Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception (2010) - It Will Hurt Your Brain

On the Menu: INCEPTION (2010)

Ingredients: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Tom Berenger, Lukas Haas, Dileep Rao and Pete Postlethwaite. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Run time: 148 minutes. Rated: PG-13.

At First Bite: All I needed to be psyched for this film was the preview and the cast/crew list. I'm a huge Joseph Gordon-Levitt fan, and, as I noted in my WHIP IT review, I heart Ellen Page. Also, I've seen all of Christopher Nolan's films and never rated one lower than 4 stars (FOLLOWING, MEMENTO and THE DARK KNIGHT were all 5s, in my opinion).

Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is an expert in extraction. He goes into someone's dream and steals something the dreamer is trying to keep secret/hidden. So, basically, he's a thief.

He's also a fugitive. If he can complete his final assignment, then his name will be cleared and he can go back to his family. The catch is it's not an extraction. It's inception.

His employer, Saito (Watanabe), wants him to implant an idea into a business rival's subconscious.

Cobb's partner, Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), doesn't think it can work. He believes a dreamer will always know if an idea is innately his/hers.

So, is inception possible? Cobb thinks so. They'll just have to go even deeper into the subconscious than they have before.

Cobb assembles a crack team (in addition to Arthur): an architect named Ariadne (Page), a forger (Hardy) and a chemist (Rao).

Problem is recent assignments have been sabotaged by someone who somehow knows the layouts of the dream worlds.

Will they succeed?

Tough to Swallow: I figured out the significance of the opening scene rather early, i.e., the players and location.

It's all still confusing, but the way I understood the concept of kicks (things set off to upset the dreamer's equilibrium, which causes him/her to awaken) and levels, Arthur, in Level Two, should have woken up when the van initially drove off the bridge in Level One. Right?

Two of the people sitting in my row (both two seats away from me) constantly had their phones out texting someone. Come on. Do we need to walk through a phone detector before going into a movie theater? Obviously, some people do.

Second Helping: Watched the movie again (July 20).

I took extensive notes.

**SPOILER ALERT** I don't think the entire movie is a dream. There are moments when Cobb spins his totem and it stops spinning, which means he's not in a dream. One such moment is right before he speaks to his kids on the phone.

If there's an interpretation I really like, it's that the film is a retelling of the Minotaur story in Greek mythology, where Ariadne helps Theseus find his way out of the maze after defeating the beast. Others have suggested Ariadne is Cobb's therapist, which would go along with the myth in a way. She sets up these elaborate mazes for Cobb to work his way through while fighting his beast, the guilt from Mal's death.

I have two questions that might be important to understanding the movie.
1) Was the top Mal's totem before Cobb started using it?
2) Did Saito and Cobb awaken from limbo because the sedation wore off or because Saito used the gun?

Something to Chew On: This is Nolan's first original work since FOLLOWING (1998).

INCEPTION is a film about sleeping. Nolan's 2002 film INSOMNIA is a film about staying awake.

Nolan initially pitched INCEPTION to Warner Bros. after completing INSOMNIA. The script wasn't written at the time. He had apparently started writing it while shooting MEMENTO (2000), but it ended up taking almost 10 years to finish.

One of the main characters in FOLLOWING is named Cobb, which is also the last name of DiCaprio's character. Both characters are types of burglars.

James Franco was offered the role of Arthur, but had to turn it down due to scheduling conflicts.

Evan Rachel Wood turned down the role of Ariadne. Emily Blunt, Rachel McAdams and Emma Roberts were also considered for the part.

Michael Gaston, who plays Sanford Harris on "Fringe," has a small part as an immigration officer.

Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (translated No, I Regret Nothing) is one of the songs in the movie (used as kick music). Cotillard played Piaf in LA VIE EN ROSE, and won an Oscar for her performance.

Some extraction team members carry totems, which are small, private objects the individual uses to help him/her differentiate between reality and the dream world. Ariadne's object is a chess piece (pawn?). Murphy's character is named Robert Fischer, Jr. Former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer's birth name was Robert Fischer.

In Greek mythology, Ariadne was the one who helped Theseus successfully navigate out of the Minotaur's labyrinth. The first thing Cobb asks Ariadne to do is quickly draw a maze that it would take him a minute to solve. The maze she stumps him on is circular, as is the Minotaur's. Later, she ends up creating even more elaborate mazes within dreams.

In the Quran, the story of Yusuf (also Yusef) begins with a dream and ends with its interpretation.

Cotillard's character is named Mal, which means evil (in French and Latin).

The film currently has a 9.3 user rating on (5,123 votes).

Aftertaste: The movie is all about ideas.

Speaking of ideas, kudos to Nolan for hashing out an original one. I'm tired of all these remakes (although I enjoyed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and look forward to DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS).

I don't necessarily understand everything that I saw on screen. Sure, you're taught the principles of extraction and the architecture of dreams along with Ariadne, but that doesn't mean it all makes sense. Some dream concepts will ring true with you though (at least, for me, they did): 1) if you die in a dream, you just wake up and 2) the sense of falling will pull you out of your slumber.

It's on the same level as THE MATRIX and DONNIE DARKO as far as mind-blowing plot goes.

But, as all-consuming as the plot is, to me, it's just a fragment of what makes this film so impressive. The visuals are simply amazing. Seriously, I am more impressed with the look of the dream worlds in this film than I was by anything in AVATAR. There's a never-ending staircase, a cityscape that folds over onto itself, zero-gravity fighting sequences and things exploding everywhere. And that's just a taste, really.

Hans Zimmer's score is sometimes haunting and sometimes beautiful, but it always works.

The acting is top-notch. Sure, the movie spends more time developing DiCaprio's character, but he's the lead. Gordon-Levitt and Page are two of my personal favorites, and they did not disappoint. Hardy is going to be the next break-out actor, in my opinion (see BRONSON). Next to DiCaprio, Cotillard gives the best performance in the movie though. I was pleasantly surprised to see Berenger, who held his own amongst all the young stars.

I plan on seeing this again within the next days, so I'll definitely be adding a Second Helping section.

I've always wondered what it would be like if you could share dreams. After watching INCEPTION, I'm not sure I'd like that.

Just thinking about it gives me a headache.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Defendor (2009) - Five-Dollar Hero

 On the Menu: DEFENDOR (2009)

Ingredients: Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas, Sandra Oh, Michael Kelly, Alan C. Peterson, Lyriq Bent and Clark Johnson. Directed by Peter Stebbings. Run time: 101 minutes. Rated: R.

At First Bite: On Groundhog Day 2010, I saw the trailer for DEFENDOR back when I first popped my ZOMBIELAND DVD into my PS2. I made a note to search out the movie once it hit store shelves. Two months later, I added it to my collection solely on the fact it stars Harrelson and Dennings.

By day, Arthur Poppington (Harrelson) is a shy flagman with a below-average IQ.

By night, he's Defendor, a self-made superhero with no powers, lots of courage and a below-average IQ.

His mortal enemy is Captain Industry, but doesn't know where to find him. Until then, he battles punks in the street on a nightly basis armed with a trench club, a handful of marbles and jars of wasps. Needless to say, he gets beat up quite often.

Arthur befriends a crack-smoking prostitute, Katerina (Dennings), who claims she was once Captain Industry's favorite girl. She's muddy on directions, but points Defendor to his foe.

The local police have been staking out the same villain, and Defendor is starting to get in the way of the sting operation. He's also attracted the ire of a bad cop, Dooney (Koteas).

Will Defendor save the day or will Arthur get himself killed?

Tough to Swallow: When we first see the wasps in Arthur's hideout, there is a box of flares next to the aquarium. A sticker on the box reads "DANGER FLAMABLE FLARES." Flammable is misspelled.

Such as fuss is made about Arthur getting agitated when people mispronounce "Defendor" as "Defender," but when Kat asks Arthur why he dresses up as a superhero, he says, "...when I'm Defender, I'm not Arthur anymore. I'm a million times better than Arthur."

In the last scene, there are newspaper clippings on Kat's wall. It's really only noticeable if you pause the DVD, but the second column of the Kristic story is a copy & paste version of the first column.

Not that it's terribly important, but I think the theatrical trailer should have been included on the DVD.

The synopsis on the back of the DVD case says Arthur "falls for a local prostitute." Obviously, the people who wrote that didn't watch the movie.

Second Helping: I watched the movie again with the audio commentary. The commentary is interesting, funny and sometimes politically incorrect.

Something to Chew On: DEFENDOR was filmed in Ontario, Canada.

The film had a limited 4-theater release and grossed only $37,606.

This is Stebbings's directorial and screenwriting debut. He wrote the first draft in 2005.

Stebbings also has a cameo as a doctor.

Ellen Page was attached to the film in 2007, but pulled out. She had described the script as "incredible" and  and "awesome" in an interview on She is cast in a similar film entitled SUPER with Rainn Wilson, which should hit theaters in Fall/Winter 2010.

James Preston Rogers, who plays baddie Biker Bob, was a WWE wrestler named Big Deel. He apparently turned down a large contract to pursue acting. There was a campaign to have him cast as the lead in the upcoming Marvel flick THOR. Rogers didn't get the part. On a related note, Kat Dennings will appear in THOR.

The film currently has a 7.2 user rating on (8,820 votes).

Sides: There is audio commentary from Stebbings, Harrelson, Dennings and producer Nicholas Tabarrok. 

The DVD also includes 5 featurettes: "Origin Stories: The Genesis of Defendor (10:15)," "Removing the Costume: Behind the Screenplay (11:30)," "Heroes and Villains: Meet the Players (20:11)," "An Actor's Director: Working with Peter Stebbings (4:57)" and "Famous Last Words: Wrapping Defendor (10:39)."

There's also a blooper reel, 5 deleted scenes (three of which include the reporter character played by Lisa Ray) and 7 other movie/TV trailers.

Aftertaste: When I saw the trailer, I immediately thought of SPECIAL and MYSTERY MEN. Surely, this was going to be a quirky comedy full of laughs.

Not so fast.

This is a drama. More precisely, this is a tragedy with some laughs sprinkled around. I mean, here is a story of a man-child thinking bullets don't hurt him when he's wearing his hero costume. The movie generously diagnoses Arthur as having ADD and being "socially immature." He finds himself in dangerous situations, but he isn't smart enough to understand the gravity of those situations.

He's a dim bulb, but he hasn't lost his marbles. He has an infinite supply.

I'd say Defendor falls somewhere between Handi-man and Blankman in the superhero hierarchy, but the movie clearly isn't an offensive superhero parody (although I'd love for the Wayans brothers to make a Handi-man movie). It has heart, and teaches us that regular people can do extraordinary things.

Dennings is involved in most of the dramatic scenes, and she steals them. Koteas plays a great creep and corrupt cop, and has some comic moments with Harrelson.

Harrelson owns the role of Arthur/Defendor. He perfectly displays the powerlessness and childlike wonder of Arthur, yet still exudes the right amount of courage and confidence as Defendor. He's a hero the city loves and appreciates when he could just as easily be ridiculed.

On a side note, the end credits sequence is pretty cool.

THE MESSENGER. DEFENDOR. ZOMBIELAND. 2012. One thing's for sure, 2009 was the year of Woody...

Even more proof that ordinary can be remarkable.


Monday, July 12, 2010

The Cove (2009) - Dolphin Safe

On the Menu: THE COVE (2009)

Ingredients: Richard O'Barry, Joe Chisholm, Charles Hambleton, Simon Hutchins, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Kirk Krack and Louie Psihoyos. Directed by Louie Psihoyos. Run time: 92 minutes. Rated: PG-13.

At First Bite: I heard about this movie right before it came out on DVD, but put off watching it because of the subject matter. I find it appalling that an animal as intelligent as the dolphin would be slaughtered for no reason other than to misleadingly sell it as whale meat. Disgusting.

Activist Richard O'Barry trained most of the dolphins used on '60s TV series "Flipper." The show created major buzz around the animals, and eventually led to marine parks like Sea World. O'Barry believes one of the captive dolphins committed suicide in his arms. Since that moment, he has spent his life trying to save dolphins around the world.

Well, if ever there was a place that threatened the livelihood of dolphins, it was the National Park at Taiji, Wakayama in Japan. Reportedly, around 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed in Japan every year. At the cove in Taiji, the mammals are confused with sonar and herded into nets. Later, they're either sold to aquariums/parks or harpooned to death.

O'Barry teams up with former National Geographic photographer, Louie Psihoyos, and his crew in order to get video/photos of the slaughter. The Japanese locals aren't having any of it. Even the local police hassle the crew and follow them around to make sure they stay away from the cove.

How does the crew get the footage it needs?

They go ninja.

Tough to Swallow: The video of the killings is enough to make you sick. There's a scene with one dolphin that tries to get away, which is really sad.

And, the Japanese are even bribing other countries in the International Whaling Commission in order to get support. Unbelievable.

Psihoyos, who had been in Taiji two years, had footage from a 12-hour meeting with the Taiji mayor and heads of city council. City leaders told him they treat dolphins like their own relatives and believe they are ancestors. They also told him they kill the dolphins humanely. It would have been nice to have had some of this meeting included in the film because the town's officials have claimed they had no idea what the movie was about while the crew was filming. Not having a Japanese official on camera offering an explanation does make the film seem a little one-sided.

Second Helping: Watched the movie again with the audio commentary from Psihoyos and one of the film's producers, Fisher Stevens. It's a nice supplement because they talk of some things that have happened since the film's screening. 

Something to Chew On:  The film premiered April 25, 2009 at the Newport Beach International Film Festival in California.

This is the directorial debut of Louie Psihoyos.

Isabel Lucas and Hayden Panettiere have cameos.

Kernel Optical, which was formerly part of George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic, provided rock sculptures to help camouflage HD cameras.

THE COVE won the Audience Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and then went on to take Best Documentary (Features) at the 2010 Academy Awards.

Broome, a coastal town in western Australia, decided to annul its sister-city relationship with Taiji on August 22, 2009. However, the Broome Shire Council reversed the decision on October 13, 2009. The two cities have been sister cities since 1981.

The town of Taiji has the moniker "Whale Town." The government allows for about 19,000 dolphins to be killed each year; Taiji kills about 2,000 annually for meat.

Taiji has been hunting whales and dolphins since the early 1600s. Residents refuse to end the tradition and see the film as foreign bias toward their culture.

Numerous screenings of THE COVE have been canceled in Japan.

In a study done by Tetsuya Endo, a professor at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, it was found that Taiji residents have 10 times the normal level of mercury in their system than the average Japanese person. However, another study, conducted by Endo, showed the highest mercury levels in dolphin and whale meat were in Okinawa not Taiji.

There's a scene after the credits involving the local police and the film crew's whale blimp.

The film currently has an 8.6 user rating on (7,916 votes).

Really? 7,916 is a ridiculously low number for such a compelling film.

Sides: The DVD includes audio commentary from Psihoyos and producer Fisher Stevens. Yes, the Fisher Stevens from SHORT CIRCUIT and MY SCIENCE PROJECT, which I recently reviewed.

The entirety of the "Special Ops Cameras" featurette runs about 9 minutes, and it's broken down into 5 sections for each special camera: Nest Cam, Thermal Cam, Rock Cams, Helicopter Cam and Blood Cam.

The "Freediving" feature is about 5 minutes long and shows Cruickshank and Krack swimming around with fish and dolphins. Krack blows some underwater bubble rings (think smoke rings).

A feature called "The Cove: Mercury Rising" warns about the mercury levels in fish, and the harmful effects of mercury. Its run time is about 18 and a half minutes.

The DVD also includes 3 deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.

Aftertaste: I understand the dolphin kill is a tradition in Taiji, but it is pretty barbaric and ultimately pointless. Dolphin isn't a major menu item, so where does all the meat from 23,000 dead dolphins go? It's labeled as whale meat.

Respect for other cultures is a big issue, sure. But, the film claims, because of the mislabeling, most of the Japanese people don't even know they're eating dolphin meat. Heck, according to Psihoyos, 90 of the 100 Japanese people they interviewed on the streets couldn't believe dolphins were being killed for food. To me, you can't really base a tradition on a lie.

Now, I know a lot of the meat we eat in our own country makes its way to us by horrific means. I've read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and I've watched BLOOD OF THE BEASTS and FOOD, INC. I know how ugly it was and can be.

So as an omnivore, I guess I'm being hypocritical in my judgment of the people of Taiji. I eat cow, pig, chicken, turkey and certain fish. Who am I to tell them what not to eat? Is there a Bollywood film that points out the horrible treatment and massive slaughter of cows in the U.S.?

The biggest problems I have with the slaughter are the method of the killing, plus the notion dolphins are possibly the most intelligent non-human animals in existence (personally, I believe they are)

Perhaps, if aquariums would cease to purchase dolphins, then the number of those hunted/killed would decrease. You can swim with dolphins in the wild. There's no need to go to a dolphinarium.

Of course, things will change once dolphins become endangered. I hope it doesn't come to that.

The movie is pretty intense. It definitely plays out like a heist film with all the sneaking around, jumping fences, using hidden cameras, police surveillance, etc. The score is also amazing, at all times.

The killings aren't a secret anymore thanks to THE COVE.
Make sure the movie isn't a secret. 


Friday, July 2, 2010

Daybreakers (2009) - Drink It All In

On the Menu: DAYBREAKERS (2009)

Ingredients: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, Michael Dorman, Vince Colosimo and Isabel Lucas. Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig. Run time: 98 minutes. Rated: R.

At First Bite: There have been a couple of outstanding foreign vampire films made within the last few years: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and THIRST. I had a feeling DAYBREAKERS (an Australian film), with its strong cast, would stay true to vampire lore and be devoid of pale heartthrobs with bad hair.

The year is 2019 and vampires make up most of the world's population. There's only one problem: they're running out of human blood.

Edward Dalton (Hawke) is the chief hematologist at Bromley Marks Pharmaceuticals, a large corporation that is essentially a blood bank where the remaining humans are harvested. Edward is working on a blood substitute, but would rather find a cure.

His boss, Charles Bromley (Neill), is only concerned about the bottom line. Synthetic blood would bring some cash for sure due to the blood shortage, but it would also cause the demand for human blood to skyrocket. It's a win-win.

Edward sympathizes with the humans though. He doesn't drink human blood anymore.

The problem is if a vampire goes without human blood for too long, they devolve into what looks like a human bat.

Luckily, Edward crosses paths with humans, Audrey Bennett and Lionel "Elvis" Cormac, who is a former vamp that created the daytime driving technology used in vampire cars. Yes. That's right. Elvis has left the shielding [behind], and wanders around as a human again after nine years without a pulse.

Does that mean there's a chance for Team Edward to find a cure before everyone goes bat crazy? 

Second Helping: I watched the movie again with the audio commentary. It's rather informative, but nowhere near as comprehensive as the "making-of" documentary. 

Tough to Swallow: A calendar in the beginning of the film has April 1, 2019 as a Tuesday. April Fools' Day will actually be a Monday that year.

In the car chase scene, Edward's car gets shot up by the vamp military. Sunlight comes in through the "bullet" holes and causes him to slink around to avoid it. All he had to do was put his jacket over the back of his head.

When Edward is testing the cure, the fire engulfing him doesn't affect the heart monitors.

The stake-through-the-heart killing method always works on the first attempt.

Not sure about the cure concept, but it works with the phoenix story.

The closing credits are red, which is a clever idea, but they're hard to read on a 27" TV screen. 

Something to Chew On: Shooting for the film began in July 2007.

Production was nearly shut down because of a Shigella outbreak amongst the cast and crew.

The movie was filmed entirely in Australia, but didn't hit theaters there until February 4, 2010. It premiered in Canada at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2009, and its theatrical release in the U.S. began January 8, 2010.

The budget was $21 million and has grossed nearly $50 million worldwide.

The film currently has a 6.6 user rating on (23,927 votes).

Sides: The Spierig brothers and creatures designer/supervisor Steve Boyle provide audio commentary.

"The Making of DAYBREAKERS" is a feature-length documentary. You can either watch the entire doc, which is 1 hour and 25 minutes long, or select from 5 sections: Early Development, Pre-production, Production, Post Production and Credits.

The DVD also includes a poster art gallery (7 photos), the theatrical trailer and trailers for 4 other Lionsgate movies.

Aftertaste: I can only imagine that Stephenie Meyers and her "Twilight" series have romanticized vampirism (I refuse to watch any of those movies). Vampires aren't supposed to be sexy. DAYBREAKERS is trying to show that living forever as a vampire isn't all it's cracked up to be. Imagine being bitten by a vampire when you're 10 years old. Well, now you'll be in that body forever even though the years will keep passing you by. Think Gary Coleman, but immortal.

Too soon?

However, the Spierig brothers' visualization of a vampire society is pretty freakin' sweet. Buildings are connected to a Subwalk to allow vampires to walk underground during the daylight hours. Vampires take their coffee with blood instead of milk. They're living like humans did probably because it provides a sense of normalcy; they were once human after all. Of course, there's also glaring analogy to today's oil situation, and references to the phoenix story and baptism by fire. For me, these types of things are what make DAYBREAKERS a smart movie.

The visuals and futuristic setpieces are quite impressive. It is reminiscent of THE MATRIX at times.

But, it's not just a smart, good-looking film. It's bloody, bloody and bloody, and that's what you want in a horror flick.

The cast list is rather mindblowing for a vampire movie directed by two brothers who had never made a Hollywood film before. Neill is the perfect bad guy. Dafoe is a great presence even if the character is so-so. Ethan Hawke is, well, Ethan Hawke, which means pretty bland overall. Australian actress Karvan may have had the best performance.

I imagine it's hard to come up with a new idea for a vampire movie, but DAYBREAKERS is definitely a refreshing take on the genre.