Friday, August 06, 2010
Guest reviewer: Josh Valentine
This is the abridged version. Read complete review.
The modern American blockbuster is made up of event films - movies only meant to earn money by offering big budget effects and supposed escapism. With the release of Christopher Nolan's “Inception” a void has been filled. The film has a wonderful case of classic cinematic ambiguity - something that has been thrown away by even the most artful users of its design (Martin Scorsese, we all saw “Shutter Island” - you can do better).
Oscar alert: Wally Pfister won Best Achievement in Cinematography .
The film has a very intricate plot, involving a dream thief or “extractor” named Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio, in a role characteristically similar to his in “Shutter Island” but acceptably so because the character is much more deeply written and performed less extravagantly than in Scorsese's flick) who, with a team of highly trained individuals including his partner-in-crime Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), will remove a simple thought or idea from someone by kidnapping them and then tapping into their dream. Cobb is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to perform inception - the seemingly impossible act of planting an idea in one's head unconsciously (so that the receiver of said idea is unaware they are the victim of inception). Cobb hires a new team including Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) to research their target, Robert Fisher Jr. (Cillian Murphy), whom Saito wants to dismantle his dying father's company. The team enters Fisher's dream, but Cobb's daunting past and inability to control his malicious dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) from entering the dream turns the mission upside down.
The film is the third in a series of modern films about the dream. The first was the groundbreaking 1999 film “The Matrix” directed by the Wachowskis and the second was Michel Gondry's mind-erasing low budget feature “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The Matrix was a cunning film, using the sleeping human mind as a metaphor for the many different ways we are unconsciously controlled by the world sociologically both by government and the media. The characters' stasis resulted in their ability to control their environment based on their understanding of its rules and of their “programming.” In “Eternal Sunshine,” Gondry portrayed the effects of memory erasure and through both his directing style, Ellen Kuras' underrated cinematography, Charlie Kaufman's script, Jon Brion's score and the performances of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, he was able to show the unconscious psychological effects of dreaming and by its process that we make life decisions.
Nolan's film feels like a lurid dream after a marathon of those two films. In “Inception,” Nolan uses the ambiguity of his surprise ending to create the mood and metaphors of his film. The ending, alone with a lot of the other questions asked in the film create an overall sense of ambiguity. It is in this sense that Nolan is being compared to Kubrick in the way that “2001: A Space Odyssey” is able to break the barrier from questioning the film to questioning one's own existence. Nolan performs inception through the act of making this film - by placing a simple thought into his audience's mind, therefore changing the way we think about the possibilities of how we decode cinema. Last year, James Cameron successfully duped audiences all over the world into thinking he had created the new “2001: A Space Odyssey” with his unnervingly boring and useless “Avatar” (he even told Charlie Rose this was his intention), but little did he know that Nolan would beat him artistically by a long shot. “Inception” will last, “Avatar” will not.
The characters of the film are the most essential, and the performances of the actors only rectify their necessity to the concept. Dicaprio is in top form - Cobb is probably his best role to date - not too understated, but still mysterious. Leo's a master of the conflicted in that he never overacts. Dicaprio portrays Cobb on two main levels - one that is absolutely in control and the other that shows a distance, which may suggest that he in fact is not in control. Cobb is a very distressed man, who holds all of his secrets within. When Ariadne lets them out, all hell breaks loose. Page also creates a distance to her character - like someone thought up in a dream but that may also be more aware than the film initially suggests. Ariadne is hired as the “architect” of Fisher's dream but soon becomes more interested in finding out what Cobb's been hiding. It almost seems as if she has an alternate motive, in that she could be the one trying to attempt inception on him. That and her mysterious connection to Caine's character are also conjecture toward Nolan's big cinematic questions.
“Inception” is a rare film for our times. It's a high concept, Kubrick-style film disguised as a major Hollywood action thriller. This could be a major step forward in terms of left-brained film making in modern American cinema - a symptom that things could be looking brighter for a brand new era of young directors. Directors like Marc Webb (“(500) Days of Summer”) and Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) proved that there's still artistic talent that is eager to step up to the plate. However, Nolan goes a step further - into territory no one expected. He might be the best thing we'll get to our Kubrick - if he doesn't go crazy.
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