Saturday, July 24, 2010

MOVIE OF THE MOMENT: INCEPTION



Inception is nothing if not the most ambitious Hollywood movie of the year. The hype machine has been telling us so for months, and the actual film, whatever its ultimate successes and failures, bears this out. Its director, Christopher Nolan, has built a career on an obsession with tricky narratives that are, by their very nature, difficult to navigate, from the low-budget Following and Memento through to his emergence as a major Hollywood player with the box-office shredding Batman films. These narratives can feel like personal obsessions-- Memento’s backward-tracking film noir hero was driven by the need to make sense of the narrative of his own life and forced to depend, thanks to crippling short-term memory loss, on the kindness of lovers and strangers to tell him the truth about his past. (Nolan upped the ante, clever boy, by telling the story backwards.) But the very trickiness of Nolan’s notions can also feel imposed from without—the multiple-narrative storytelling strategy that pointed The Dark Knight to its potentially orgasmic finish backfired, and the movie collapsed into an incoherent, pretentious heap. However, even narrative devices that are employed to serve the story thematically aren’t necessarily a measure of success. Nolan kept the audience suitably and satisfyingly disoriented in Insomnia in a way that conveyed the distress of the sleepless lead detective (Al Pacino) investigating the film’s central mystery, but in The Prestige the cinematic sleight-of-hand with which he constructed the movie was involving, but it couldn’t hide the obviousness of the movie’s big twists.

I can remember growing up and being swept up in the breathless rush of information gushing forth from movies as disparate as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Network and even a thriller like The Andromeda Strain, movies that attacked their subjects with seriousness but with wildly different tones—cosmic mystery, anger fueled by satirical corporate-speak, poker-faced medical and military panic-- and made me feel as though I were somehow inside the events and being carried along. It didn’t matter that I may not have understood all the ins and outs of what was being referenced or inferred or even explicitly laid out (some of which was due to the age at which I saw them, surely)—the movies themselves carried the electric charge of engagement with their audience that helped at least this viewer to connect with what was going on. The very act of watching them, plugging into them, made me feel smart, alive, ready for more.

This kind of tidal wave of visceral connection is clearly what Nolan is going for in Inception, and the breathless pace at which the movie hurtles into his opening set piece, all the way through its tangle of exposition, made me eager to anticipate the moment when, like in those other films, I would find a way to just give myself over to the experience of tumbling through the different levels of consciousness on which the movie plays out its mind games. Leonardo Di Caprio, with that familiar haunted glumness that is fast (after Shutter Island and The Departed) becoming his signature, is Dom Cobb, a corporate spy whose stock in trade is the extraction of company secrets by means of invading, along with a team of specialists, the mindscapes of his targets and navigating their unique psychological terrain. After a test-run designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of Cobb’s talents, he’s hired by a smooth bigwig (Ken Watanabe) not to steal secrets but instead implant an idea into the brain of a rival businessman (Cillian Murphy)—an idea to dissemble the monopolistic company he has inherited even as his own father (Pete Postelthwaite) lays dying, thus opening up the marketplace for the competition, an idea which he must perceive as organic, his own.


So far, so good. As it has been pointed out, this is essentially a Rififi-esque caper movie blown up to gargantuan Hollywood blockbuster proportions, and as such Inception remains aware and unashamed of its genre roots at this point, as Cobb and his business-like assistant (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) embark on assembling the team that will be required to perform this daring reversal of their usual methods, a job which some of them believe can’t even be done. We’re introduced to the chemist (Dileep Rao) who will concoct a sedative powerful enough to allow Cobb and company access to several different levels of consciousness, all the while keeping their inner ears “alive” to physical influence from the outside world so that they might be jolted out of the dream state at the crucial moment. Then there’s Tom Hardy (magnetic, and near unrecognizable from his thrilling turn in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson of last year) as the team muscle who can capably assume the identity of various important acquaintances of the target. And lastly, Ariadne (note literary/psychological reference, please), the student recruited by Cobb to create the fantastic interior dreamscapes on which the intrigue will play out. She’s played by Ellen Page with the actress’s patented perky insouciance and native intelligence, but thankfully minus the Juno-influenced snark, and she seems alive to the possibilities of creating mazes of the mind designed to be deliberately perplexing, especially to Cobb, who needs to be kept most unfamiliar with the mental terrain she creates in order to keep the projection of his very unhappy dead wife (Marion Cottiard), which tends to pop up at inopportune times, at bay. All these actors are sharp and fun to watch, and if their characters are written a bit on the thin side, it may be a side-effect of existing in a movie crammed to this degree with stuff. (I saw Inception with my friend Don, and I like his suggestion that a good way to look at these characters, one which could justify that thinness, is as separate aspects—the scientist, the businessman, the macho swagger, the long-buried creative idealist—of Cobb’s personality.) And they all get their introductions amidst a sea of exposition, which is annoying and overwritten, but also part of the territory—I didn’t resent it so much as accept it as part of what I wanted to see these terrific actors navigate successfully. And frankly, the effort it took to keep up with it was strangely more compelling than I expected—I wanted it to gel and make sense.

Inception hints that the worlds Ariadne will have to create will materialize the awe-inspiring, disorienting center of Nolan’s concept. The imagery most familiar to audiences subjected to the movie’s unstoppable advertising campaign are the images of Cobb and Ariadne sitting at a sidewalk cafĂ©, expressionless as a Parisian street crumbles and explodes around them. Cobb illustrates to the woman the possibilities of dreamscape design by folding the city over and onto itself, and it is an undeniably exhilarating effect. Later, Gordon-Levitt further demonstrates the power of creative dream technology by taking the young designer on a walk up a staircase that leads nowhere, a reference to Escher that portends the visual feats of disorienting space and surreal unreliability of the dream environment that the movie surely holds in store.

But when Nolan gets us into the meat of the action, in which the fates of this team of mental raiders, along with Watanabe and Murphy, play out amidst Ariadne’s constructs, the movie is often thrilling, but just as often it is overwhelming and suffocating. Inception settles into a extensive pattern of cross-cutting as various intrigues—a dizzying car chase, anti-gravity hand-to-hand combat (the physical disorientation of which is caused by the jarring movement of that car chase up on Consciousness Level #1), a James Bondian ski slope shootout, a frightening confrontation with the deepest fears and emotions of two major characters—work themselves out simultaneously, each affecting the other. In other words, the last half of the movie is assembled in a frenzy of simultaneous action in the manner of The Dark Knight, and though the action hangs together much better than it did in that movie, Inception simply becomes too busy for its own good (or at least for mine). My mind was working overtime just to keep the action straight in my head, but I never found a way to give myself over to it, to surrender. It’s not a dreamer’s movie, it’s a clockmaker’s movie, and as such it demands that a viewer’s facilities be poured almost exclusively into following the machination of those various narrative cogs. For me, following them came at the expense of the treacherous emotional tones Nolan reaches for in the final act. There was no room in my tightened lungs and overstuffed skull for the expanse of feeling those scenes clearly intended.


More problematic, and more damningly on its own terms, is that the movie feels like a disappointment in terms of its visual imagination. After the priming of that Parisian street folding and the trip up that Escher staircase, it’s not unreasonable, I don’t think, for an audience to expect (especially for a big expensive movie like this) that Ariadne, inspired, might construct some playfully maddening cages inside which her prey and her colleagues might bounce. And it doesn’t seem unreasonable either for a movie that takes place almost entirely within the realm of the unreliable, the unpredictably mutable and ethereal, to have some of that feeling about it itself. Inception’s conception of those various levels of consciousness are pedestrian at worst (a hotel corridor, a ski slope) and half-baked at best—a skyline of cut-out skyscrapers and a cliffside beach setting that seems to be missing only a half-buried Lady Liberty. But they’re not differentiated enough in terms of the movie’s visual style to make keeping them straight any fun—the whole movie is Action 101, no variations of tone or texture, and those familiar street-folding, landscape-crumbling images from the movie’s trailers are just about it in terms of arresting special effects. Inception is a work made by a man who wants to give himself a technical workout—Nolan wants to see if he can pull off the challenges he sets for himself as a storyteller. The movie is, for all its big-ass sensibility, relatively light on pretense, which is the last thing that could be said of The Dark Knight, and I find it difficult to take points away from a filmmaker for his ambitions, for trying something not necessarily so much new as it is, oxymoronically, simply complicated. (In this pursuit Nolan seems to be spiritually kin to a director like Nicolas Roeg, who loved fracturing rather simple, and sometimes simplistic, ideas and reassembling them in ways that made them seem more... complex.)

But ambitions have to be realized, and I think Nolan only gets halfway there with Inception. I’m not suggesting that Nolan should have made a spy movie version of Mulholland Drive or The Exterminating Angel, but it would have been nice to at least sense some of the shivering instability or devilish humor of those movies, or other films which have successfully suggested dream imagery and thought and logic. A better movie for Nolan to have at least partially emulated would have been Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape, which is a lot more fun than Inception while plumbing much of the same territory. As it is, Nolan’s is ultimately too square and literal for a film about the mysteries of the mind. (Did the team have to ride an elevator from one level of consciousness to the next?) And It’s simply too much; I would have appreciated some room to breathe, a break from the movie’s insistent intensity (which is too often represented by its volume level). Had I been able to breathe, I might have been more receptive to the pain at the center of the story, that which surrounds not only Cobb and his doomed wife, but Murphy and his distant, disapproving father as well. The movie doesn’t reject Freud or Jung so much as misplace them; the two are nowhere to be found in the supposedly psychologically charged action set pieces, which is the aspect of the story Nolan really cares about. At times Inception had me right where it wanted me—it has a protracted vehicle crash off a bridge into a river that is extended so long that I’m sure somewhere Brian De Palma is cursing in envy-- and even after that feeling of disappointment has taken hold, the movie flips right over and serves up the most exhilarating cut to end credits I’ve seen since Drag Me To Hell. (It involves the image of that spinning top seen above, a recurring motif in the film.) But most often I just wanted to wake up.

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25 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Nice review, Dennis. We agree a lot, on what works and what doesn't. This in particular is very well said: "It’s not a dreamer’s movie, it’s a clockmaker’s movie, and as such it demands that a viewer’s facilities be poured almost exclusively into following the machination of those various narrative cogs." Absolutely.

Also, this was the main argument for my review: "It’s simply too much; I would have appreciated some room to breathe, a break from the movie’s insistent intensity (which is too often represented by its volume level)." So obviously I agree with you there, too.

Again, well done: a fair, detailed analysis.

Laura said...

Hey, Dennis, just saw "Inception" and for God's sake was there an editor on this film? And Ellen Page was painfully underused. She seemed to be in the film for the sole purpose of asking Leonardo DiCaprio's character to explain each step of this madness (enough exposition already). I also felt Marion Cotillard's character could have been more haunting. . .when she was in that basement I wanted to be spooked by that scene and it left me cold. And who could tell those guys in the snow apart? Cut, cut, cut! The Matrix did it better.

Bryce Wilson said...

Alot of this is personal preferrence which I can't fault you on. But I have to take objection to your faults with the film's visual stragety, in regards to the dream which I think was merely keeping in touch with the narrative.

After all, the team had to keep Murphey FROM KNOWING he was dreaming (for the most part) and when they left that plan it was improvisation.

Whenever the film left that criteria, as in the afore mentioned "folding city" scene, or in DiCaprio's rotting city of the mind, I'd say its imagination was suitably baroque.

And I for one really liked the image of the elevator. Ironically given that you reference it, I thought it was sort of Bunuellian. Especially when it dips up onto the beach and you see the cement separating block that logically has no reason to be there.

peet said...

I've had more or less the same experience as you, Dennis. Chris Nolan's concept of dreaming doesn't fit with mine at all. Thank you for coming up with the right words to express it.

Like Jason said, the clockmaker analogy is a good one. Seen from this angle, the complete film, from front to end, makes kind of sense as the lucid dream of a very cerebral dreamer trying to conceptualize his ongoing dream. Certain clues woven into Nolan's film seem to point in that direction: besides the archetypal characters Don mentioned, Devin Faraci at Chud hinted at the strangely narrowing alleyway during the chase in Mombasa and Cobb's wife on the ledge OPPOSITE the room they rented.

Since you didn't mention it, I also found that the action setpiece in the snow seemed to lack proper direction. Could anyone tell what was going on there, exactly? Who needs to be where and why should I care? Has anybody truly been affected by that snowfall at all? Besides the rumblings and explosions, what is the line of action to follow here? That scene sorely lacked a sense of cause and effect that usually typifies movie action logic. Is it too much to ask for a reason to be riveted (apart from Hans Zimmer's obvious scoring, which is this movie's saving grace)?

Tony Dayoub said...

Dennis, INCEPTION certainly set off alarmists on both sides. I'm glad you (or Jason) didn't fall into this mode in your review. As I said in my review, which you echoed here, Nolan should get some credit for being ambitious. The movie IS flawed, but what film isn't. I just don't think it is great enough to be exalted (the way IB was) or bad enough to deserve a total takedown (like the LAST AIRBENDER). It's an interesting thriller and worth checking out if only to form your own opinion. This comes through in your assessment, Dennis.

DavidE said...

"I’m sure somewhere Brian De Palma is cursing in envy..." I doubt it, Dennis. Nolan is so maladroit at staging and cutting action scenes that De Palma (whose action scenes are astonishingly worked-out, like spatial/temporal equations) would only curse that Nolan had such a huge budget and that so many people think he knows what he's doing.

Otherwise this is a fine, measured assessment. Our experience of the film only differs in that I couldn't surrender in the second half not because the movie was too busy but because it was too clunky.

Incidentally, I've been mentioned on various awards sites as having praised the editor of Inception. I didn't and wouldn't; I only said he'd win an Oscar because the cutting is so ostentatious. Nolan's old editor, Dody Dorn, who did Memento and Insomnia, was MUCH more dexterous.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"Besides the archetypal characters Don mentioned, Devin Faraci at Chud hinted at the strangely narrowing alleyway during the chase in Mombasa and Cobb's wife on the ledge OPPOSITE the room they rented."

Thanks, Peet, for reminding me about that alley business, which was strange and suffocating and very much like what dreams often have in store for us. And yes, the unexplainable logic of Cottiard's position on that ledge is the exactly the sort of thing that may strike a viewer as odd at the time but may only pleasurably bubble up later in the mind. Thanks for bringing it out for me.

Bryce: "the team had to keep Murphey FROM KNOWING he was dreaming (for the most part) and when they left that plan it was improvisation.... I'd say its imagination was suitably baroque."

You make a good point here, Bryce. But given that "reality," in which Nolan has basically prescripted a necessarily "realistic" take on the subconscious imagery Murphy (and we) must experience, I still think more creative pains could have been taken to indicate to the audience (that does have the privilege of being outside the man's head while in it, watching the movie) the instability, the dream logic that must still be fighting its way around inside the man's perceptions. Perhaps these psychic fluctuations could be caused (justified visually) by the very presence of those outsiders his subsconscious is, at least on one level, prepared to fight off.

Peet: "I also found that the action setpiece in the snow seemed to lack proper direction. Could anyone tell what was going on there, exactly? Who needs to be where and why should I care? Has anybody truly been affected by that snowfall at all? Besides the rumblings and explosions, what is the line of action to follow here? That scene sorely lacked a sense of cause and effect that usually typifies movie action logic."

This is a really good observation too, Peet. I found myself dialing out during this sequence, which, by its positioning in the subconscious of Murphy's character (third level) where he is able to defend himself, should have lent itself to more clarity than is afforded by a random setting in which the characters are made near indistinguishable by virtue of their costuming.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Laura: The editor here certainly was given a day's work every day. But I agree, the movie just seems overstuffed. I'm not sure where an editor would go to make such a narrative more streamlined though.

Tony: Thanks for checking in. I think at this point I felt obligated to not scream my reaction, whatever it might have been, and I guess I'm just lucky that my more ambivalent reaction lent itself to the tone I was looking for in the first place!

jim emerson said...

Beautifully written piece, Dennis. You articulate my own ambivalence about the movie much better than I did. And you put your finger on something I haven't seen anyone else mention: Why are Ariadne's "practice" dreamscapes (the folding Paris, the exploding cafe, the Escher staircase) so much more surreal, fun, and visually interesting than the ones she actually designs for the caper?

Don Mancini said...

SPOILERS ABOUND. Great review, Dennis. I can't disagree with anything you've written. The film is exposition-heavy, overly complicated, and the supporting characters are undeniably thin. BTW, I can't take credit for the theory that the other characters might be mere aspects of Cobb's personality -- this theory has been speculated on widely -- and even if that were (one of?) Nolan's intention(s), it's still no excuse for such thin characters (however brilliantly cast and performed).

But despite its flaws, I still kind of love the movie. I found the story structure fascinating: The three different story tracks, on three different dream levels, all coming to a boil simultaneously, and directly affecting one another -- thrilling. I actually think one of the things I like about the film is its "too muchness," its relentless urgency. I also must admit to being perhaps overly susceptible to Zimmer's score (and to certain music scores in general). Certain composers just "speak" to me in such a way that they sometimes provide, in a compensatory way, a dramatic/emotional content which might in fact be only half-baked in the "text" itself. (I don't consider this a positive or negative phenomenon. After a lifetime of moviegoing, I just acknowledge that it exists for me.) Anyway, I loved the score, and it may have been instrumental in carrying the emotional ball across the goal line for me. Plus, I have Daddy issues akin to those afflicting the Cillian Murphy character (these issues are so archetypal, I bet they resonate with lots of people), so when he found the pinwheel in the safe, I was really moved.

Also: I think that the idea of our hero's being haunted in his dreams by the furious, meddling projection of his dead wife, whose death he feels responsible for, is utterly brilliant, and brilliantly cast in Marion Cotillard. I found their relationship quite haunting and disturbing, and it struck me as a very effective metaphor for any relationship in which one of the couple is unreachably depressed. (However, I do wish that their relationship had been sexual in some Freudian, dreamlike way. This seemed a real missed opportunity in a film about dreams.)

Finally: The notion of being trapped in a dream within a dream within a dream, for seeming decades, until one awakens inevitably insane -- ONE OF THE MOST DISTURBING NOTIONS EVER.
=

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"Nolan is so maladroit at staging and cutting action scenes that De Palma (whose action scenes are astonishingly worked-out, like spatial/temporal equations) would only curse that Nolan had such a huge budget and that so many people think he knows what he's doing."

Good point, David. I've had the sense in other Nolan films (particularly The Prestige) that he's had one eye on De Palma (WWBDPD?), but this sequence really got me thinking, and I did think it worked really well (especially seeing its effect on the second level of action). Though by the time the occupants of the van were on their backs falling completely backwards I did think to myself, "Jesus, what's it take to wake someone up whose inner ear is still 'aware'?"

As for your comments on the film's editing, not sure how those could be misconstrued, but there's no accounting for somethings in life, I guess! I really need to see Insomnia again- it's a movie that has stuck with me unlike any other Nolan has made, and I'd like to be reminded why.

Jim: As one "excellent" and "thoughtful scribbler" to another, thanks for your comments. I think you've done a fine job making clear your experience with the movie and making for good discussion about it at the same time.

Don: Thanks for being such a great person to talk about a movie with afterward. You made the experiencing of seeing Inception as much fun as it possibly could have been for me. And I think you're right about Marion Cottiard and that character too, though I wish I would have found it more haunting and disturbing, like you, than just clever. She is stunning, however, as a beauty and as an actress.

W.B. Kelso said...

It didn't help that the venue I saw it had the audio mix so fouled up, with the score drowning out the dialogue to the point I didn't hear one damn word Ellen Paige said during the whole movie, but my feelings are about the same, with Nolan once more painting himself into a corner. Meaning the ending had to be that convoluted because there was no way else to make his layered dream within in a dream concept work.

But the one thing that's been really bugging me is when at one point a character dreams up a bazooka in one scene to take out the baddies, why can't he do it again during the On Her Majesty's Secret Service assault later. I mean the target already knows he's in a dream at that point, right? Hell, dream yourself up a tank -- or even your own support troops, and go to town. Am I crazy, or am I right?

J.D. said...

Excellent review! I certainly respect your opinion and offer some great observations but there were a couple of points that you made in which I would like to counter.

"As it is, Nolan’s is ultimately too square and literal for a film about the mysteries of the mind. (Did the team have to ride an elevator from one level of consciousness to the next?)"

There's a fantastic dissection of the film over at Salon.com and in it, Sam Adams argues:

""Inception." Is not. About dreams. Not real ones, anyway. The dreams in which much of the movie takes place are artificial constructs, rational, rectilinear simulacra designed to achieve specific ends. The dreamers are lucid, exercising conscious authority over its landscape, which means that the mercurial logic of dreams never has a chance to assert itself.

Is it convenient that the worlds the dreamers construct so closely resemble the landscape of a James Bond movie? Well, sure. Warner Bros. isn’t about to shell out $200 million for Nolan to make some arty thesis film. But it’s not merely commercial calculation that dictates the goal-oriented nature of what "Inception" calls dreams."

This is about the best defense I've read to counter the argument that the dream imagery in INCEPTION isn't abstract enough or that the James Bond-type stuff is too conventional.

You also write:

"And It’s simply too much; I would have appreciated some room to breathe, a break from the movie’s insistent intensity (which is too often represented by its volume level)."

I know that this is a personal observation but for me, it seems unfair to say that there is too much of a good thing in this day and age where 95% of all Hollywood films are anemic in terms of quality and content. I think that we can be a bit more foregiving with Nolan going for broke here because at least he's trying to do something different and ambitious which can't be said by so much other films out there.

Your criticism of too much too busy could easily be applied to SPEED RACER (a film which I personally love like you do) and I believe I've read reviews criticizing it of just that. But I guess that's all a matter of personal taste which is cool

Oh yeah, if you want to check out that Salon.com piece, here is the URL:

http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/film_salon/2010/07/19/inception_explainer/index.html

It is definitely worth a look.

Alonzo Mosley (FBI) said...

Ditto what J.D. said. The dreams have to convince the dreamer that it is actually reality. When that spell is broken, well, you saw what happened when the train showed up.

The hallway fight alone made the movie for me, as I have been hoping to see such a shifting gravity fight scene like that for a long time. It was very nicely done, and a treat to think that it was done on a physical set on gimbals rather than a green screen.

The least effective part of the film was the whole snowscape sequence. I couldn't tell what the hell was happening most of the time and couldn't tell the good guys from the bad guys. In that sense, Inception shares a rare trait with the battles in the Transformers films.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"It seems unfair to say that there is too much of a good thing in this day and age where 95% of all Hollywood films are anemic in terms of quality and content."

J.D., here's what I said in my piece that directly relates to your comment:

"I find it difficult to take points away from a filmmaker for his ambitions, for trying something not necessarily so much new as it is, oxymoronically, simply complicated... But ambitions have to be realized, and I think Nolan only gets halfway there with Inception."

I think where I differ with you is on the point that it's too much of a good thing. I believe that Nolan has given us too much of a clunky thing, a thing that is not worked out in terms that made me respond to it as much more than maximum exertion. This is why Speed Racer seems to these eyes not too much, because every gesture, every angle, every shift in tone and pace and perspective was there to show me something I'd never seen, in service to a vision that was retro only in its wholehearted sincerity. To my mind, Nolan never transcends the adventure genre iconography he's given himself to work with here.

"Ditto what J.D. said. The dreams have to convince the dreamer that it is actually reality."

But even given that, what would be wrong with a suggestion that the dream environments are fragile, tenuous, or otherwise susceptible to invasion or dissolution? Wouldn't that create a kind of suspense that had less to do with the generic kind of action Nolan is depending on here? When you get lost in that snowbound third level, the action is clearly not functioning the way it should be and it would have been nice for the film to have been able to convey that sense of Ariadne fatiguing, not being able to keep up the psychic ruse.

Just asking!

le0pard13 said...

I personally enjoyed the film, but your perspective is always (and enjoyably) a thoughtful one. BTW, N.Y. Times Film Critic dropped your name ("excellent blog") in his piece today about the discussion going on about INCEPTION. Nicely done.

Tom Elrod said...

I really need to see Insomnia again- it's a movie that has stuck with me unlike any other Nolan has made, and I'd like to be reminded why.

Probably because it's Nolan's one film which he didn't write, so his obsessions with puzzle plots could be ignored and he could instead concentrate on telling a story about characters. Also, Al Pacino is quite good in it.

manaotupapau said...

I've been thinking about your comment that this is a clockmaker's movie. Agreed. I guess my question is: Why can't we have a clockmaker's movie once in a while? (It seems to me Kubrick was often similarly criticized.) The tagline is: Your mind's the scene of the crime. The brilliance of what Nolan's pulled off is to make people who normally go to movies to consume them as quickly (and remember them as well) as their popcorn actually replay what they saw in their own minds. He's smuggled a love of film into the minds of many who might not have loved film per se before. Is it clumsy? Yes. But I also know I want to see it again. (I've been wanting to see the shot where - spoilers - Mal jumps off the ledge and Cobb looks down in horror to see how much it's a nod to the end of Vertigo.) Like I said, I appreciate your criticism of the film, but I think you're missing that this may be a way into film for others - in other words, Inception is the kind of film that brings people to a blog like yours...

Melvillain said...

This is a great review. It's exactly what I would have written if I had your gift for analysis and writing. There is one point that I disagree with you though. You stated at the end of your review:
"and even after that feeling of disappointment has taken hold, the movie flips right over and serves up the most exhilarating cut to end credits I’ve seen since Drag Me To Hell. (It involves the image of that spinning top seen above, a recurring motif in the film.)"
I felt that the end cut-to-black was a way to keep people talking long after their interest had waned in the original story.
I'm curious why you felt that particular piece of the movie was so exhilarating. I usually have to watch a movie more than once before I can tease out all the subtleties, but I saw the spinning top cut coming as soon as the totems were introduced. I figured that Nolan would do something similar to what he had done in Memento (the brief scene that reveals Leonard's Sammy Jenkis story is actually about Leonard). In Memento it was a "WTF?!" moment, but in Inception it felt cheap. I guess on a meta level it's Nolan's inception. If the ending is Nolan's inception point then he's built in a repeat viewing for the audience just so we can figure out whether or not Dom is dreaming the whole thing. Some might think that's genius, but to me it seems like a badly performed magic trick, and, quite frankly, one I'd rather not have to sit through again. As you said, "most often I just wanted to wake up."

tlrhb said...

I think this is DiCaprio's most convincing adult performance. He is the movie. He holds the screen with gravity and undeniable star power, something I thought was lacking in his recent efforts, where he seemed like a skinny boy pretending to be an adult. Here he looks like a man and he seems comfortable in his skin and in the role. I believed him as a father, and as a tortured soul on a quest to see the faces of his children again, and it was his presence and his journey that kept me in the movie.

Thomas Duke said...

i just found your blog recently. Great, well thought out review. I share a lot of the same opinions on the film. I thought it was interesting that you brought up Nic Roeg as a comparison. I think what he does with editing is quite different from Nolan with Inception. Roeg does (often) take linear narratives and cut them up, as it were, but I think to totally different effect.

Nolan cuts up a story to fit it more into a puzzle format, in effect, to create MORE narrative, and therefore add more "importance" to the narrative, taking away from the characters (and other things). Bad Timing, as an example, cuts up a linear relationship story in order to undermine the narrative and free it from the constraints of time and linear thought, therefore putting more emphasis on the characters and emotional situations.

It's sort of like breaking up an A to B timeline, using the remaining pieces to construct another, more complicated timeline (Inception), versus destroying it all together and leaving the rubble for you to sort through (Bad Timing). If you follow me:)

I also wrote a review of Inception here, if you're interested: http://cinemagonzo.blogspot.com/2010/07/inception-2010-these-dreams-within.html

deering said...

I'm way late to the game on this, but the overpraise INCEPTION has gotten _still_ annoys the mess outta me (which could be interpreted that the movie did work, in a way, but...:)). Anyway, a few points...

1) I completely agree with Dennis and other posters on why this movie didn't come together as well as it should. I love mind-mess flicks--the first MATRIX, DARK CITY, and MULHOLLAND DRIVE are some of my favorites. But their writers/directors were smart enough not to let complexity overwhelm the basic narrative. If a movie makes following what's happening laborious and complicated to the point you have to see the dern thing again just to halfway understand it, it has not done a good job of storytelling. You need something (seemingly) straightforward to anchor the weirdness; something for the ambiguities and interpretations to center around. I could see the above movies several times over because their themes/characters are so rich and lend themselves to further intriguing speculation. INCEPTION, THE SHINING, THE PRESTIGE...well, they have set-pieces and moments I'd go back to see, but sitting through them again--hell, no. They are too cold-around-the-heart or way too much work than they are worth for me to enjoy them...or go back for more.

deering said...

(cont...)

2) My theory as to why so many people are rabid defenders of Nolan/INCEPTION/THE DARK KNIGHT is because he is almost the only game in town when it comes to smart, original big-budget movie-making. If he had more competition--if he were consistently facing the 21st-century equivalents of Wyler, Hitchcock, Stevens, Lewton, etc.--he wouldn't seem like the Second Coming as much as he does. His popularity is a commentary on just how much people hate most of the crap Hollywood gives up--and how much they hunger for more and better movies.

3) One could argue that the worst thing that's ever happened to Nolan is that he's been catapulted into monster-budget movie-making. One of the reasons THE DARK KNIGHT didn't quite work was because Nolan seemed so desperate to stay two steps ahead of the audience and deliver action-every-moment that he didn't keep the basic story as clear and tight as it should have been. It's like he was afraid if he let up for one single moment, he'd lose viewer attention. And the success he's gotten as a result hasn't made him more relaxed storytelling-wise or more willing (or able) to let his characters breathe. It just seems to have wound him up even tighter and made him make his work more complicated than it has to be.

4) As Dennis noted, INCEPTION is lucky to have such an intriguing cast to fill in some of the characterization gaps--or just be fun to watch. :)

deering said...

(cont...)


5) "a skyline of cut-out skyscrapers and a cliffside beach setting that seems to be missing only a half-buried Lady Liberty."

Eheheh--was that the most dreary dream-paradise ever, or what? The city looked like an abandoned downtown Toronto or Houston. Even the beaches were too rocky and turbulent to be inviting.

6) "the projection of his very unhappy dead wife (Marion Cottiard), which tends to pop up at inopportune times, at bay."

It's funny--the most suspenseful moments in INCEPTION are the ones where Mal's projection shows up to throw a spanner in the works. She's an unpredictable, genuinely terrifying figure--far scarier than the prospect of the team being stranded/going insane in limbo. Her scenes were the only ones with genuine menace/tension, because you had no idea what she would (or could) do. (And if my husband had essentially used me as a lab rat, I'd be hella-irate and ready to hulk-smash, as well. :)) Proof, once again, that less can often be more...

7) Finally, I wonder if INCEPTION represents Hollywood (finally) figuring out a way to make successful video-game movies. That would explain why some people don't have problems keeping track of what is essentially multi-level timed death match play going on here. People used to game narrative/transitions may not notice (or care) about the slender characterizations or the confusing level-leaping because the former are SOP for them. And that is the kind of storytelling they know best/have grown up with.

Hope I haven't run on too long. Love your blog, Dennis--will definitely be hanging out here...:)

Trish said...

Hey, Dennis. I come very late to the party, because I've only just seen "Inception"...

I'm so disappointed. Not only by your evaluation but by those in the comments section. Ellen Page underused? She may have been an architect, but her role was to get Leo through this journey without losing his grip and endangering the team. Among her many good scenes, she tells Leo to forgive himself -- a highlight of the film.

Marion Cotillard could have been more haunting? She's a femme fatale who frames her husband, kills herself, and whose "shade" wants to keep Leo in a dream with their children rather than live in the real world? What's more haunting than that?

You guys can rolls your eyes about Patrick Goldstein, but there really is something to this need to take down Nolan. Just google it. To them I say, if you can do better, let us see your work. If not, then the old adage applies: Those who can't, teach.

Lastly, the more I watch "Inception" the more I get out of it. If I could take back the hours I wasted watching shallow, sentimental swill like "The King's Speech", "Hugo", "Finding Neverland", "Atonement", borefests like "2001 a Space Odyssey" "Barry Lyndon" and "Out of Africa", and plough it into more viewings of "Inception", I would gladly do so.

And Dennis, as for your comments about "The Dark Knight".... blasphemy!!! ;) But that's for another comment...