Hammering Out . . . INCEPTION

Hammering Out . . . INCEPTION
Inception.  148 mins.  PG-13.  Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan.  Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine.
JOHN: Christopher Nolan is one of the most consistently excellent directors working in movies today, and with his latest film, the dazzlingly dense Inception, he practically saves Hollywood from this summer's rut of uninspired sequels and remakes.  Here, you have a studio-financed (to the tune of some $175 million) original and, yes, gamble of a movie that requires audiences to watch with eyes wide open and senses fully attuned.  Inception is complicated, sure, but it's couched in an audience-friendly "heist movie" device that hooks you while Nolan throws all sorts of imaginative and thought-provoking images and ideas at you.  The story is nearly impossible to describe and do it justice, but let's just say it involves a crack team of criminals banding together to implant an idea in someone's head by burrowing several layers deep into that person's dreams.  What is real?  What is a dream?  Inception practically demands that you see it more than once.  And you'll be glad you did.  I've seen it twice now, and my appreciation for the movie doubled the second time around.  I don't think it's a flawless film (more on that later), but, mark my words, it is groundbreaking - a movie that easily holds its own against other movies that obviously inspired it - movies like Blade Runner, 2001, and The Matrix - and one that audiences will still be revering 20 years down the line.  Jules?
JULIE: I am definitely on board the Christopher Nolan locomotive.  Wherever he wants me to go, I will follow him.  It's official.  I went into this movie fully prepared to be disappointed for three reasons.  1) Nearly every movie this year has been disappointing (Toy Story 3 excepted). 2) You, John, seemed less than enthused after seeing Inception on Friday night.  And 3) Nolan is due for a major frak up.  But I have to say, this film had my attention from the very beginning.  The story itself was straightforward enough that it wasn't a burden on the twisty-ness of the film.  The acting was superb (even if Ken Watanabe was difficult to understand at times).  (And I just want to put it out there that I think Leonardo DiCaprio would make a sensational villain in the next Batman movie).  Hans Zimmer's score was gripping, but not obtrusive.  And the special effects (to which I'm usually numb) were mesmerizing.  It's rare these days to see a movie that genuinely surprises the eyes.  We're all so jaded at this point by the explosions and blowing up of city streets (a-hem, Michael Bay).  It's breathtaking to see effects that blend so seamlessly into the cinematography that they seem almost probable in real life.  Now here I go waxing poetic about special effects.  What have you done to me, Christopher Nolan?
JOHN: Yeah, the special effects are fantastic.  I just love the fact that Nolan used all of his Dark Knight clout to do such a huge movie, but one that's personally interesting to him (he'd been working on the idea for nearly 10 years) and not so obviously commercial.  This is a passion project and it shows.  The second you sit down to watch Inception, you just know that you're in good hands.  The pure filmmaking on display in Inception is breathtaking and makes other movies look like complete hack jobs.  You've already mentioned the effects, the acting, and the score (also check out the trailer music here) - all excellent, but the cinematography and editing are top notch as well.  I'm guessing Inception is going to be a very strong contender come Oscar season.
You mentioned that I was less than ecstatic about it when I saw it the first time on Friday  night.  True, but I was tired and I think I dozed off for a few seconds at a time.  That was enough though to get me confused and I unfairly took it out on the movie.  Having had the benefit of seeing it a second time (without any interruptions), I can see the light now.  Inception requires your full attention, but it's not confusing - Nolan lays out all of the rules of the universe he's created and, even when the movie goes crazy with all the dream within a dream within a dream stuff at the end, Nolan maintains a clear distinction between each layer, and editor Lee Smith seamlessly cuts between four or five different scenes all happening at the same time.  Difficulty: high.  But they pull it off.  I guess the lesson here is: stay focused, don't tune out, and you'll be rewarded.
JULIE: This is definitely a "no beverage" movie.  There's really no good moment to leave the theater.
You mentioned that this was a "passion project" for Nolan, and I hope that the success of Inception will lead to more studios taking more risks with talented and creative people and their passion projects. The studios have (smartly) turned over some of their biggest franchises to visionary directors, who have in turn made the studios a ton of money.  It would be nice to see the studios return the favor and give big money to the likes of Sam Raimi and Alfonso Cuaron to see what kind of magic they could spin with an innovative story and a giant budget (complete with marketing and everything).
One negative about Inception: I don't get the whole casting-Marion-Cotillard-in-movies thing.  Don't know if I ever will.
JOHN: I don't know, she's not bad in this.  I think her character is hard to get a read on because we never really knew her before she died.  Her Mal is only seen as a projection in Leo's mind - and a constantly twisting, unlikeable one at that.  So much of the movie though hinges on Leo's guilt over her death, his being framed for her murder, and his separation from their kids that resulted.  If there's one big knock against Inception, it's the lack of emotional connectivity to the material.  I get that the human anchor to all the dreamscape, sci-fi madness is Leo's taking on one last job to get back to his kids - the emotional and motivational arc is there on paper - it's identifiable, but because we can never really trust what we're seeing on screen, we never see the kids as anything but cyphers - pawns in Leo's mind.  Maybe that's all they are.
Like I said earlier, Inception is not flawless.  The character development apart from Leo's Dom Cobb, is nil, the dreamscapes have great potential but ultimately boil down to being chased around by men with guns (really rather ordinary if you think about it), and there's some clunky exposition, with characters sitting down and spelling out the mechanics of the plot in long monologues.  I could have used a few more laughs (Tom Hardy gets a fair share of chuckles as Eames, the Forger, but that's about it) and more Michael Caine (he's in it like, what, 2 minutes?).  A little less of the third dream layer set in a snowy landscape straight out of On Her Majesty's Secret Service wouldn't have been a bad thing either - everybody wears ski masks, making it hard to tell them apart and the action is kind of repetitive.
But these imperfections don't hold a candle to the movie's standout moments.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt's gravity-defying action scene in a constantly swirling hotel hallway is spectacular.  The scene where Ellen Page walks through Paris shifting the dreamscape while Leo trains her - awesome (love when she turns those two mirrors towards each other).  And how 'bout that ending?  Both times I saw it, the audience reaction was the same: a mix of groaning and laughter - as if to say, "Damn you Nolan!  I knew you would do that.  I hate you for it.  But I love you too."  What were your favorite moments?
JULIE: I'll answer your question in a minute.  I'm still not sold on Marion Cotillard.  She was miscast in Public Enemies, and she's just kind of there in this movie.  I suspect she'll go the way of Juliette Binoche in a few years' time.  Just because you can cast an Oscar winner in your movie doesn't mean you should cast an Oscar winner in your movie (see: Berry, Halle or Swank, Hilary (in every movie for which she didn't win an Oscar) for reference).
Also, I didn't find this movie to be that cold emotionally.  I didn't think it was any less emotional than Leo's last film, Shutter Island, to which Inception bears some similarities.  It was nowhere near as emotional as Toy Story 3, but it didn't need to be.  Inception is a heist film first and foremost, and how many heist films suck you in emotionally?
Finally, my favorite moments.  I think you mentioned most of them, but I was pretty much happy every time Eames was on the screen (You're right, the movie could've used more of him).
JOHN: I think in every heist movie, you have a rooting interest in the team succeeding in pulling off the job - I mean, c'mon, you want Clooney's Danny Ocean to take down the smug Andy Garcia!  I don't think you have that here, but, luckily, there are so many other things to occupy your interest.  I'm going to wrap this up now.  It's funny - I'm oddly reminded of 2008.  That year, the two best movies were from Nolan (The Dark Knight) and Pixar (Wall-E).  2010 is shaping up to be the same thanks to Inception and Toy Story 3.  My rating: ****1/2.
JULIE: I'll see your 4.5 stars and raise it another half.  I give it: *****.
JOHN: One more thing - if you've already seen it, you probably have a ton of questions.  Here's a good place to start.


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  • "I suspect she'll go the way of Juliette Binoche in a few years' time."

    You mean find her niche in non-American films and create a body of work second to none? It always amuses me when American critics assume that every European actress wants to make it big in Hollywood. Binoche never did and instead she has managed to work with some of the finest directors in the world today and give some of the best performances of recent years (Cache, Flight of the Red Balloon, Summer Hours, Disengagement and Certified Copy).

    While Cotillard seems to be going the Hollywood route (and good luck to her), it is not the only route and certainly not the most fulfilling artistically... but then for American critics if it's not mainstream and high-profile it's a failure.

  • I think I'll split the difference and go 4.75 stars. I know nit-picking and I should probably go one way or the other but I can't. This movie is so amazing it deserves the 5 stars. But on the other hand I think it still falls just slightly shy of perfection.

    I was curious to see your thoughts on this and mostly agree with them. I did not like the last shot. It's one of the few moments in the film that everyone in the theater saw coming. Let the people in the audience who already suspected continue to suspect and don't confuse the rest.

    The other thing that I felt was lacking was a bit more of an idea of what everyone else was responsible for during the heist. Perhaps I need my second viewing and maybe it's because of the fact that the plan changed almost immediately due to the guards. But you wonder (or maybe just I wonder) what part of the 3rd level was Leo supposed to play? Again, I understand layers 1+2 and what everyone was there for, but in the original plan what were they going to do in layer 3?

    But again, there's a ridiculous amount of exposition that they needed to get through and it's hard to hit all of it. For the most part I thought they did a brilliant job of it.

  • Nice to hear from you Hein! Glad you liked it - I had a hunch that you might. I think it's easy to pick it apart on first viewing, but give it a year or so and I think this has a good chance of settling into a 5-star movie.

    I agree with you about Layer 3. There is an awesome chart about the dream layers at http://www.cinemablend.com/new/An-Illustrated-Guide-To-The-5-Levels-Of-Inception-19643.html

    As for heroxmasox above - I don't speak for Julie and I'll let her back up her thoughts, but can agree that Juliette Binoche has had a fine career outside of Hollywood. Still, she did Dan in Real Life and that is unforgivable. Also - I enjoyed your reference to "American critics." I like to picture you outside on a veranda, smoking a cigarette, stroking a cat, with a disgusted look on your face while you say that.

  • She did do Dan in Real Life, and while I don't know for sure, I suspect that she did it to facilitate her working on low and even no budget films.

    As for smoking and stroking... not while I type

  • It was one of the best pictures I've seen in a long time, and I'm seeing comparisons to Stanley Kubrick, who is one of my favorite directors. I've seen one theory that he was dreaming the whole flight from Tokyo, and everything after he woke up on the plane was reality. That makes for a tidy package, but the idea that the whole movie is a dream state is an inception for the audience.

    With good box office, I really wonder if that means a sequel, which I just don't think could ever live up to this. I hope it always stands on its own, although somebody will surely do a cheap knock-off.

  • I hope they don't do a sequel to it. Though if Nolan was on board, I would certainly line up to see it anyway.

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