Monday, July 26, 2010

If You're Going to Dream, Dream Big

In spite of its travels to the depths of the human mind, Inception may be most interesting as an expression of the limits of Christopher Nolan's ambition. His film is by no means a failure, but it balks at taking big risks; Inception rarely feels like the unfettered roller coaster that it should be. Instead, it is a neat film – one that mostly challenges on the superficial level of plot and hesitates to unsettle the audience on a more meaningful level.

The premise, however, is irresistible. Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an extractor. He, along with his team, enters people's dreams and steals their ideas. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a businessman, approaches him with a unique challenge: He wants Cobb to plant an idea in a competitor's head. The process, known as "inception," is largely untested and very risky. Nolan's script spends roughly the first hour of the movie establishing these risks and the complexities that go into mitigating them. It makes these early minutes slower than one would expect, but it's necessary; when the shit heads for the fan, it's much more fun if we know what's at stake.

Whether it be extraction or inception, Cobb's plans are meticulous. For example, the dream world that the thieves enter is never that of the victim. Instead, one of the thieves constructs a dream world in his or her own mind, then the victim is slipped into it. It ensures that the situation is as tightly controlled as possible. The variable? The imagined people inhabiting the dream are created by the person entering it. This means that your average heist must be pulled off in a setting filled with projections of the victim's subconscious – crowds of people keeping a suspicious eye on foreigners at all times.

Cobb brings a problem of his own into the equation: He's a little hung up on his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). As a result, she occasionally pries her way into a dream and wreaks havoc. Cobb's baggage is ostensibly the core of the movie. Nolan works hard to give the film a strong emotional thread, but it never quite resonates; Mal's scenes are often intense, but never moving. This is likely due to Cobb's impenetrable, sullen attitude. (Yet even the great supporting actors struggle to achieve some sort of presence amid all of the plot machinery.)

Mal serves the film a bit better on a plot level. With Cobb's plans keeping the dreams as tame as possible, she is the wildcard that is guaranteed to make things interesting. The moment Saito's heist begins, she delivers. I don't wish to spoil anything, but the action sequence that ensues makes surprising and harrowing use of a freight train, and it fully benefits from Nolan's disdain for computer-generated fakery. For the most part, however, Mal is content to simply tease Cobb.

Likewise, the main heist (which takes up the back hour and a half) tends to play out more through tense dialogue than surreal visuals. By the time Cobb & Co. have ventured into a dream within a dream within a dream, this has begun to ring false. How can a journey into the sub-sub-subconscious play out so smoothly? Maybe this is just me, but I always envisioned my subconscious as a circus of id-fueled madness. Sure, it makes sense that Cobb would try to control it, but I figured complete failure was inevitable. Things certainly go wrong, and Cobb's story reveals greater complexities during the course of the movie, but the dreamscapes never fully unhinge – they never quite feel dreamlike.

That's where this movie pisses me off.

That amazing shot of Paris folding over itself (heavily featured in trailers) is shortly followed by Cobb's admonishment. Manipulating the scenery in such a way is too flashy, he tells Ariadane (Ellen Page), the latest recruit to his team. Cobb would say this; he's running from his subconscious. But Nolan? Why does he seem to feel the same way? One of the deepest dream levels comes in the form of a bland mountain base shootout – for no good reason – and the film's climax takes place in Cobb's old house, in the midst of a decrepit city. It's slightly surreal but, at this point, we're four dreams deep, in an unplanned face-off with his darkest fears. It's downright lame that the setting is anything short of a mindfuck. What happened? It's not like the budget was running short.

Nolan's execution of his ideas is not a complete letdown thanks to a few strong sequences. The aforementioned training sequence with Cobb and Ariadane is quite fun. She serves as the audience's proxy for most of the movie and the role pays off in this scene. She runs through a city, manipulating every structure conceivable – a brief moment where whimsy overcomes the film's portentousness.

The other highlight is an excellent action scene. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is otherwise criminally underused) has to fight off a few guards in a hallway. Thing is, outside of the dream he is in, he is strapped into a tumbling van. The turning feeling has a direct impact on his experience in the dream. So, he must scamper up walls and and across ceilings as the hallway spins around him. The sequence is almost lyrical as it cuts between Gordon-Levitt scrambling to stay upright and slow-motion images of his unconscious body swaying inside the vehicle.

That scene, as well as the zero-gravity scenes that follow, is a marvel of special effects. I have absolutely no idea how Nolan and his team achieved these effects and, frankly, I do not want to know. Especially when one studies film, moments of genuine movie magic become very rare. This film provides a few such moments.

But, god damnit, those moments are just too few and far between to elevate Inception to greatness. Other than a devilish cutaway at the very end that leaves one major question unanswered, Inception leaves little of consequence to ponder. Nolan seems unable or unwilling to fully explore his biggest ideas; they are, instead, confined to the conceptual stage. Consequently, what could have been a landmark sci-fi epic is little more than a solid thriller.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Inception That Proves the Rule

Inception is not Christopher Nolan's best film, but it may be the most representative film he has yet directed, a summation of his career thus far. With its twisty plot, its awe-inspiring visions, and its ambiguity, it seems the quintessential Christopher Nolan film. It's a shame that it also suffers from Nolan's few, but vexing, bad habits.

(I'll try and avoid explicit spoilers, but some plot twists will be implicit in my review.)

Inception is Nolan's most "high concept" film yet, a mixture of crime drama, thriller, science fiction, and psychological study. The film's title refers to the feat of entering a person's mind, manipulating their dreams, and planting a new, potentially all-consuming, idea. Unfortunately for our protagonists – I'm loathe to call them heroes – inception is nigh-impossible to pull off, and its practitioners run the risk of losing themselves in their own minds.

Nolan manages to make the plot of Inception plausible, and there may rest his greatest triumph in the film. The infiltration and manufacture of dreams are, of course, utterly fantastic ideas. Yet by showing how it's done in his world – and by having his characters raise objection to the concept – he successfully coaxes the audience past their disbelief. Based off my first viewing, the rules of the dream world are internally consistent; we understand (more or less) the dream technology and its limitations. Nolan's dreams have more rules and regulations than do our dreams; there's no gap for deus ex machinae to come through.

Inception's surprisingly wide-ranging plots allows Nolan to introduce a number of themes and motifs from his earlier work. As with Memento and The Prestige, the new movie begins near the story's chronological end. The relationship between the "hero" Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) seems a direct lift from Memento. One can take the central dream caper as an expanded and deepened take on the Joker's bank robbery in The Dark Knight, while the extended planning scenes bring to mind The Prestige's interest in process and preparation. Ellen Page's Ariadne has an obviously symbolic name, just Al Pacino's Dormer did in Insomnia. The ending too reminds me of earlier Nolan films; more than that I shall not say.

Ever since Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan has had the reputation of being a bad director of action scenes, though I think several of The Dark Knight's sequences are brilliant. The action and chase pieces of Inception, however, suffers from poor choreography and planning. One dream sequence involves a gun fight in a crowded city, yet it's very difficult to determine who's who and who we ought be rooting for. A later sequence in a snow field has similar problems: heroes and "villains" dress so similarly as to make identification impossible. At least you could tell Batman and the Joker apart. The dream sequences don't lack for visual interest, but the most compelling dreams – folding and mirrored cities, M.C. Escher staircases, the dark heart of Cobb's subconscious – all seem to occur within the first hour of the film. With all the gunplay and explosions, there's precious little room for beauty.

While Inception has a large cast of big names, I was rather surprised at how little screen time certain actors get. Michael Caine in particular felt underused, having at most five minutes of screen time in a two hour movie; his role seems little more than a charming cameo. Though the story belongs to Cobb, Mal, and Ariadne, I was generally impressed by Nolan's efforts in fleshing out the minor characters. Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy, who held small roles in previous Nolan films, both acquit themselves well of their increased screen time.

I was hoping that I would love Inception as much as I do The Dark Knight, that the film would be a science fiction masterpiece. The new movie isn't as good as The Dark Knight, but I think it's one of Nolan's better films, and hardly a misstep for the director. It's beautiful and surprising, but the pacing and some of the extended action scenes really damage the film's impact. Inception may not the best film in Nolan's fine career, but I'm already looking forward to rewatching it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Inception Incoming


Mere hours from now, Christopher Nolan's Inception will open nationwide. If you have been following Mr. Keeley and me long enough, you'll know that we've been ceaselessly anticipating the film for a year now. I could joke, as I have in past editor's notes, but I have not a single drop of insincerity to share on this topic; I'm shitting myself with excitement.

Mr. Keeley had enough foresight to prepare a Christopher Nolan retrospective over the past months, and it serves as a great warm-up for tomorrow's debut. Nolan's career thus far has been fascinating and varied, yet Inception looks like it brings things full circle. It is the most conspicuous melding yet of his undying fascination with fractured, psychological storylines and his recent assent to mega-budget summer blockbusters. So, take part in Mr. Keeley's look back. It will only deepen your appreciation of Nolan's latest.

Following (1998): "London Lurking"
Memento (2000): "Getting Past the Past"
The Prestige (2006): "Are You Watching Closely?"

As a bonus, here's my review of The Dark Knight (2008), "Fear and Trembling at the Multiplex". Also check out Mr. Keeley's comparison of the trailers for Avatar and Inception from last summer, "Two Trailers" – I think that time has proven it to be dead on.

These six posts should be more than enough to get you as excited as we are but, in case you need further insight into whether or not Inception is worth the ticket price, both Mr. Keeley and I will be posting our reviews of the film in the next week.

See you then, and remember: BRRRM.

- Matt

P.S. I have not forgotten about Twilight. My Eclipse review is forthcoming. If you have read my New Moon review, you know that I absolutely loathe the fact that I'm excited for the third installment.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A View to a Bad Pun

About two years ago, my uncle presented me with a large cardboard box full of books, mostly mysteries and thrillers. Prominent among these books was the complete six-book run of Simon Quinn's "The Inquisitor" series, about Francis Xavier Killy, the Vatican secret agent/assassin who serves fifteen days' penance in a Roman catacomb each time he kills a man. Despite the out-there concept, the kitschy cover art, and my uncle's recommendation, I didn't read any of the books until this week. The Devil in Kansas was a fine entertainment; I regret there are only five more books in the series.

Given the series' absurd premise, I was glad to find that Quinn doesn't strive too hard for plausibility. In less than two hundred pages, F.X. Killy manages a number of feats that would defeat a lesser pulp hero. Let us consider what The Devil in Kansas offers us: There's the motorcycle jump off the enemy tank, the skate chase through the trees, the improbably-piloted drone, and the sabotage of the Chinese rocket, not to mention the Moscow burglary, the two treacherous women, and the foiled plot to assassinate the Pope. What Mr. Killy's adventures lack in plausibility they make up in incident.

Thanks to Tarantino, Rodriguez, et al. today we expect our pulp entertainment to be sexy, violent, crass, and ironic. The Devil in Kansas delivers the blood and sex, but mostly avoids the postmodern trappings of modern pseudo-pulp. The initial premise, it's true, is absurd and perverse, but Quinn's primary audience isn't reading for arch chuckles and raised eyebrows. Quinn plays the numerous sex scenes for titillation, and Killy never does stop to consider the unlikeliness of his various scrapes with death. Characterization doesn't extend very far: Killy is from Boston, dislikes killing, likes women and Jesuits. Yet Killy, suggestive name aside, doesn't murder terribly frequently; in the later stages of the book, his avoidance of violence seems less a moral stance than an obsessive tic. He doesn't mind when his allies gun down Commies and killers, but he scruples to pull the trigger himself. It comes across a bit limp-wristed; one almost imagines our ultra-masculine hero vigorously washing his hands after each regrettable act of murder.

As far as I can tell, the Inquisitor books were never much of a success. There were six books in two years, and then F.X. Killy vanished. Simon Quinn disappeared too, but he's had a better luck than his creation; he was actually Martin Cruz Smith, who went on to fame as the author of Gorky Park, which sold millions of copies and became a major film. One sees a few hints of Smith's later work in The Devil in Kansas; the book's most lively and convincing chapters have Russian locales, and Killy has one of his near-death experiences in Gorky Park.

I'm not going to label The Devil in Kansas a forgotten classic, a pulp masterpiece, or the best thriller of 1974. It's none of these things, which isn't to say that it deserves its obscurity. It has its passages of unfortunate writing – never before have I seen a small group of trees compared to pubic hair, much less read such a description in an action scene – and plausibility has only the smallest of walk-on roles. But it's a hell of a lot of fun and the concept is to die for. I'm looking forward to the sequels. Surely one cannot go wrong with His Eminence, Death or The Last Time I Saw Hell? The first page of each book provides a list of "The Questions" that the following pages will answer. I don't think there's a better way to close this review than an excerpt from these Questions in Last Rites for the Vulture, Killy's final adventure: "Why did the ferociously sexy granddaughter of a would-be saint make love to the Inquisitor in a submerged, shark-infested Cadillac?"

Why the hell not?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dusting off the Old Toys

I don't think I was the only one who cringed upon hearing that a third Toy Story was in production. Especially concerning were the early stages of this film's life; there was a time when Disney had decided to produce the film without the involvement of its creators at Pixar. Thankfully, fate intervened and allowed Pixar to regain full control of the film. While I still worried that making a sequel to a sequel set a bad precedent for such an talented studio, I was sure it would be of high quality.

I wasn't wrong. Pixar isn't capable of making a bad movie; even making a mediocre one would be a big stretch for them. Yet they seem to be stretching a bit with Toy Story 3. There is very little that's wrong with this film but, goddamn it, I can't sit back and dub it another masterpiece. This is nothing more than a solid sequel and, while that would be a victory for just about anyone else, it's a concerning development for The Studio That Can Do No Wrong.

A bit more than ten years have passed since the release of Toy Story 2, and roughly that much time has passed within the movie's world. Andy, the owner of the eponymous toys, is going to college soon, and will likely leave the toys behind. This has left Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the others desperate. They engineer complex plans, making vain attempts to trick their owner into playing with them. Nevertheless, the day arrives when Andy's mother forces him to clean out his room. The teenager opts to put most of his toys into the attic but, through a misunderstanding, all of them end up being donated to Sunnyside Daycare Center. Initially optimistic about all of the new attention they are bound to receive, the toys get a harsh surprise when they find Sunnyside is ruled by a despotic teddy bear named Lotso. Now they must navigate some tense toy politics, not to mention a few dozen insane toddlers.

While Toy Story 3 focuses on the relatively lighthearted events at Sunnyside, the story is framed by some fairly touching themes involving loss and abandonment. I was eight years old when the original film came out, so a brief scene showing home video footage of a young Andy playing with his toys, complete with the indelible "You've Got a Friend in Me" playing in the background, is enough to overwhelm me with a sense of nostalgia. Woody's character arcs nicely, too, as he learns to abandon his unwavering devotion to Andy for something a bit more realistic. None of this quite reaches the emotional heights of WALL-E or Up, but it's still pretty meaty stuff for a movie about toys.

Yet far too much of this film is removed from these themes. The scenes at Sunnyside are consistently entertaining and often funny (especially those with Barbie's boyfriend, Ken), but their relationship with Woody and company's larger plight is not particularly organic. WALL-E led a lonely, repetitive life, so a wild space adventure filled with memorable characters is exactly what he needed. The toys in Toy Story already have each other, so throwing them into a setting with dozens of other characters doesn't have the same resonance. None of the toys (other than Woody) have much importance, either; even Buzz fails to do much beyond adhering to his usual schtick, albeit occasionally en español. While Lotso's history ultimately adds some relevance, this revelation comes too late; much of the time spent at Sunnyside still seems inconsequential – fun, but inconsequential.

Also, the screenplay relies on the same central plot device that the first two movies did: Woody and the toys are taken from Andy's home and must find their way back. Pixar may have grown by leaps and bounds in the past fifteen years, but this film's story doesn't represent that growth as well as it should. On the bright side, it doesn't look like there will be another sequel (unless corporate restructuring rears its ugly head again).

Visually, the film fares a bit better. Director, Lee Unkrich, resists the urge to abandon the original films' visual style, so this may not be the most eye-popping Pixar film in recent years, but anything else would have betrayed the Toy Story universe. The toys still feature excellent animation, moving just enough to convey emotion but being defined by their endearing limitations: Woody's arms flop around behind him when he runs; Barbie and Ken cannot move their fingers; and Lotso's cane sticks to his paw. This movie does sport that troublesome third dimension that wasn't so popular back in 1995, but Unkrich makes the subtlest use of the technology I've seen yet, solely employing it to convey depth of field. The director uses some relatively modern flourishes in the lighting department, too – especially when Lotso's schemes get dirty. Some of these moments feel too cinematic, though, looking so evocative that they uncomfortably hover between parody and earnest drama.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is unequivocally good. Hanks and Allen slip back into their roles easily, as do most of the supporting characters. Michael Keaton and Jodi Benson are hilarious as Ken and Barbie, respectively. There are fun cameos from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Timothy Dalton, Jeff Garlin and others. (Although my favorite cameo is a mute Totoro doll.)

Honestly, I think that I've documented here every conceivable complaint one could level against Toy Story 3. This is not a bad film by any measure, but it is neither particularly well-conceived nor audacious. While it does give a beloved series a fond farewell, it does not elevate it to new heights or provide any new perspective on the characters; it's trivial.

It's also a harbinger of movies to come. Sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc. are in the works at Pixar. I love both of those films, but I never saw any need to continue their stories. This suggests that the future holds more decent fare like Toy Story 3 than it does masterpieces like WALL-E. Only an alarmist would say that Pixar is falling from grace, but maybe they've finally plateaued.