Monday, August 30, 2010

Inception: Victory of the Banal

Look, I don't care what the reviewers say: Inception was just not that great a film. I guess after seeing the low ratings for Repo Men, a film of much greater intelligence and caliber, I shouldn't be surprised that the morons who write film reviews would be drooling all over this. After all, it had everything that they love - lots of cartoonish violence, some solid thrills, beautiful leading actors, and a turgid, pretentious and yet ultimately vacuous plotline.
Now, don't get me wrong but there were was lots of tension and many high speed thrills. With a budget this high - $160 million - you'd have to hire the most incompetent team of filmmakers on the planet not to come up with something at least impressive to look at. There were even a couple of clever ideas in the film.
But mostly it was so haphazardly orchestrated and directed and, yes, shot, that it needed all the bells and whistles (and the way over the top soundtrack) to cover up for all the emotional and plot holes within it.
Let's start with the acting and the dialogue. Until the action really ramps up and the actors stop talking except in urgent commands - "Get him to the safe!" - it is almost unbearable.
Writer/Director Nolan seems to have never heard of a contraction or he believes that actors should speak the Queen's English: "you would not want to do such a thing..." But it's worse than this, it's often unclear why the actors are saying their clunky lines. There is anger when there ought to be simple explication and there is DiCaprio's endlessly heavy droning about some pseudo science that makes no sense.
But at core the problem is that this is a heist film without any heist. In heist movies there's supposed to be some great prize as the main storyline. Could you imagine Ocean's Eleven without the stacks of cash in the basement vault of Bellagio's? Would Inside Man work if it weren't for the hidden information in the vault? What about Italian Job without the gold?
And that's just it: Inception's heist has no gold. It's no wonder that the motivation for the characters' actions is a total mystery.
Ellen Page is totally under-used in the story. In fact, after the introductory sequence where we see her ability to play the role of an architect she contributes nothing whatsoever to the "heist." She could be removed from the script and nobody would notice. All we're left with is her interest in the inner life of DiCaprio's character, for reasons that are obscure to say the least. And what of the rest of the team who aren't there for the thrill of entering the dreams of rich guys? Beats me.
Nor do we understand the motivation of Saito (Ken Watanabe), the Japanese businessman who hired DiCaprio to do the job of planting an idea in the mind of an heir to a business empire (Cillian Murphy). Does he just want to eliminate the competition, which would make him a fairly unsympathetic character, or is there some greater good in his mind, which would justify him being the palsy-walsy of DiCaprio. This is never ever made clear. And what super-powered businessman would put himself on the line to execute a dangerous job? Why does he take this risk instead of leaving it to the professionals?
So, we have a heist movie without a treasure and with no motivations for most of the major characters. What we're left with is a lot of razzle dazzle to make us forget that we don't care about what they're going after. In fact, the whole central storyline is so irrelevant that, in the end, we don't even know whether it worked and what the fall-out was from their "inception".
This leaves us with DiCaprio's subplot about wanting to get back to his kids because he's been accused of killing his wife and needing to get over the guilt surrounding her death. Not a bad B-story except that it doesn't really affect the main story - sorry, the brief intervention of a train was fun but it didn't change anything - and it isn't really much of an obstacle in the heist story when push comes to shove.
Besides acting and motivation, even the shot choices are not particularly interesting or well chosen. Often times the shots are out of focus or too close or just not particularly interesting.
There are a number of slow motion shots within the van that the characters are riding in within a dream. Almost all of these shots have a close-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, DiCaprio's sidekick, with Watanabe seated behind him. But these guys are tertiary characters by this point. Where is our lead? We don't see DiCaprio and rarely even see Ellen Page, who are now the central characters.
And, finally, not to rain on anyone's profundity parade but the thematic exploration of "what is more real: our dreams or reality?" is not particularly original in content nor in its presentation. The story never managed to rise to the level of speaking to some kind of general experience in the way that The Matrix did or, earlier, Blade Runner. Or, frankly, the much maligned Repo Men.
That film reviewers have gone ga-ga over Inception is not particularly surprising, I suppose. They also drooled over writer/director Nolan's previous offerings in the Batman franchise. And his film Memento is supposed to be a "big idea" film by a "big idea" filmmaker.
Inception, like Batman, is a product of its own massive marketing campaign: tens of millions have been spent telling us what to think of the film (it's deep, complex and visually stunning) and the reviewers play their dutiful role of parroting Hollywood's self-aggrandizement.
In fact, you don't even need to go see the movie. You already know that it is great; an "entertainment experience" as they say. You will be moved, changed, transformed. This is an IMPORTANT FILM. Except that it's not. It's just weak, bloated and pedestrian.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Repo Men, Social Satire & How Reviewers Are Dumb As Posts


The other night I had the pleasure of being deeply disgusted by Jude Law removing a man's liver. Tonight I was disgusted to see that most of the reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes managed to completely miss the point of the film and give it a negative review.
I'm not surprised that a film that (literally) rips apart the brutality of private healthcare in the USA didn't do well. As a species we are more than a little squeamish about watching entertainment that speaks to us about contemporary concerns in a direct way. Witness the near total failure of recent war films about Iraq. The Hurt Locker may have won the Oscar but it didn't make any money at the box office.
But I guess I expect the film reviewers who watch a lot of films would enjoy the pleasure of the satire embedded throughout the piece, the self-referencing of action movies for the purpose of tearing them apart.
Peter Howell from the Toronto Star, for instance, writes: "The film is set in the near future, where a terrible thing has happened. There's been some kind of apocalypse, stripping Hollywood of new ideas. This leaves rookie helmer Miguel Sapochnik, as well as screenwriters Eric Garcia and Garret Lerner, with no choice but to make do with refried plot devices about heartless capitalism and mechanized humanity."
Is Howell dumb as a post? Hollywood has been making the same damn movie for thirty years. There's so little originality in Hollywood that we should shout for joy whenever something appears that isn't a remake of a TV series or film from the 60s or 70s or another Cinderella story. What's more, Repo Men stands in the tradition of satires of the caliber of Robocop. In other words, the action hero form is clearly intentional and satirical. Did these guys not pay attention to the last ten minutes of the film? It's about cultural fantasies of the hero who rescues us all as much as it is about the perils of American-style healthcare. And, frankly, I'll take "refried" plot devices about "heartless capitalism" any day over the usual horseshit about love conquering all or "try and you shall succeed." At least it attempts to engage with the lived reality of millions of people. Cinderella stories engage with fantasies that are meant to mask that reality in a way that is just insipid and stupefying.
Besides, you'd think reviewers would figure out that there was something deeper than a run-of-the-mill action film going on here by the presence of Forrest Whittaker; hardly a typical action hero. There's a strong echo of Gilliam's Brazil here, of the inside man who finds himself on the outside (and it's a reference in more ways than that but I won't spoil it). And the climactic fight scene, which was so over the top stylized and gory that only an idiot wouldn't figure out that it was meant to be a satire - and a set-up for the end of the film. It was a hilarious and beautiful send-up of The Matrix rescue sequence. Likewise the fairly erotic but absolutely bonkers sequence in which Jude Law and his kick-ass, sidekick girlfriend Anna Braga falsify the return of their overdue organs by cutting each other open and then inserting a barcode scanner.
And you can't help but laugh and shiver at the casual brutality expressed by the men whose job it is to physically retrieve the delinquent organs. The darkly comic brilliance reaches its peak when Forrest Whittaker's character borrows a kitchen knife from Jude Law during a BBQ at his house so that he can nip out front and repossess the kidney of a man in a passing taxi.
Somehow, the reviewers missed all this.
The Globe & Mail reviewer Liam Lacey was so asinine as to ask: "Surely an artificial organ could have a remotely controlled off-switch which would avoid the bloody splatter and the reason for this movie." Are you serious? Surely Alice would have broken her neck when she fell down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Surely a man in red underwear and blue tights can't fly or see through walls. Surely the Marine operation in Avatar wouldn't depend on the ability and loyalty of one man to guarantee a resource upon which the entire earth is dependent. It's called a story as distinct from reality. And the brutal violence that made even a veteran action movie watcher like me wince and turn away was EXACTLY the point of it. It was meant to shock us into seeing the reality of privatized, corporate healthcare (or the real estate crisis for that matter). Newsflash: people die because of it and it ain't pretty. And while Lacey calls the film smirking and dully disgusting, all he betrays is that he is a sneering uptown snob with his title "Does the Hamlet set really want Saw-like gore..." as though such a film as this is beneath people with real cultural taste.
The script itself veers and bounces a bit - but for a good reason - and mostly it follows clear lines of development. The act changes are in the right place, the story is comprehensible and motivated. In the end it's a bit grim but it was so much fun getting to the grimness - wincing and all - that you're able to leave without needing a drink to dull its effects.

Stem Cell Injunction: More Proof of a Nation in Decline

As if it weren't obvious to anyone but the most ideologically blinded that America, if not yet a lame duck, is an empire in serious decline, the recent injunction by a federal judge against embryonic stem cell research is further evidence. And a further nail in the coffin.

America was once thought to be the land of pragmatic innovation, the pinnacle of what capitalism could achieve - particularly market-driven capitalism. America brought us mass production, in particular of the automobile, the airline industry, Hollywood, TV, computers, radio, etc. Not that Americans invented all of these things but they popularized them in a way that made America the epitome of technological advancement and its associated social progress.These advances were the reason that by the end of World War 2 America had the world's largest economy by a long shot, with around half of global industrial production originating on American shores.

Those days are over.

America's obsessive self-image of itself as the world's cop, a sort of John Wayne figure, meting out justice in the wild west of the rest of the planet, has not been without its costs. For one thing, it's mean that the bucket-loads of money that the US has spent on military hardware didn't get spent in productive investment and research.

Other countries, firstly post-war Germany and Japan, invested their social surplus back into the economy. Without the drag of a vast and unproductive military apparatus, these countries were able to quickly rebuild and surpass their rivals, with Japan ultimately becoming the world's second largest economy and Germany becoming the world's largest exporter.

That advancement eroded America's relative economic dominance. Today American industrial production is down to around 20% of the global total. And even that position is eroding with the Chinese behemoth moving up fast. China just surpassed Japan as the world's second largest economy and has passed Germany as the world's largest exporter. As a still relatively undeveloped country with a vast population, almost five times that of the USA, China has lots more room to grow rapidly and is likely to fly by the USA some time this century; some say sooner rather than later.

America's response to this has been multifold but for the purposes of this discussion, there's two elements that stick out as key. The first is a growing reliance by the USA on its overwhelming military dominance as the means to secure and guarantee what is euphemistically called "American leadership" of the world. America's military budget is greater than the next half-dozen countries' military budgets combined.

The second element of the American ruling class' attempt to sustain America's position is a sort of domestic retrenchment, both ideological and economic. On the economic front it has been a multi-generational war against unions and working people, leading to the slow erosion of living standards, education levels, social infrastructure and just plain happiness amongst American workers. On the ideological front, America has become increasingly brittle, hunkered down in a state of siege to defend "American values", which are defined increasingly narrowly. This stridency and aggressiveness has done its job in terms of keeping the population as a whole sufficiently cowed, if not active supporters of the "American Dream." And Protestant Fundamentalism, the unofficial religion of the American state, has played an important role as the most coherent ideological arm of the repressive state apparatus.

But here's the contradiction. Take one look at China. A length critique can be written about conditions inside of China from labour and human rights to environmental regulation. I don't want to lionize China as a model to pursue - either in terms of socialism or capitalism (China is, in any case, clearly the latter type of social order). However, China's development is unhindered by ideological rigidities of the American type. China's ideological and political repression derives from its attempt to keep a fast-moving train from going off the tracks. America's is the repression necessitated to achieve an orderly retreat. In the case of China, their repression is actually aiding the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy - it has to be said, largely at the expense of the Chinese working class. But in America, the repression that has been necessitated by its slide is itself becoming a factor in America's further descent, which brings us back to the reason for this blog post: the injunction against embryonic stem cell research.

The control of women's bodies has always been a key element in the ideological toolkit of capitalist society, no less in America than in Stalinist Russia. Hammering away at the idea of women's proper role (i.e. as baby-carriers) is another route to the idea that everyone has their proper place in society. It is a powerful tool (along with racism) through which to exercise social control. This is reinforced in America through the use of a particular kind of religious discourse and it is a KEY prop of Americanism. The battleground over that prop has been through abortion rights, which the right wing has steadily eroded over the past thirty or so years. America now has the most retrograde attitudes towards women's right to reproductive choice in the advanced capitalist world (and more retrograde than significant sections of the newly industrializing world). But, like military spending, this has its cost. In this case, religious zealotry has become an obstacle to economic innovation. Countries like Taiwan and, increasingly India and China, are catching up with America in the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology. China is now the number two producer of solar panels on the planet and sells more solar panels in California than any other country, including the USA. The stem cell decision, of course, isn't itself an obstacle to innovation in renewable energy or in other forms of scientific advancement. But it is symptomatic of a broader trend in American society: it is the age of retreat. And in a period of retreat there is always less room to question. There will continue to be fits and starts - Bushes and Obamas - but the general trend is one of narrowing and descending (and if Sarah Palin wins the presidency, that pace will certainly speed up).

On the one hand, I don't really have a horse in the race. I don't live in America and I am a socialist. On the other hand, I live next door and I don't like the idea of a very large, heavily armed neighbour who has turned into a crazed, heavily armed survivalist. I would much rather see the American people rise up and throw off the parasites, imbeciles and lunatics who lead them.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Rob Ford Could Win

The Toronto mayoral election is a pretty depressing and sordid affair. In fact, affair is the appropriate word to begin a post on the Toronto election since the candidate of the "left" - Adam Giambrone - was forced to resign after it was discovered that he was texting naughty messages to a media inclined, young actress. Apparently she thought it was a little hypocritical for Giambrone to paint himself all senatorial by suddenly appearing with his girlfriend when he was secretly schtupping her on the office couch. Fair enough.

And, sad to say, that's a fair enough symptom of why Rob Ford may well win the mayoral election.

The left on city council - the people I have voted for since I voted in elections - alternate between being as respectable as an urban lawyer who shops at Pottery Barn and drinks fair trade coffee, and dull as dishwater. The only time they do anything political of note is when they trailed behind the frothing-at-the-mouth duo of Ford and Mammolitti after the G20. Every single one of them voted to congratulate the police.

Well, here's some news to the politicians: we've been suffering through a recession, we've been losing jobs and seeing house prices go through the roof simultaneously. People are angry and feel, with good reason, that the politicians are mealy-mouthed, pocket-stuffing, opportunists with no vision, no spine and no principles. And, like it or not, Rob Ford speaks to the anger that people feel.

I mean, look at his political opponents.

George Smitherman - come on, people. The only thing "progressive" that this guy has going for him is that he's gay. He's thoroughly establishment in outlook. Pink Bourgeoisie, you could say. His politics really aren't that much different from Ford's in substance - except that he smells like a snobby, urban lawyer who shops at Pottery Barn, etc.

Joe Pantalone - who? A nice guy with a decent record (though he voted for the police after they put a choke hold on democratic rights). His only achievement in this election will be to change the famous aphorism about nice guys to "nice guys finish third".

The other candidates are "also rans" and not worth much discussion.

That leaves us with the thoroughly odious motherf****er, Rob Ford. I grew up in Downsview, which is part of North York, so have a long memory of a certain Mr Mel Lastman. Then I moved downtown to escape my childhood stomping ground only to have that bloody carpet salesman follow me like a venereal disease. However, looking at Ford as mayor makes me long for Mel. Ford lacks the charm of Mel Lastman, who was like an affable but slightly demented and criminally inclined uncle that was fun at family reunions. Sure, you wouldn't want him as the family spokesperson but he could be counted upon to make you spray food out your nose with his off-colour, slightly offensive jokes.

Ford isn't even a clown - except maybe in the Stephen King sense of the word. Ford is like one of those sociopathic teenagers who shoot cats with pellet guns for the pleasure of causing pain to another living creature. Sadly, sometimes such sociopathy appeals to people for one simple reason: if you can't fight the people above you, kick the people beneath you who are weaker.

Let's face it, the union movement did sweet-f**k-all to resist the recession. Even the once mighty Canadian Auto Workers, who split from their American kin because they were militantly opposed to concessions contracts, offered up their members' veins for a good bleeding. The NDP are a part of Joe Pantalones. 'Nuff said. In other words those organizations and movements that ought to have shown an alternative to the smash-and-grab neo-liberalism of the Harper Tories and McGuinty Liberals and corporate Canada - have done nothing. There have been some noble attempts by trade unionists closer to the ground but the official union movement - the CLC, the OFL, the national unions - have all turtled.

Rob Ford is the ghastly result of that failure.

I can already hear all my lefty friends, particularly of the NDP variety, bemoaning the victory of Rob Ford on election night. I've already heard people saying that they will move out of the city (to go where? Calgary?). It will be a drag but Ford is a buffoon and he's not the candidate of the Toronto bourgeoisie, who want Smitherman. Ford is also despised on city council, whereas Mel knew how to build alliances. I mean, this is a guy who was thrown out of a sports game for picking a fight. He's hardly got the temperament to navigate Toronto city council. I don't think that anyone should be complacent and the movements ought to start fighting him now. But I predict that he will be the best enemy money could buy. Within six months a sizable chunk of every class in this city will want to destroy him.

Amplify’d from

James: Despite attacks, Rob Ford’s simple message takes hold


By Royson James
City Columnist
The leading mayoral candidates have so far shown a stunning lack of understanding of the force that fuels Rob Ford’s unlikely grip on the Toronto mayor’s race.
They call him names. They mock him. They tell anyone with a microphone and a pen that the rambunctious councillor is a buffoon with foot-in-mouth disease, a one-trick pony incapable of competing in the sophisticated world Toronto must navigate.
As if the voters don’t know this already. Ford’s been a councillor for 10 years. His file of verbal indiscretions is thick and well worn.
In fact, with every effort like George Smitherrman’s launch of the website, intended to showcase the celebrated gaffes of the councillor from Etobicoke North, Ford gains in popularity.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The End is Nigh, Dumbasses. Stop With The Fossil Fuels Already.

OK, so there’s forest fires sweeping Russia as the country swoons under the worst heat wave and drought in a thousand years. Yeah, that’s not a type: ONE THOUSAND YEARS. Meanwhile Pakistan is drowning in waters caused by the worst monsoon season in decades. And there’s the small matter of an ice island four times the size of Manhattan that has broken from the Petermann Glacier in north Greenland.
You might think that all this is a bad sign of climate change. But then you might also think that the American government is crammed with murderous, corrupt bastards, too stupid to do anything but fiddle while the whole damn planet melts like a creamsicle on a July sidewalk.
And you’d be right. These boneheads and knuckle-draggers are hauling is to hell in a handbasket. Scratch that, most of us don’t get a seat in the handbasket, we just go straight into the fire - as the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Pakistan have discovered. It seems clear that the present round of talks in Bonn Germany aredoomed to failure as the US, the EU and the other rich nations drag their feet. Meanwhile, governments continue to pump massive subsidies into the fossil fuel industry, letting renewables starve by contrast. According to a Bloomberg report:
“The $43-46bn figure [subsidies for renewables] stands in stark contrast to the $557bn spent on subsidizing fossil fuels in 2008, as estimated by the International Energy Agency last month.”
The net result is that all these negotiations are just so much hand-waving to distract us from the fact that it is business as usual. Hell, that $46 billion is less than 10 percent of the US military budget, expected to climb to over $700 billion in 2011 (not including the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, which are paid for out of a separate fund). One can only draw one conclusion: the world’s rulers - led by the US and our own oil-soaked Prime Ministerial dickhead - really don’t care if they destroy the planet as long as they are the ones to squeeze the last drop of profit out of its dying body.
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