- The Lunch: Todd Sklar & Alex Rennie of ‘Awful Nice’
- The Lunch: Critics Alonso Duralde & Dave White on ‘Robocop,’ Reagan & Rye …
- The Lunch, with Standup & Author DC Pierson on ‘Wolf of Wall Street’
- The Lunch with Justin Simien, Writer-Director of Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner ‘Dear White People’
- The Lunch Closes Out Sundance 2014 with William B. Goss of Film.com
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Monthly Archives: July 2010
While watching “Dinner for Schmucks,” you may get the feeling you’ve seen all this before. This feeling is not unwarranted. Paul Rudd plays a man who gains moral guidance and purpose from an unexpected source, just as he did in “I Love You, Man” and “Role Models.” Steve Carell plays an off-kilter outsider with what is ultimately revealed as a decent heart, just as he did in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Get Smart.” “Dinner for Schmucks” is itself an Americanization of a French farce, 1998′s “Le Diner de Cons,” with “Meet the Parents” director Jay Roach at the helm. While the whole enterprise is filling, it also feels a little bit reheated, more made from a mix off the shelf than made-to-order with fresh ingredients.
Rudd is Tim, an analyst at Fender Financial Services who craves a promotion, in no small part to impress his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak). His work has gotten him on the radar with his boss Fender (Bruce Greenwood), which leads to a new challenge. Tim is asked to participate in a regular dinner the executives at Fender throw as a competition to see who can invite the biggest loser to be put on display for the smirking amusement of the gathered money managers, with the clear implication that putting in effort for the ironically named “Dinner for Winners” will be rewarded. Tim is torn between revulsion and greed, at which point he runs into Barry (Carell), literally, as Barry is in the road finding a new subject for his hobby of mouse taxidermy.
With his tragic haircut and rodent-like overbite, Barry’s clumsy, clueless and stilted — and thus the perfect candidate for Tim to bring to the “Dinner for Winners.” Much like Francis Veber’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” similarly Americanized as “The Birdcage,” the story here contains plenty of familiar farce elements — overheard conversations, poorly thought-out schemes, inadvisable impersonations and the right thing ultimately being done only after multiple efforts to do the wrong thing have failed spectacularly. Roach’s directorial approach seems to be limited to getting out of his actor’s way — there is a nice touch of style as Zach Galifianakis, playing an IRS manager who believes he has the ability to control the human mind, is shot in a series of ever-nearer close-ups as he unleashes his power — and by and large the approach works.
It works in no small part because the cast around Rudd and Carell is so good. Jemaine Clement (of TV’s “Flight of the Conchords“) plays a self-centered artist in a way that’s both overdone and understated. Galifianakis glares out over his beard to surprising effect, and David Walliams (of “Little Britain“) is excellent as Herr Mueller, the vain Swiss upper-class twit Tim’s desperate to land as a client for Fender. But the film, and we, keep coming back to Rudd and Carell, and even if “Dinner for Schmucks” is just another reiteration of things they’ve done many times before — Rudd with his bemused, askew deadpan, Carell with his halting awkwardness — it is at least well-executed. Roach’s screenwriters (David Guion and Michael Handelman) open up Veber’s story from its roots on the stage, and also manage one of the most silly-but-sad, funny-but-true sight gags I’ve seen in a long time, as Tim peruses some of Barry’s work and unlocks a little of what makes Barry tick.
“Dinner for Schmucks” could have used a little more of that kind of inspiration, even though the laughs do come through fairly consistently and with a minimum of padding around them. It seems mean and sour to state that your biggest complaint about a comedy is that it didn’t consistently kick into the realm of the truly hysterical, and yet nothing served up in the movie is at the level of comedy or consistency attained in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or “Role Models.” Considering that Roach is the director who wrung three films out of such meager beginnings as “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” and “Meet the Parents,” it feels almost inevitable we’ll be offered a second serving of “Dinner for Schmucks” at some point, but it’s hard not to think the portion offered here is just enough to satisfy anyone looking for a few laughs.
“Inception” is polarizing people into love-it or hate-it camps. Some hail it as director Christopher Nolan‘s masterpiece; others consider it a frigid folly. Some see it as an inventive look at the world of dreams; some view it as a slumber-inducing rehash of themes and vision that Hollywood’s given us all too many times before. It’s been offered as an extended metaphor for the art of moviemaking, and rejected as an extended lesson in what’s wrong with the art of moviemaking. And even here at MSN Movies our writers are arguing about the film, and so we figured we’d spin them up like Cobb’s top and see which one wobbled and which point of view would be left standing. For the defense, James Rocchi, who wrote MSN Movies’ 4.5-out-of-5-star review of “Inception,” and for the prosecution, Mary Pols, a member of the reviewing team here who has a somewhat different take on the film.
I’m not one of these critics who’re going to hail “Inception” as an instant classic or a masterpiece — I always find that kind of hype disconcerting — but I do think it’s an impressive and affecting film, a very, very good and exciting movie, with a few serious (and yet entertainingly distinctive) flaws. I also think that in a summer — and movie culture — so dedicated to big-buck, big-bang (occasionally brainless) action films or small-scale (occasionally smug) indie films, “Inception” is a phenomenon unto itself: a $160 million movie that wants to not only dazzle but be about something.
What’s really exciting is following Facebook and Twitter to see that people — actual people, not just film-nerds — are excited about “Inception,” and talking about it, and trying to pry its secrets loose. Again, I don’t think “Inception” is perfect, but it is ambitions and interesting, not just as a film but as a moment in the modern film industry, and I’ll take that any day after more, more, more of the same, same, same.
Serious flaws? But you gave the movie four-and-a-half stars! Take one back! I think those of us who spend one quarter of our professional lives wondering why summer movies have to stink were indeed genuinely excited for it; it was the summer’s great hope for grown-ups. But a lot of the critical gushing I’ve seen feels like the hangover to that hope rather than true love. I walked out of there thinking, that’s it? The great “Inception” is tedious nonsense?
I like the concept: Someone trying to plant a dark seed in someone’s subconscious in hopes that they might be influenced to certain action. As soon as they make that machine for real, I’m going to use it to get my kid to do his homework. But using it for a form of corporate espionage was way too bloodless for me. I had nothing vested in whether pretty Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy) would consider breaking up his father’s vast company thereby destroying its monopoly on the world’s energy systems. Partly because there’s no good guy there. I didn’t start thinking Saito was my hero just because he got shot in the chest; he’s just another corporate creep trying to make more money. But also, breaking up monopolies? Anyone remember the early ’80s when they split up the telephone company monopoly with AT&T and the Bells and for a while there was competition but, gee, hey, in 2010, guess who sends me a bill every month for my phone service? AT&T! So pardon my cynicism about how dramatically different the world’s energy industry will look after Cobb and Co. have had their way with Fischer.
Dreams are cool when you’re having them. But there’s no quicker way to get rid of someone you don’t want to talk to than to start describing the dream you had the night before about your father and the time he took you to a baseball game and got you this big bag of peanuts and a pinwheel — I’m sorry, are you already nodding off? Of course you are. Because this story is real to me, but it’s not real to you, because it’s a damn dream. It just represents the goofy stuff in your subconscious, squished in with whatever mass media you took in that day. In the case of “Inception,” we’re supposed to care about three layers of stuff that isn’t actually happening to anyone. Because none of it is real, the screenplay has to introduce a last-minute MacGuffin — this concept of sinking into Limbo and being trapped there forever while your brain rots — to keep things exciting. This dream team gathers to discuss every avenue of their plan and each potential thing that could go wrong, without ever discussing the Limbo issue? I felt insulted on the behalf of the dream team: They are all brilliant, allegedly, and they would have known about Limbo. And they’d be as annoyed as I was about the way it was thrown at them late in the game.
But let’s get to sex, which I am happy to admit to dreaming about. Why doesn’t anyone have it or dream of it in “Inception”? James, if you had Marion Cotillard running around your dreams, wouldn’t you occasionally at least try to look down her shirt?
While the idea of looking down Ms. Cotillard’s shirt is appealing in theory — I am not a Communist robot — I’m way more interested in the scary, sublime way she turned to look at Ellen Page (or, rather, the dream-version of her, made of memories and regrets) when interrupted. I think that you raise one of the more firmly voiced criticisms of “Inception,” Mary — namely, that Christopher Nolan’s characters have boring dreams, or at the least, dreams that look like Bond-movie pastiches directed by Michael Bay. But that, I suggest, is tactical: The idea that Cobb and his team are trying to salt away in Cillian Murphy’s head to take root has to feel like life. Sure, the movie’s dreamed sequences could have taken place in a dreamscape that looked like a Yes album cover, full of floating islands and dragons and naked people, but that dreamscape, easily dismissed upon waking, isn’t a good place to plant a seed that will flower subtly to intertwine with the waking thoughts of the real world.
Sure, I gave “Inception” four-and-a-half stars — and even mentioned in my review that it was good even beyond merely shining brighter against the dim background of its summer peers — because I did find it exciting, thrilling and, yes, moving. No, the movie’s not nakedly emotional, but if I have to pick between a movie being a little detached and having it squirm up in my lap like a untrained puppy, well, I’ll take “Inception” over “Forrest Gump” or “What Dreams May Come” any day of the week, and twice on weekends. I think the triple-bill that would put “Inception” in context would be to watch it alongside “Vertigo” and “Solaris” (either the Tarkovsky or the Soderbergh, with the later being a time-saver) — all films that look like genre pieces but instead, each with varying degrees of success, focus more on the inner lives of protagonists in strange and bizarre outer worlds.
And Saito’s not a good guy, but the world is often a choice between the more convenient, never mind lesser, of two evils. And the Limbo device is a last-minute reveal, but it’s an effective one, because it does put stakes on the table. I’m a fool for films where two things have to happen in two separate places, and I thought “Inception” had the amazing nested plotting. The van can’t crash, Arthur can’t fail, Fischer has to get into the vault — that kind of playful majesty is immensely appealing to me. And finally, even if I did take a star off “Inception”‘s rating for its flaws, I’d still add a star-and-a-half for what it represents: a big bold movie that isn’t based on another movie, TV show or comic-book with absolutely no possibility of, or need for, a sequel. I want more of that kind of courage out of big Hollywood, and I will absolutely reward it with both my praise as a critic and my cash as a customer.
I’d have preferred a boring little dream with Ma and Pa and Baby Fischer at the breakfast table. But none of Fischer Jr.’s three dreams felt remotely like life; they all feel like Hollywood movies we’ve seen before. Specifically action movies. You referenced “Heat” in your review; that sequence in Fischer Dream Level 1, a shootout in what looked like downtown Los Angeles, reminded me so much of “Heat” I started looking for Val Kilmer. Dream Level 2, in the hotel, might have been more interesting if anyone besides Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) remained awake. The ferrying of inert bodies lashed together was visually wonderful, but watching his wordless, careful placement and retrieval of small explosive devices was as exciting as watching the housekeeper make up the bed. We get to Level 3, in the snowcapped mountains and there’s more shooting. I’d rather have seen the Abominable Snowman — now there’s an image from childhood — wander through that landscape than see a further demonstration in the capacities of missile launchers, guns and grenades. Or send a bikini-clad Bond babe by in the snow! Zac Efron in a thong. Something, anything, to show that dreams can and often do contain incongruities and humor.
Your triple bill would lay me flat: I’d have to fall asleep to escape Natascha McElhone‘s smirk in Soderbergh’s “Solaris.” It almost sounds like you’re saying we should give “big” Hollywood credit for being kind enough to make something halfway decent. The standard should be higher; after all, their greed isn’t technically a handicap. And in this case, I wish the studio pockets had been less deep. Nolan “dreamed” big because he had the budget to CGI himself an avalanche and a train driving down Main Street (OK, that effect I liked). That’s not courage, that’s capitalizing on an opportunity. (Meanwhile, “The Kids Are All Right” looked like it was shot on an iPhone, but what a spectacular — and courageous — film.) The story suffered as a result. Give David Lynch a dwarf and a dark bar and he’ll give you a nightmare that lasts for decades. Hell, give Nolan Guy Pearce with a packet of yellow Post-its and you get more bang for your buck than you do with “Inception.” I’m not a huge fan of “Memento,” but I was a lot more involved in that my-wife-is-dead sob story. If Cobb’s little top never stops spinning and he’s stuck in his dream world forever, I can live with that. Or not. It’s hard to feel a real sense of urgency for a guy who moves so blindly through the world. Poor Ellen Page: Her lone duty in that movie was to remind Cobb that his emotional fly was open.
There’s an old saying that the only thing worse than a loud argument is a loud agreement — but let me concur with you that, yes, Ellen Page doesn’t come off well here. Part of that is her role, but I think it’s also a matter of miscasting. Every time Page shows up, I expect her to try to sell a box of Thin Mints to the grown-ups alongside her.
And while I like “The Kids Are All Right” a lot, I also like big, expensive, good movies. And “Inception” is a big, expensive, good movie, even with its flaws. (Much like “Gangs of New York,” “Inception” is a visual feast that, for purposes of the narrative, needs to be either an hour shorter or two hours longer.) I can respect “The Kids Are All Right” the same way I like seeing a great indie band in a basement bar, but when I go to a stadium show, I can make the distinction between “Inception”‘s Led Zeppelin (or, maybe, AC/DC or U2) and the Nickelback banality of the “Transformers” films, or the greatest-hits reunion show that “Iron Man 2” wound up being. I think you and I both have problems with “Inception,” but I don’t think they outweigh the energy and the ambition of what’s on-screen, or the energy and excitement you feel in the lobby when people walk out of the theater talking about a movie for once and not merely shrugging and asking each other where they want to eat. Maybe I am giving “Inception” points for trying, but considering how few Hollywood films even try anymore, that alone is reason to celebrate it.
Girl Scouts! You’re mean but right. Page’s size and youthful appearance worked against her: She felt too light for the role physically and emotionally. Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas and Nolan’s casting decisions seemed a bit of the moment — you know, as if he said, now who are the cool indie kids? Let’s just get them in here and see what happens. They’re all talented, and I liked them fine, but I wasn’t convinced any of them but Tom Hardy, the movie’s spark of life, had to be there. These dreams felt overstaffed in that “Ocean’s 13″ way.
I like the stadium shows, too. But the rhythm of this one seemed off. With special effects-heavy movies, usually you get a buildup, a little taste of wow, followed by scenes that steadily ramp up to “blow your mind.” I was more titillated by the opening dream with that creepy approaching street violence and Ariadne’s trip into pop-up (and fold-over) Paris than the three dreams that came later. And I began to dread Cobb and Mal’s interactions, because they were so static, it was a man arguing with his own guilty conscience. His dead guilty conscience. Not a lot of suspense there. Here’s the truth: I wanted “Inception” to be weirder and darker. I wanted to be puzzled and shaken by it, to find it emotionally unruly instead of just full of physical mayhem. I wanted to chew over its meaning for days to come. In short, I wanted it to feel like a dream.
I cannot say, precisely, why it is that “Ramona and Beezus” won me over, but it did, and almost entirely. Based on Beverly Cleary’s long-loved kid-lit series (which first debuted in 1955) about the titular Quimby sisters, “Ramona and Beezus” is a small-scale story of life and learning, of setbacks large and small and triumphs major and minor. It is neither dark nor dour, but it also does not kid itself about the messy realities of life as part of a family.
Everyone in it is charming and easy to watch, and there is enough grown-up stuff wedged in between kid-friendly antics — a romantic subplot will make way for a water fight, dad losing his job will be discussed alongside animated flights of fancy — that parents will be engaged without their kids being bored and, for that matter, vice-versa.
Ramona Quimby (Joey King) lives with her mom (Bridget Moynahan), dad (John Corbett), little sister Roberta (Aila and Zanti McCubbing) and older sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) in Portland. Ramona is always getting things a little wrong — Beezus’ nickname comes from her inability to pronounce ‘Beatrice,’ for example –but her family, including Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), loves her very much due to her irrepressible spirit.
“If you can’t be brave at recess,’ Ramona muses as her trip along the climbing rings morphs via computer effects into a perilous traverse across a canyon, “how can you do it when it really counts?” And, yes, I know — reading this, you may feel the emotional equivalent of diabetes kicking in, as your system is overwhelmed by what seems like the syrupy sweetness of that encapsulation.
But then dad loses his job, and things get a little tense around the Quimby household — more so than usual, like when Beezus and Ramona quibble and quarrel and Beezus hides her report card in the freezer. But there’s also comfort to be had in the Quimby family as they come together, and distractions like Aunt Bea’s long-over romance with her boy-next door high school flame Hobart (Josh Duhamel).
It’s easy to praise the grown-up actors here — Duhamel, once you remove him from the presence of talking robots, is a talented light comedic actor, while Goodwin plays a perfect hipster aunt — but Corbett makes every moment he has on-screen work. While his talking to Ramona about economic reality is hardly Atticus Finch explaining evil, good and what a chiffarobe is to Scout on the front porch, Corbett’s scenes with King have a real warmth to them, and he brings the understated elemental good heart of Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay’s screenplay adaptation to life.
And King and Gomez are excellent as well. King’s Ramona is willful and plucky, and you are either rooting for her or wincing at her, and when tough stuff happens, King plays it for real. Gomez is good at conveying an average teen — loving her little sister as much as she loves bugging her, frustrated by fate and boys. (“Who could ever love a girl named ‘Beezus?’” she asks, pining for Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano), and she makes the line surprisingly effective.)
If you were a younger sibling — I was — then you will during “Ramona and Beezus” recall the hand-me-down clothes and custom-made mockery your siblings gave you. If you were an older sibling, you will recall the way that your younger siblings could be the greatest joy, and greatest annoyance, of your life at the time. And if you are a kid, you will laugh as Ramona falls into a giant peanut-butter sandwich when she auditions to be the new Royal Peanut Butter Princess in the hopes of solving her family’s money woes and yet still appreciate her and Beezus’ constant mix of loathing and love.
Director Elizabeth Allen previously made “Aquamarine,” another tale of girl bonding and faith and friendship, and she’s hired some interesting people. John Bailey (“The Big Chill,” both “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” films) does clear, clean work as her cinematographer, and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (“Rushmore,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) provides light, bright music as the film’s composer, while Sandra Oh gets in a few dry, coolly funny lines as Ramona’s teacher Mrs. Meacham. Ramona’s fantasies look like the stylized miniatures of tilt-shift photography; her ordinarily life looks messy and real and true. “Ramona and Beezus” is real family entertainment — sincere, direct, timeless and warm — and while its calamities and celebrations may be lost in the loud boom and bang of summertime action films around it, it’s still a real and sincere pleasure of family filmmaking made not to sell toys or cross-promote a TV show but, rather, to remind us of what really matters.
David Nicholls’ One Day starts with Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley on their July 15, 1988 one-night stand as they both leave college. Then it visits them on July 15 for the next 20 years of coulda-shoulda-would close calls and false starts, from tragic near-misses to fortunate narrow escapes. The conceit is clever—here comes the 15th again, chapter after chapter, with life, loss, and love on fast-forward—but it’s beyond mere cleverness. The passing of time gives One Day a sense of sweep and scope that make it the emotional equivalent of a page-turning beach read.
Nicholls previously found humor in the aspirations and pretensions of the youth of Thatcher-era Britain in the more conventional, linear, simpler-and-soapier Starter For 10; One Day moves beyond ’80s pop and politics to the ’90s excitement of Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia and the colder, crueler England of the post-millennial present moment, where happiness is hard-won and fragile at the same time.
But Nicholls also digs past the Gen-X-goes-gray clichés. Dexter is an astonishing screw-up, and Nicholls does a rare thing in going past the familiar terrain of loveable roguishness and into more tricky territory as Dexter’s self-regard and self-loathing become toxically intertwined. Emma—dour, depressed, and slumping through the life she’s smart enough to understand, but not bold enough to change—begins to determine the shape of her own life, and Nicholls simultaneously roots for her happiness and remains conspicuously aware of how she herself might be the force keeping it from happening. By the book’s final chapters, it’s surprising how much Nicholls has made charming, callow Dexter (who has to learn to embrace responsibility) and decent, depressive Emma (who has to learn to let go of a few things) worth caring about.
One Day shamelessly lifts moments from English pop culture, some going back years (Nicholls admits the influence of Billy Bragg’s single “St. Swithin’s Day” in his selection of the date) and others going back decades: There are nods to Charles Dickens in the squalor of Dexter and Emma’s worst post-graduate jobs and moments in London, while the structural trick of the day in the life revisited over and over feels like something Harold Pinter would have tried. Like the reverse chronology of the doomed affair in Pinter’s Betrayal, One Day’s accelerated time-tripping works as a cold, clear kind of not-so-magical realism.
Still, Nicholls’ book isn’t just Nick Hornby does When Harry Met Sally with various bits of UK culture thrown in for local color and Philip Larkin-referencing cred. Nicholls himself credits Thomas Hardy’s Tess Of The d’Urbervilles with inspiring both his theme and tone, with the fast-forward flickering of the years going by giving the book’s everyday modern moments the breadth and depth of a more classically minded romantic epic. The omniscient narrator is dry and detached, bereft of either sympathy or scorn. Dexter and Emma’s inner monologues are fractured and real. The pop-culture and political details aren’t careless or casual, but they define both time and character. (The description of Emma’s student flat, to name one early, excellent example, starts as comedy and then perfectly sets the tone of the times and the woman who lives there.) Nicholls’ idea of one day over 20 years for two people is what makes One Day clever, to be sure, but the way Dexter and Emma’s journeys come to resonate is why One Day matters.
The Rundown at MSN Movies: Spies and Secrets with Angelina Jolie and the cast of Salt, and Countdown to Zero’s True Tales of Cold War Terror
|Finally, speaking with Angelina Jolie about her title role in “Salt,” I’m thinking about the film’s origins — originally proposed as a Tom Cruise vehicle, then languishing in turnaround before getting back on track and gender-bent for Jolie’s purposes.
I ask Jolie why “Salt” was something she wanted to take on. “I do love a great spy thriller, and I thought it was smart. When I was reading it, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and then I was surprised. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s great, that says something …’ And then as we talked about what it could be, and what the stunts would be, and all of that, we expanded on it, it just seemed like one of those great adventures you just want to go with.”
Following up on Schrieber’s earlier mention of the recently-busted Soviet spy ring and its odd timing in relation to “Salt”‘s release, I ask Jolie, only half-jokingly, if when that news hit the production there were high-fives all around; she gives the balanced answer you’d expect from Hollywood’s reigning sex-symbol humanitarian: “Yeah, there was a weird feeling, because as citizens of the country, where you want our relationship with Russia and America to be really strong — we’ve made all this progress, you don’t want anything to set it back, and so as citizens you think, ‘That’s heavy, I hope that doesn’t turn into anything,’ and then of course as somebody involved in this film, the other side of me thinks, ‘Wow, that’s extraordinary timing, and you can’t beat that.’
And, like Schrieber, Jolie has a take on the physicality and the intensity of the work — and what happens after. “We usually start laughing. You have takes where I’m like …” — and here Jolie takes a deep breath — “‘AAAAAAhhhhhhhhhh!’ and as soon as [director Phillip Noyce] yells ‘Cut!,’ I’m giggly. Because I think you have to … it’s also that thing, where you’re punching friends in the face, you kind of have to have a sense of humor about it.”
One would hope, anyhow. When making “Salt,” did Jolie enjoy the change-up from fantastic action films like “Wanted” and “Tomb Raider” — while still getting to enjoy the run-and-gun stuff, the physicality, doing some damage, bringing the noise? “I did. I love that. I think everybody knows that about me. I do. I love to do an action movie. This one was particularly fun because other action movies I had done were based in fantasy in some way. I had never been able to do a real action movie based in some kind of reality, so it’s very different.” And, in the limited time we have left, I ask Jolie what her favorite spy thriller of all time is, and, somehow, the answer’s entirely too perfect, delivered with what could be seen as a wry smile: “‘Three Days of the Condor‘…”
“Christopher Nolan‘s “Inception” has been positioned for a while as the summer 2010 movie for which we’ve all been waiting. And it is startlingly good, even set against a background as dim as 2010′s big studio films. It’s an expensive, expansive emotional film, a nested set of tricks and stratagems with parallel plotlines leaping tracks to affect each other. It’s a can-we-do-it caper film combined with a moody, brooding examination of the mysteries of the human heart. It is full of nods to other films, and to filmmaking, but also a uniquely personal work. It has all of Nolan’s strengths, and some of his weaknesses, and it is undeniably his. It is the most exciting studio action film since 1999′s “The Matrix,” and has a slightly suspect similarity to the Wachowskis’ brawny brain-bender. It is a $160 million action film about loss and regret, and it is exciting in part because of its flaws.
All you need to know about “Inception” on a plot level is that in a future five minutes from now (or, for that matter, now), a high-tech device allows collective shared dreaming. Hook everyone up to the box and you’re in one person’s dream. There are rules, and there are dangers, and you don’t travel without baggage. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a professional dream thief who assembles teams to steal secrets out of slumbering heads. Lately, his subconscious break-ins are being disrupted by his own manifestation of a memory-vision of his ex-wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). A wealthy client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), hires Dom to pull a job that is exactly like the other dream-heists he’s pulled and absolutely unlike the other dream-heists he’s pulled, with the promise of the one thing in the world Dom wants most as the reward for a job well done.
Or, as was said in “Heat,” “Risk versus reward, baby.” “Heat” is a big influence on Nolan — he clearly admires Michael Mann‘s brute, brooding urban operas — but there’s also Kubrick in the mix here, and a nod to the majesty of the Bond films. “Inception” is a film that uses individual dreams to look at our collective dream of the cinema. It also, like “The Matrix,” neatly side-steps the challenge of filmmaking in an age where any action scene can be made so cool as to be completely unreal by redefining reality itself around the action. Dom’s team is a slickly scrappy dreaming half-dozen: veteran right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), new-recruit “architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), clever chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), man-of-action “forger” Eames (Tom Hardy, scene-stealing with a smile) and moneyman Saito (Watanabe). There’s a plan. The plan goes wrong.”
“Perhaps the trickiest thing “Inception” has done in its pre-release is maintaining more than a little mystery about the film, with fragmented trailers and an enigmatic hint of restraint. I asked Ellen Page if maintaining mystery about the film made doing press for the film problematic. Page, whose air somewhat suggests she would rather give a shark a dental cleaning than do press interviews, actually spoke with joy about what “Inception”‘s hush-hush atmosphere meant for her as an actress and audience member: “No, I love not talking about it. I love going into movies where I don’t know. I love the approach that Christopher Nolan takes. And the secrecy, it doesn’t feel that secret to me, it’s just … don’t put the script online, so that when you go see it, it’s going to be this magical, engaging, immersive, surprising experience. I mean, I know for one that’s what I love, so, I love being able to be like ‘Sorry, can’t talk about it.’”
Co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt was of the same mind when I asked him about loose lips sinking cinema: “When I know that there’s a movie coming out soon that I really want to see, that’s coming out soon, I avoid the trailer, I avoid reading anything about it …I just want to see it as the filmmaker intended.”
As opposed, I ask, to our age of information overload? Gordon-Levitt digressed charmingly: “Well, I mean, the thing about our age of information is that you can choose what you do and don’t see. It’s not like broadcast 20th century media — you can curate your own content. You don’t have to read the reviews, you don’t have to see the trailer if you don’t want to; if you want to, you can.”
At the press conference for “Inception,” Nolan spoke about the worry that secrecy and quiet would become a kind of hype in and of themselves: “Well, it’s certainly difficult to balance marketing a film and putting it out there to everybody with wanting to keep it fresh for the audience. My most enjoyable movie going experiences have always been going to a movie theater, sitting there and the lights go down and a film comes on the screen that you don’t know everything about, and you don’t know every plot turn and every character movement that’s going to happen. I want to be surprised and entertained by a movie, so that’s what we’re trying to do for the audience. Obviously, we also have to sell the film; it’s a balance that I think Warner’s is striking very well. I suppose that at a point, keeping something secret does lend itself to its own degree of hype — but I don’t really think of it as secrecy. I just think of it as an appropriate … you know, we invite the audience to come and see it based on some of the imagery and some of the plot ideas and the premise, but we don’t want to give everything away. I think too much is given away too often in movie marketing today.”