23 July, 2010

Life Irritates Art: Inception Deception

Herewith the obligatory: SPOILER WARNING
This article discusses the logical fallacies and inconsistencies in the otherwise entertaining movie Inception. It contains spoilers that whilst not revealing key plot details, will definitely detract from your enjoyment of the film if you have yet to see it. As such, I'm intentionally putting in some space to make you scroll down to the rest, so you can't blame me...





Oh, you made it. Look, I'm not trying to be a kill-joy here. The movie is great to look at, is fitfully entertaining, and hopefully will allow other allegedly cerebral films to be made. But it's not as clever as it wants us to think it is. So here's a few things (based on my single viewing of the film) I think they got wrong:

Time Dilation 1. Compound nonsense.

We're told that time in dreams passes more quickly, the brain processes dreams faster than a waking state. I think this is a reasonable conceit. However, they then go on to say that this effect is compounded for each level of dreaming within the dream, so that where a dream might be a day for an hour in the waking world, a dream within a dream might be a week, and a level further down a year, etc.

This is total rubbish. The reason for this is simple, the "you" in the dream doesn't have its own brain, it has your brain. A dream within a dream is not being dreamt by the dream brain, but the original brain, which can only go as fast as it can go, so no faster than the original dream. I'm sure Roger Penrose could explain it more accurately, scientifically and cogently. Perhaps the geek analogy would be that you couldn't run an operating system in a virtual machine any faster than it would as native on a given machine.

This scenario is still true even if, as in the movie, different brains are joined together doing the dreaming. Unless one brain is capable of 10x the speed of another, and yet another at say 100x. Processor chips may have come on in leaps and bounds in the last two decades, 200,000 years development of homo sapiens has only given us the brains we have; short of genetic engineering or electronic augmentation, we're not due for upgrades anytime soon.

Time Dilation 2. Inconsistent

OK, even if we were to accept, under the "if you say so" rule, the time dilation level on level as they posit it, their application of their own logic is dreadfully inconsistent. When the van tumbles over in the level 1 dream, the corridor in the level 2 dream revolves at more or less the same rate. Contrast this with the van falling off the bridge, taking forever to fall in relation to level 2 where Arthur must adjust for the "weightlessness" effect caused by the van in free fall, he has time to manipulate the rest of the crew into a lift so that he can create thrust to cancel out the seeming lack of gravity. By the difference in time at this point, we can see that the revolving corridor should have turned at a very leisurely pace, more like the gimbled room that Astaire taps around in Royal Wedding, than the shuttle in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Inner Ear, Aint that a kick in the head

We have explained to us that the "kick" needed to prematurely wake a dreamer relies on the inner ear's sense of balance, equilibrium, and position. Because of this, when the van rolls over in dream level 1, the corridor rotates in dream level 2, when the van falls off the bridge, everyone is sent into weightless freefall in level 2. Why doesn't this affect level 3, or the "limbo" level? There is a level 2 explosion that seems to set off an avalanche in level 3, but otherwise the impact of the levels is absent.

What if the plane hit turbulence? They don't seem to account for that, or if they do it's further muddied by the notion that the sedative that the chemist comes up with may eliminate the inner ear problem. However, if that is the case, how is anybody experiencing free fall, the tumbling change in the direction of gravity, or any other positional sensations in other dream levels in the first place? Sure, you're allowed to make up the rules as you please, but they should apply them consistently.


If "limbo" isn't populated by subconscious projections, how is Mal there? If Mal is there, then anyone with the dreaming/architecture skills trapped in Limbo, could imagine anything they want and while away the time productively so their brains don't turn to mush. Then again , Saito has his army of dream thugs, his tastefully modernized Samurai palace, and he's a newbie. So why is the "limbo" city unpopulated, and why doesn't Ariadne have any projection baggage?

Idea Theft

There is something really slim about the initial idea in the first place. Do any of us have special information that is boiled down enough to be an idea worth stealing in dream form in the first place. Let's say we have secret plans. For them to be stolen from a dream, we'd have to have eidetic memory to have memorized them precisely, and the thief must have similarly photographic memory. On top of this, your dream would have to access that memory in a waking form, as much in dream is symbolic. The dream thief might end up with, say, an eternally weeping sculpture of the Virgin Mary, but no way to translate that image back into the schematics of the nuclear submarine.

That leaves us with much more basic ideas to steal. Passwords. However, if you have the tech to do all that dream manipulation, surely you have easier ways to just hack the passwords in the first place.

The convenient notion that if you build a safe or a bank vault, the dreamer automatically puts their secrets in it, is a bit daft because not everyone would think those were the safest places. Think of those who don't trust the banks. I'm sure there's a few people now who wish they'd kept their equity in the mattress instead of in sub-primes. Also, if you build a safe in someone else's subconscious you should know the combination to it, or is that simply too easy.

Imagination Deficit

Finally, a niggling note, not actually an inconsistency problem of the film per se, but why are the dreams so mundane? They seem to be the dreams of someone who is either an urban planner, or has just endured serial viewing of all the James Bond films (without some of the Roger Moore's there's little humour on show here). OK they play around with physics a little bit, Paris goes all bendy, a specialist "forger" can impersonate another.

Where are the World of Warcraft Avatars? The people who turn into snakes or talk backward? The melting watches? Why does everybody look like themselves (exception noted)? In my dreams, I'm taller, younger, better endowed, and have my hair back. Where's Freddy Kruger and the Lady in the Radiator, and even the Darth Vader that turns into Luke when he's decapitated? Where's my fucking Imaginarium, Dr. Parnassus?

I appreciate that the "architects" in the film have to build a "maze" for the purposes of a heist or an inception, and that may mean that things need to be more "real" for it to come off. It is a bit of a disappointment that these dreams seem to be so much about interior design. Even when in the godlike dimension of limbo Dom and Mal rebuild their favorite houses, they set them in the middle of an urban reflecting pool, surely some of them had gardens or lawns. No wonder they wouldn't want to be trapped in limbo indefinitely, it's completely boring, there aren't even any multiplexes.

Sorry, if by "planting" all these ideas in your heads, I've destroyed your enjoyment of Inception. It's being touted as a thinking person's thriller. So, you should have thought of all this on your own, without my sorry-ass help.

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22 July, 2010

Review: Inception: High Conception, Low Expectation, Not Too Clever By Half

Inception, is a film you may have heard a lot about by now. Well, sort of. One of the things you have most heard about is the embargo on juicy details that preview screening film critics were put under not to reveal. You will have heard that Christopher Nolan, the director of the twisty reverse chronologically viewed alleged short term memory loss suffering thriller Memento and the brooding to the point of nihilism Batman revival The Dark Knight. You will be told that Nolan likes to create as much as possible in camera rather than CGI as it gives actors something real to react against, otherwise, ostensibly, they might have to, erm... act. You've probably heard that the film is about thieves who have a way of infiltrating dreams to steal ideas, the film's tagline is "Your mind is the scene of the crime". You will have heard things like "a thinking man's blockbuster", "thoughtful popcorn movie".

At one point a character points out to another character that they should know they are in a dream, because they don't know how they got there, having just been seen somewhere else. We don't know how they got there either, because it was a simple cut between the scenes which we take for granted. In this obvious way Nolan links the logic of dreams with the time/space compression that is part of the language of films. However, this gets us back to the problem that afflicts all movies that are built in solipsistic universes, once you open the possibility that anything we are watching could be a dream, well then where does it end, and how many times are they going to pull the "they're awake! or are they?!!" moment. If everything or anything is happening in a dream with few consequences in the real world, how does any of it matter. "Why should we care?"

The answer to why we should care, rests entirely on the charisma and character of DiCaprio's Dom Cobb, an expert dream thief who is on the run from his past and in manipulated into doing the supposedly impossible "inception" job (planting, rather than stealing an idea, haven't they heard of advertising?). If he does the job, he will finally be able to go home. Unfortunately Cobb is the only character with any depth, only Page's Ariadne, the newbie exposition character comes close, but that's mostly because she's been given the ball (or is it her chess piece totem?) of being the link to the audience. The section where she learns the ropes is great fun as it gives us the supposed rules of dreamland, and many of the funky and spectacular effects.

The rest of film divides itself between the frenetic action in pulling the subconscious con-job, and Cobb's need to deal with his own past and the potentially dangerous baggage it brings to the dream world. All the swirling and convoluted action around what he is doing really doesn't feel like it matters. The action is very flash and entertaining, and engrossing, in the way that a classic heist picture is engrossing as we watch the pieces fall into place, but as it's just a dream, I felt fairly unconcerned about the perceived perils. Cobb's emotional revelations and redemption though fairly predictable, provide interesting enough counterpoint to the drawn out action, and only occasionally deadens the pace of the proceedings.

The film is overall visually stunning, and thoroughly entertaining. I was a bit disappointed because I was expecting it to be twistier than it is, constantly looking for the "or are they?" moment, which was a waste of time, distracted me from what turns out to be much more straightforward, though cleverly put together caper film. I was also disappointed that the dreamland was so mundane, although this is perhaps to keep the action grounded enough to give it some impact on the audience. If, for instance, everyone suddenly turned into jars on a condiments shelf in Harrod's Food Hall, it would be hard to care about the outcome of that fistfight, or whether the subconscious assassins would spread the protagonists over their burgers.

It is slightly unfortunate that the hype of the film planted the idea that this was an allegedly cerebral film, while it is more thoughtful than the average actioner, it is not as clever as it's been sold. (I have torn apart some of the more glaring inconsistencies in the spoiler filled: Life Irritates Art: Inception Deception) I would have enjoyed it much more had I avoided the hype altogether, and paradoxically, all the "we can't talk about the details" guff, only helped serve to make me think it was safe to hear what they could talk about. So avoid the hype, lower your expectations and you should have a great time with Inception.


20 July, 2010

Surfin' Multiplex: Glass 2/3rds Full: Toy Story 3D & Twilight: Eclipse

Summer 'tis the season of blockbusters,
and all through the multiplexes, few pictures they show.
With limited choice,
poor moviegoers have nowhere else to go.
4 pictures on 20 screens,
the distributors invidious,
supporting multiple formats
even more insidious.
The distributors' terms
strictly for the birds.
Studios pumping out sequels,
this month, two thirds.
Alternative cinema
the money won't pull.
The glass may be 3D,
but it's only half full.

Toy Story 3 (IMAX 3D)

The least surprising thing about Toy Story 3, is that Pixar have done it again. This is as much down to their usual painstaking attention to detail, as to them taking their time between instalments to come up with a story and script that justifies another big screen outing for Woody and Buzz. Here the predicament comes from toy owner Andy, having grown up and now preparing to go to college, what will the fate of his loyal toys now be: the attic, or donated to day-care?

All the familiar tropes are here, fear of loss, obsolescence and abandonment, given enough of a remix not to feel stale, but only just. Once again, they comically milk the collective cultural consciousness, through vintage product placement, to perfection. Barbie gets to meet Ken, the cuddliest of toys turn out to be less than cuddly, and perilous obstacles are navigated to a heart warming conclusion. It's full of invention and the kind of storytelling where no detail is insignificant. There was a moment that I felt deeply manipulated whilst tearing up, but then the payoff (which I twigged about 5 seconds before the rest of the audience) had me laughing like a train. (without giving anything away here, a moment of WTF! quickly become, "well, of course.")

As much as I enjoyed TS3D, I really hope they stop here. I could see the plot of the next one being that the toys have to make sure that Andy procreates so they have his offspring to play with. See matchmaking, courtship, and interference with a contraception regimen making that untenable scenario ("What will we do?" "They're anatomically correct!" "I'm gonna have nightmares about this"). Hopefully, instead, they'll leave us with the nice sense of closure they've so lovingly crafted.

[A short side bar on the 3D, which I saw in IMAX projection. It is probably the best 3D ever achieved. It is smooth and continuous in its vistas, there are few moments when you see a "gap" between a layer of foreground and background, by this I mean the jump that shows you that only a certain number of flat planes are being employed as in old or cheap or retrofitted 3D. However, this means you don't notice the 3D so much, which makes it sadly superfluous, despite it being a crowning achievement of the form.

To add to this there are cinematic moments, when there is a shift of focus in the depth of field, what this means, is that certain things, closer or farther are in better focus, whilst the rest goes soft or fuzzy. The focus may shift within the same shot, and it is an editorial or directorial device to direct the audiences attention. This is antithetical to the whole notion of 3D naturalism. Those of us with 20/20 vision, or not looking through binoculars or a viewfinder, do not perceive reality in an out of focus haze for objects near or far. Of course our eyes do employ focus, but our brains put it together as one in-focus picture.]

The Twilight Saga 3: Eclipse

Another slice of more of the same, unusually not such a bad thing. I'm lucky this week, lightning striking twice as it were. The 3rd Twilight movie is just fine, if you liked the first two. Though not wowed by the series, I've found them basic, if not compelling entertainment. It starts where the last one left off, and this has the great advantage that all the setting up has been done in the other two films, leaving them to get on with just moving the story forward in this one, so a lot less moping and telling us about the way vampires work in the Twilight universe.

The plot, such as it is, is wafer thin and could be boiled down to a sentence or two, but it moves along efficiently enough. The emotional triangle developed in the first two films gets ping ponged around whilst everyone else gets on with building to a confrontation with various bad vampires. There is a bit of the characteristic strutting around of the werewolves (Team Jacob, ripped torsos shirtless '80s Calvin Klein ads) trying to out-pretty the vampires (Team Edward, Ziggy era glamsters wearing standard issue high fashion fetish goth), and one scene feels like it could go all Brokeback on us, if it weren't for the presence of the fetching, though inert Bella).

It alternates thuddingly schematically between little bits of action or plot and scenes in which characters offer useful advice, or suddenly feel the need to fill in their own backstory in a way that illustrates part of Bella's dilemma, teaching her valuable lessons along the way. It's like one of those afterschool specials, "So you're a troubled teen thinking of pressuring your undead boyfriend into turning you into a vampire."

I found the main character, Bella, a lot easier to warm to here, as she is much more active in determining her own fate than she has been up to now, and it is her actualization that is the real core of the story here. She does get stuck with an unholy turd of a speech at the end in which she defines the uniqueness of her universally shared adolescent angst by saying she never felt "normal". If she'd said that in the first two films, I would have just wanted to slap her, or waterboard her, or whatever works with teenagers these days, and doesn't leave any marks, but now I forgive her. Bella and her shiny vampire friends have entertained me well this time, and I may be able to leave that bag full of oranges at home when I see the next chapter. You may look back at the end and feel that not much has happened save defeating some of the villains and making a couple of decisions, they don't end up a million miles from where they started. I guess that should make the next one even zippier.


19 July, 2010

Review: White Material: White Noise

I went to see this on the strengths of Isabelle Hupert, a fine and at times arresting actress, and the director Claire Denis, whose debut feature Chocolat* also takes place under the shadow of French Colonialism. (*no, not the Joanne Harris somewhat saccharine magical realist novel filmed with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, but an excellent coming of age story which also meditates on race and colonial power).

The film starts with sundry threads, short on explanation, long on images, in an unspecified African country a white woman ignores instructions from a retreating French army to flee her coffee plantation, a wounded rebel soldier looks for shelter, a young white man is locked into an active coffee roasting building by soldiers, child soldiers find a gold plated cigarette lighter, the same white woman tries to get a bus back to her home to her son. By describing this, I've just given you more exposition than you get in the first half hour of the film. Some of the images are haunting, and as the timeline is initially unclear and purposely disordered, they hang over the story as it languorously unfolds. The washed out cinematography and the brooding string soundtrack by Tindersticks, contribute to an atmosphere of oppressive heat and alienation.

This is not an easy film. It is opaque. It is hard to derive the characters motivations, and their relationships are disjointed and steeped in a barely revealed history. Trying to identify with or even fathom the main characters is like trying to tune in a signal on an old AM radio amid louder white noise. The story has the inevitable air of greek tragedy, but paced as a slow burn leading to attendant madness.

Hupert's performance carries us through this, although most of it is sieved through a stoneyfaced determination; with the only crumb of motivation for her possible quixotic efforts to stay and complete the coffee harvest, is that she has "no where else to go". Denis direction is unfussy and keeps the story entirely unsentimental, and it is all the more affecting for it. The pace does occasionally go from a crawl to a halt, but the driving threads of tragedy and Hupert's struggle move it forward.

The perfect downbeat movie for a day of heat and stagnation, but not a first choice if you just want to sit in a theatre for the aircon to escape the heat with some more cheerful escapism on the screen.


10 July, 2010

Broken News: Police Still on Hunt For Now Deceased Moat

By committing suicide, Raoul Moat, has escaped his own body, and now is a fugitive in the spirit world. "He has evaded us again", one frustrated police source admitted.

As Rothbury is pretty indistinguishable from Hell, he may not actually cross over to the other side, and could be threatening to haunt the police and other civilian targets. Former England footballer, Paul Gascoigne saw his friend Raoul hovering over a Kebab shop. Other members of the public have come forward with conflicting, simultaneous sightings. "His new spirit form is making our job that much harder," another police source averred, with a depressed introspective tone, and a sigh.

Using a team of crack mediums, Police are conducting a careful grid search of the Rothbury and Cragside areas. "This is just the sort of thing which shows why the Police Service should keep all of it's funding," yet another police source said flippantly, whilst constantly glancing at his watch.

As the search continues, outside consultants may be called in, including the Ghost Whisperer, Randall and Hopkirk, and the Ghostbusters.