Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review: Inception

Grab a Snickers ... we're gonna be here a while ...

First of all, can we just take a moment and let Christopher Nolan's young filmography sink in a little? Since breaking out with the memorable "Memento," he's directed "Insomnia," "Batman Begins," "The Prestige" and "The Dark Knight." And that's without mentioning "Following," which started it all.

Please feel free to applaud here before continuing ...

Secondly, I don't know how the hell to review this movie, because there is so much you can't give away. While the film's payoff is immensely satisfying -- and hotly debated -- the journey toward that moment is as thoroughly entertaining for the viewer to discover on their own.

I know I need to see this again before being able to write anything remotely intelligent about it -- for that matter, so does the woman in my theatre who left three times during this thing. Seriously, lady? I'd love to hear her interpretation of what she experienced between candy and bathroom breaks. Doubtless she went home whining about how stupid and boring it was because you had no idea what was going on ...

But I digress ...

This movie demands full attention and participation. If you simply focus on the movie and nothing else, it comes to you, there is no reason to feel intimidated about the complex storylines. For me, I had the same giddy feeling I had after watching "The Prestige" for the first time. Having gotten that one on DVD, I watched it -- and immediately watched it again, without taking a break, to catch everything I missed the first time around that led up to that movie's glorious climax.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio (Warner Bros.)
With "Inception," I fought the urge to immediately purchase another ticket. But perhaps a first impression will be the most genuine review to make -- as long as we all know that there is much more I could write about.

The movie starts with Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as lead members of a team of "extractors," who have the ability to enter people's dreams and steal secrets, which they sell to companies. They are propositioning a Japanese billionaire, Saito (Ken Watanabe), to purchase their services as protection from his competitors, and they will have to enter his mind and learn all his secrets to do so.

It is here we realize that this is a dream ... which is then revealed to be a dream within a dream.

And so we're off -- accompanied by Hans Zimmer's predictably pitch-perfect soundtrack -- into an incredibly intense labyrinthian journey through reality, and dreams upon dreams upon dreams ... upon dreams. It's so intricate, that each member of the team must possess a "totem," something unique to each individual with a weight and shape to it that only they recognize, informing them of whether they are in a dream or reality. It's "an elegant solution for keeping track of reality," one character muses. Cobb uses a top that spins continuously in dreams ... it stops spinning in real life. Hmmmm ...

Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard (Warner Bros.)
Cobb botches his job with Saito because he is unable to control his subconscious mind's defenses, or "projections," which are characters or objects from his own mind that he brings into the dreams of others, sabotaging the work. This is due to the fact that Cobb has a very emotional back story, involving his wife (Marion Cotillard), his children and a tragic incident that caused him to go on the run from U.S. authorities. But in a second dealing with Saito, Cobb may have the chance to return to his family.

Saito wants Cobb and his team to perform an act of "inception" with a business competitor (Cillian Murphy), planting an idea in his dream state that will cause him to destroy his own company. In turn, Saito will see to it that Cobb is granted amnesty.

To pull this off, the team sets up a three-level (which actually becomes a mesmerizing four-level) dream scenario, and it is here that we should recognize some of the members of this team, because their performances turn what could easily have been a movie driven solely by special effects into one of substance and humanity.

Ellen Page (Warner Bros.)
DiCaprio is very good as Cobb, the leader, and he has the knack for playing sketchy protagonists down cold. We can feel his migraine-inducing battles between reality and the dream world, fueled by his intense feelings of grief and inability to let go of the past that puts this mission, and the lives of his team, in jeopardy. His grit and professionalism are overshadowed by the guilt, the pain and the regret that has been choking the life out of him. His love for his family is never in doubt and you never feel as if you're not on his side, despite the fact that what he's doing "isn't exactly legal," as he admits.

And then there's his supporting cast. Ellen Page plays Ariadne, a young student plucked from the university by Cobb to be "The Architect" of these dream worlds because he is unable to trust himself to do so. Since Ariadne is a newcomer to the team, she's a point of contact for the audience (at least she was for me), because she's trying to figure out all of this on the fly, as we are, and asks important questions at important times that helps us to stay on track. She also serves as a fresh, steady voice of reason for Cobb, and she plays it cool and analytical with a bit of charm.

Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Warner Bros.)
I especially loved Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy (Eames), and we should look forward to seeing much more from these two actors in the future. We learn so much about their characters based on their individual eccentricities and their interplay with each other.

Gordon-Levitt plays Arthur as the consummate professional with no shortage of charisma:

Eames: Security's going to come down on you hard ...
Arthur: And I shall lead them on a merry chase!

And he's rewarded with one doozy of a zero-gravity fight scene off the walls and ceiling of a hotel that is alone worth the price of admission -- and it is the centerpiece of some of the most stunning, mind-blowing and gorgeous special effects that I have seen.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Warner Bros. Pictures)
As for Hardy's Eames, I can't at all say that he is the comic relief, because this is not that kind of movie. But he has a very calming and sly wit about him:

Cobb (who's being followed): That bounty on me, was that dead or alive?
Eames: Not sure. See if he starts shooting at you.

He lightens the mood of what could be a very heavy movie and is another character the audience can relate to, especially because of the good-natured jabs he takes at Arthur, which suggests a rivalry combined with affection and mutual respect.

I particularly enjoyed the scene where Arthur is shooting at projections from a distance during a dream sequence and having trouble hitting his mark. Eames joins him, sees his situation and says, "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling," and promptly pulls out a rocket launcher and cooly demonstrates how it's done. Gordon-Levitt's look after this is priceless and speaks volumes.

Of Interest
As a "kick" or a signal the team uses throughout the movie to wake themselves up at strategic moments from their dream states, they use a piece of music. I noticed that the tune they use is "Non, je ne regrette rien," by Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard played Piaf and won the Oscar for her portrayal in "La Vie En Rose."
When feeling somewhat adrift and a bit overwhelmed at times, I latched on to the emotional backstory that involved Cobb and his wife.

Cotillard is perfect in this role. While much of the movie can feel a bit cold and technological, she provides a sense of warmth and beauty that is very appealing, and you can feel Cobb's love for her and the bond that they have. This relationship is the heart of this movie, for all its other wonders, because without conveying this, the movie would collapse on itself under the weight of twisted storylines and hollow special effects.

Now, it's difficult to write about this movie without discussing the ending and what I believe it to be. But I'll refrain, because everyone will have their own thoughts and their own opinions. A major appeal of this movie is coming to your own conclusion based on piecing together what you have just seen, and the intriguing clues that are left throughout. I'll just say, the fade to black will make you smile appreciatively and provide a healthy amount of goosebumps.

Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Obviously, none of this would be possible without Nolan. He's admitted he has worked on developing this movie for 10 years, and this dedication translates. He has created worlds of reality and worlds of dreams that mingle so smoothly and flawlessly, that we never question their authenticity. Entire cities invert upon themselves, gravity is deprived in one dream but not another, trains run on city streets, dying wakes you up in early dream states or sends you to an eternity of "limbo" if you go too deep, time runs exponentially different from world to world -- and we don't doubt any of it or become lost in confusion, because it is so masterfully crafted and woven together.

As the movie states, "Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange." For me, Nolan certainly achieved this notion, because as this movie progressed, I not once thought about how strange some of these sequences are, because they are so vivid, so captivating, so ... real.

It was only after I left the theatre that I increasingly began to marvel at what I had just seen.

(Warner Bros. Pictures)

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