've tried."

And that is what makes their rivalry so thrilling and enjoyable, the fact the characters are so interesting and perfectly cast. It truly is the centrepiece of the film and elavates it above its cutesy talking mice premise. Basil and Ratigan make such perfect foils that you can really feel the hatred between them but also the joy they take in trying to one up each other.

So, in this one instance, I'm giving a movie a pass for being an anthropomorphic mouse movie when there's no reason whatsoever for having the characters be talking mice who wear late 19th century clothing.


The Great Mouse Detective Wikipedia page

Disney Renaissance Wikipedia page

Nostalgia Critic - Disneycember The Great Mouse Detective

Vincent Price Wikipedia page