Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spoiler Alert!

It's about dreams.

Okay, it's actually a whole lot more than dreams, but to be completely honest, I'm not sure how much I can say about Christopher Nolan's latest piece of art, Inception, without giving away any of the plot devices, spoilers, twists, turns or character development that the trailers were quite careful not to give away (unusual for a big-budget Hollywood flick). It's quite the conundrum, wanting to write a thousand-word review without saying anything revealing..

And so I've come up with a compromise. See Inception. That's all I can say right now, all I SHOULD need to say right now. If I can't talk about the movie without giving it away to those of you who HAVEN'T seen it, and it it's an excellent enough movie that I don't want to spoil it for you, then I suggest you see the movie, come back, and we can continue with this conversation.


Are you still there? Or have you come back? Well, then... (clears throat)


(Just to make sure you were paying attention)

Anyone who knows me realizes that I have had, and still do have, problems with Leonardo DiCaprio. I know, he gets touted as Hollywood royalty, and no I haven't seen What's Eating Gilbert Grape which was supposed to be his early-days best film, but I never got into his movies. For years, I would justify these feelings with how bad his movies were (The Beach) or how he was constantly being overshadowed by his supporting actors when they simply out-acted him (Gangs of New York). And of course nobody talks about his performance in Titanic (except perhaps to ridicule it). So for years I remained unimpressed by this so-called wunderkind while others flocked to rightfully steal his thunder and shove themselves into spotlights which before might have been reserved for Leo.

Then came The Aviator.

The Howard Hughes biopic, while not a perfect film, was up to that point owner of the finest Dicaprio performance to date, with the actor almost flawlessly stepping ton Hughes' loafers, portraying the industry magnate with a fiery energy almost unseen in his career. Of course, one movie makes not a career, and only time would tell whether this had been a fluke or if he was truly beginning to "get it." The latter seems to be the case, since after The Aviator, Leo has starred in several notable films with nary a blotch inbetween. With The Departed, Revolutionary Road, and Shutter Island, DiCaprio finally seems to be living up to his potential as a performer (and, though the Academy didn't agree, actually deserved an Oscar nomination for his role in Revolutionary Road). It remains to be seen if he can keep it up but for now I don't have the dread feeling of impending failure when I see he's headlining a film these days.

And so I was actually excited to see Inception, the latest mind-fuck by Christopher Nolan (the man who made Batman cool again), but not just for Leo. Inception boasts a strong cast, with up-and-comers Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy and Ellen Page, and veteran performers Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy and Pete Postlethwaite flanking DiCaprio. It was like Nolan got his shopping list out and grabbed every great actor he wanted, no fuss no muss. As the writer, writer, and producer of the film, Nolan took what could have easily been a glorified Matrix rip-off and instead produced a fine piece of filmmaking, creating what might be one of the better films this decade, let alone this year.

You might think that last bit was a little bit of hyperbole, but I honestly think this film is too smart, too clever, too GOOD to end up on the wayside. I once thought Nolan would be remembered for reviving the Batman franchise, but I'm confident that he'll be to this movie what the Wachowski Brothers are to The Matrix. What makes Inception different from the superhero-like Matrix, however, is it's genre. It's a heist film, and a giddy heist film at that, but one that, unlike most such films, also has emotional stakes which drive the movie forward, in addition to the genre's standard practices. As Cobb, the group's leader, DiCaprio had to be that character who's doing what he can with what he knows to recover from his wife's death and be able to return home to his children. That, more than the dream scenarios or fantastic effects, are what drive the film forward, and Leo handles the role with a talent I honestly didn't know he had ten years ago. You see the pain in his eyes, the tiredness and wanting to go home, to somehow redeem himself for the guilt he feels he put on himself.

And let's not forget the rest of the cast, who put on something of a clinic themselves. Gordon-Levitt has gone from indie favorite to rock star in his role as DiCaprio's partner in crime Arthur, a man so bodily beaten in this film it's surprising he can still stand at the end. Whoever's running Ellen Page's career deserves major kudos as well, as the in-her-prime Canadian actress once again wows and dominates most of the scenes she's in. Those she doesn't steal are pretty much in the hands of Hardy, whose suave forger (who can imitate other characters in dreams) always has the perfect quip to suit the occasion. He also becomes one of the ones to root for in the film's closing moments, led only by Arthur. Cotillard may be the best, vacillating between the loving wife DiCaprio remembers and the scorned personification of his guilt as she foils his jobs. Not as much is seen of Watanabe or Murphy, but both put on the respectable performances they are known to be capable of. Rarely do you see this level of talent in an ensemble cast, and nobody mixes poorly with the others, proving Nolan cast this piece well.

One of Inception's best qualities is that Nolan does his best to eschew the idea of shoving CGI graphics into any part of the film that is difficult to shoot. While CGI was necessary to add to create some of the more outlandish sequences in the dream worlds (including the "folding earth" moment shown in the trailer) some of the movie's more famous scenes were done in real time, with multiple cameras catching the action simultaneousy. Some of these, like the infamous exploding Paris bistro scene with Dicaprio and Page, or the rotating hallway fight involving Gordon-Lovitt, were done without CGI in very tricky shots that any other director might have done entirely using computers. The only instance where this hurts is in the very beginning of the film, where Watanabe's old-man prosthetics look extremely fake and haggard, but that's a minor quibble. Thankfully, Nolan's old-school attitude made sure that no fake-looking CGI ruled the day, and his extraordinary directorial talents made sure the scenes looked fantastic.

(Okay, even if you didn't take it seriously before, SPOILER WARNING!!)

With a story that cuts deep and manages to surprise, Nolan has brought us a film that hopefully will be remembered years from now as a modern classic. But is is truly over? I've heard more than one viewer wondering aloud about the ending of the film, which keeps the idea open that Cobb may not have woken up and may be still in fact dreaming. My opinion is, whether yes or no, it doesn't matter. Cobb's journey was to accept the circumstances that led to his wife's death, nothing more. Whether he's really awake or stuck in a dream, his guilt is assuaged, and he can once again be happy. And that's what this last job has really been about. It was never about the idea of actually pulling off inception, but about redeeming himself, to himself, stopping his self-sabotage and being able to go home again one day.

And if you're happy, who are others to say whether it's real?

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