Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Archive for July, 2010

Dream Warriors: Christopher Nolan’s Awesome Inception

Posted by CinemaPsycho on July 18, 2010


You know, sometimes I feel sorry for professional contrarian critics like Armond White, whose entire shtick is based on hating films that everyone else loves, and loving films that everyone else hates. It must be difficult to find a way to deny excellence when you see it. One can only imagine the mental gymnastics it must require to prefer something like Jonah Hex (a complete failure on every possible level) to a clearly effective and brilliant piece of work like Inception. I’m not really sure how the guy does it, but it would almost be admirable if it wasn’t so bizarre. It’s not an act that I could pull off, that’s for sure. Too much work.

Purely as an experiment, I actually tried to find something I didn’t like about Christopher Nolan’s latest film. Needless to say, I couldn’t come up with anything. Let’s see, I could say that it’s just too intelligent, too incredibly written, acted and conceived on every imaginable level. Of course, none of that would qualify as a negative to any rational person. How about this – it’s not dumbed-down enough for the idiots in the audience who likely won’t understand it. Oh wait, I don’t care. Yep, I’m out of criticisms. That about covers it.

What Nolan has pulled off here is not just the best film he’s ever made (in my opinion), or the best film I’ve seen this year. No, Inception is nothing less than a giant leap forward in filmmaking, a true next-level Event Film that, much like The Matrix in 1999, will leave the rest of Hollywood scrambling to catch up. It’s bold, audacious and absolutely stunning, and it’s going to be difficult to go back to watching typical movies after seeing it. Does that sound like hyperbole? Perhaps. But it’s also the truth. Nolan has wisely used the cachet he earned (and deserved) from the smash hit The Dark Knight to make the kind of movie that Hollywood generally won’t let anyone make: a big-budget blockbuster about ideas. Let’s call it the anti-Transformers. The result leaves all the other A-list directors in the dust – at this particular moment, Nolan is the auteur du jour, the genius who has not only topped himself but has left the Earth trembling in his wake. It’s pretty rare that a director’s work gets better as it gets bigger, but that’s absolutely the case with Nolan, who started out making very good indie films (Following, Memento) and has emerged as one of the cinema titans of the past decade. As much as I love the films of David Fincher, Inception makes him look like an underachiever. No offense.

Without giving too much away (part of the pleasure of movies like this is watching the story unfold before your eyes), Inception is basically a sort of Advanced Class heist film, in which Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), leads a team of thieves to enter the dreams of businessmen and extract their ideas. He’s presented a new challenge by Japanese tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe); to actually implant a new idea into the mind of corporate heir Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy). Cobb deems this impossible at first, but eventually assembles his team (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao) and gets to work. There’s just one little problem – Cobb is haunted by memories of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), which tends to make things a little complicated when your line of work requires you to explore dreams and memories. After a complex opening sequence in which we’re not sure what the hell’s going on (but it all gradually becomes clear), we learn everything through new recruit Araidne (Ellen Page), who is quickly brought up to speed, and so are we. It’s due to Nolan’s confidence as both a writer and director that we instantly buy into this new world of dream invasion and creation: we never question for a second that this technology exists and that these people are smart enough to know how to use it. Lesser films might have made us wonder – “hey, wait a minute…” but Nolan never slows down long enough to let us formulate the questions.

What ensues from there is a masterful game of cat-and-mouse, with Dom and his crew invading different levels of reality, dreams within dreams within dreams, to the point where the climax takes place in no less than four different simultaneous dream states (plus the “real world”). Nolan and company pull this off so incredibly well that (provided we’ve been actually paying attention), we always know which level we are watching, which characters are in which dreams and what’s going on in each of them. The audience never loses track or needs to catch up at any moment, and that’s an impressive feat indeed at a time when most blockbuster directors can’t keep a coherent handle on one reality, much less five. This is truly bravura filmmaking here, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone who truly loves film not appreciating it.

While some critics have noted thematic similarities to Martin Scorsese’s DiCaprio-starring Shutter Island (another of my favorite films this year), I don’t think the comparisons should really bother anyone that much. Might make for an interesting double feature, actually. It’s also telling that I never once thought about other dream-invasion movies such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Dreamscape, etc. while watching this. Inception is very much its own experience, and one that any cinephile should find thrilling. It’s not just a visual rollercoaster ride, though; it’s also just as satisfying emotionally as it is viscerally. I love Nolan’s perfect casting of underappreciated actors (like Eric Roberts and Anthony Michael Hall in The Dark Knight), and Tom Berenger is quite terrific here as Fischer’s confidant and mentor. Michael Caine isn’t in this that much, but any excuse to watch Caine in anything is a good one. The cast is generally excellent, with special mention going to Ellen Page, who finally gets an adult role to play and knocks it right out of the park.

To anyone who would complain about a masterpiece like Inception, I would just have to say that you just don’t appreciate quality when in it’s right in front of your face. I guess you would prefer if Nolan wasn’t so smart and ambitious and was content to make the same old crap. I don’t understand the Armond Whites of the world, and after seeing Inception, I honestly hope I never do.

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Summer Is Ready When You Are; or, Why the Internet Sucks

Posted by CinemaPsycho on July 3, 2010

You know, sometimes I really feel like people just don’t love movies the way I do.

I’m not being facetious when I say that either, although it probably sounds like it. I’ve just gotten really tired of so-called “movie fans” constantly bitching and whining about how “shitty” this summer has been. It seems like every time I go online, there’s somebody complaining about this summer’s movies not being up to their high standards for blockbuster films. I don’t really understand where they’re coming from, and besides, these same people seem to complain every summer, no matter what comes out. These are often the same people who describe Cameron Diaz as “fugly”, so their opinions don’t mean too much in this dojo. But they always say this stuff as though everyone agrees, and they use as examples such films as Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, MacGruber, Prince of Persia, Splice, The A-Team and now Knight and Day – all films that I really enjoyed and was very entertained by. I don’t know if any of them will make my Top 10 of the year or anything (well, Splice might make it, but that really wasn’t meant to be a “summer movie” in the first place, nor should it have been released as such), but I thought they were all solid escapist fare that met my expectations. So I think the question has to be asked at this point – what exactly do people expect from summer blockbusters anyway?

I’m not trying to suggest that people should love everything that Hollywood puts out (god no), nor am I one of those “turn your brain off” people. But I just have different expectations for summer blockbusters than I do for serious Oscar-bait films, indie films, foreign films, etc. It’s a different experience to watch a Jerry Bruckheimer production than it is to watch a Michael Haneke film. There are different standards at work here. Do I really need to explain that? Summer movies are, for the most part, meant to be pure escapism and nothing more. They are supposed to simply be entertaining, while hopefully not insulting your intelligence too greatly. So they should be judged based on how well they accomplish that goal. Of course, you have to want to be entertained to make a fair assessment. If you walk in expecting not to enjoy something, then you definitely won’t.

So you have to ask the question, what is it that people want from these movies? What do we expect them to be, other than what they are? If you’re expecting a mind-blowing experience from Prince of Persia, you’re in the wrong theater to begin with. It’s an old-fashioned adventure movie, and I thought it worked as just that. That’s what I wanted from it, and that’s what I got. I mean, what do people expect from a movie like The A-Team? It’s the freakin’ A-Team! It’s supposed to be big, loud and over-the-top. And a lot of fun, which I thought it was. It’s based on the cheesiest of all the cheesy 80’s TV shows, not The Cherry Orchard. Again, what did people expect it to be like? You go to see something like this because you want big, loud, and over-the-top. If you don’t want that, don’t go. I can understand criticizing something like Jonah Hex (yes, I saw it), because it’s a gigantic mess that doesn’t really work at all, and you’d have to be completely blind not to see that. But it’s not bad because of the kind of movie that it is – it’s bad because the filmmakers didn’t seem to know what the hell they were trying to make. Love them or hate them, you can’t say that about these other films I’ve mentioned. If you hate them, you hate them because of what they are, not how good they are at being what they are. That’s simply unfair, and bad criticism as well.

Some people have suggested that audiences are trying to “send a message to Hollywood” by not going to see most of this summer’s blockbuster films. That’s complete horseshit, of course. I think if you give people something they really want, audiences will show up in droves – Avatar certainly proved that. The question is, what do people really want? If the answer is “quality films”, then why are movies like Grown Ups making so much money? If you want to send a message to Hollywood about quality, you don’t pay to watch Sandler and his buddies take a paid vacation. I don’t understand why anyone would pay to see that, but that’s another question altogether. Nor do I think that The Karate Kid beating The A-Team at the boxoffice is any indicator that audiences are rejecting Hollywood – they just chose one 80’s remake over another, and they chose the more kid-friendly one. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. My point is, if you make something that the majority of people really want to see, they’ll show up. But of course, there’s no way to know what people will want at any given time, until you give it to them. I wasn’t surprised at all when Grown Ups beat Knight and Day at the boxoffice, even though a blind man can see that Knight is clearly the better film. But how do you convince people of that, when they’d rather watch Sandler and company make dick jokes for 90 minutes? You really can’t. Right or wrong, people want what they want.

10 years ago, Knight and Day probably would have been a smash hit (it’s basically Romancing the Stone in tone, and who doesn’t love Romancing the Stone?). Maybe it’s the Cruise thing (who cares if a guy jumps on a couch?), maybe it’s just the wrong movie at the wrong time. So maybe it’s time for the studios to re-evaluate what it is people actually want out of these movies. Maybe in this economy, it takes a little more to get people out to the theaters. And maybe those $200 million budgets and marketing campaigns just aren’t going to make their money back if you don’t motivate people to buy tickets. I don’t really know what the answer is exactly – I just know that the question needs to be asked. All I know is, this is one of the few summers that isn’t completely dominated by sequels and remakes, and watching most of the original films fail one by one, I have to wonder if it won’t be the last summer like that. Hollywood isn’t obligated to make films that don’t make money, after all. I always say “you vote with your money” and it seems like people are voting to put an end to summer movies in general. If all we get from now on is Sandler and Transformers, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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