July 17, 2010

First a non spoiler review:

INCEPTION may be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Now, this is just a first reaction mind you, but I saw the midnight show last night and I felt this way the second I walked out of the theater.  I was on an emotional and intellectual high… It has continued all day long.

Important things to know:  I am not a “Nolan Guy.” I very much like THE DARK KNIGHT and found it to be entertaining and interesting. I only like a few parts of BATMAN BEGINS. I thought MEMENTO was rather clever, but not too much else. I thought INSOMNIA was a step backward from there. My favorite Nolan film is actually THE PRESTIGE because it’s a straightforward puzzle that relied on laying actually clues in the groundwork rather than being an nonsensical stupid “twist movie.” I hate the nonsensical twist (unlike the logical twist, which is a wonderful thing when done right) and thankfully Nolan seems to hate the nonsensical twist as well. For this alone I will always appreciate Nolan in some way. But while I embrace the intellectual puzzle-building nature of his work I think he too often slides into unemotional arcs and formalism over content.

So please understand, this is the opinion of someone who is not predisposed to gush.

INCEPTION satisfies on all levels.

First off, it is an enthralling heist film. I honestly cannot remember a movie where I was on the edge of my seat so long let alone the entire last hour and 45 minutes. The tension is immense and every time you think it has to let up, it manages to go deeper down the rabbit hole.  One of the things I loved about the film is that it’s actually pretty straight forward. Everything is perfectly explained so you’re rarely wondering “what’s going on.” (The key is just not to miss anything. If you don’t know what’s going on, you missed something and it’s your fault. I realize this sounds really esoteric, but the entire film takes its time to set up it’s layers and be deliberate… so really there’s no excuse). In this regard, from pure entertainment standpoint, it is one of the best popcorn movies I’ve ever seen.

But it’s not just a popcorn movie is it? Secondly, INCEPTION is incredibly satisfying on an intellectual level and not just in the typical Nolan puzzle sense. There’s honest to god thematics going on here. Ones that aren’t hammered over and over again like THE PRESTIGE and its issues of control, but ones that run the gamut: love, marriage, death, father issues, propagation, and the nature of reality. The film is about the rich textures psychoanalysis. These themes are not window dressing either but somehow the driving force of the film.

You see, INCEPTION manages to use psychoanalysis as actual plot points. How a character feels, their catharsis, their arcs, their emotional states… these are god damn macguffins folks. It’s sounds like it would be obtuse, but it’s so seemless and not clunky. It’s dramatic, emotional, real, and damn suspenseful. I honestly cannot believe that a movie managed to achieve all this.

In a way, Nolan has finally managed to “go emotional.” He has turned the soft-hearted and tender emotions of repression into the engine for one of his brilliant narratives. I said that he always has problems with formalism over content, but what if the formalism is the content? The action of  INCEPTION not only reinforces the arc, it is an arc.

The performances are stellar across the board. Dicaprio delivers his best work to date. I very much like his performance in THE DEPARTED, but that role is mostly a sort of one-dimensional projection of paranoia, angst, and affectation. His role in INCEPTION, meanwhile, is the most rounded and interesting one we’ve gotten from Nolan yet. His character motives are so emotional and what at first seems slightly one note, is revealed to be so textured and beautiful. I couldn’t believe it. Much of this is due to the enchanting and haunting work of Marion Cotiallard who provides such weight and organic tone. She is the absolute crux of his arc. But against her, Dicaprio toes the line between focused and unhinged so beautifully. He really the perfect carrion for the film’s lead character.

The rest of the cast isn’t given the same showcase, but Nolan does a wonderful job of giving them little moments, glimpses even to reveal their characters and motivations.  Joseph Gordon Levitt is fantastic; one of the smoothest badasses we’ve seen on screen in a while. Have we forgotten about making characters like this? Badasses that aren’t “bad” in any sense, but smooth operators who astound us. I’m hoping this film elevates his profile out of the indie scene because he has the potential to be amazing. Especially, because he easily delivers in one of the most thrilling scenes I have ever seen. Ellen Page provides a real emotional anchor for the film by grounding Dicaprio’s character and operating as the audience surrogate in the film’s first half.  Tom Hardy, fresh of his tour de force in BRONSON, gets to shine as the most vivacious and theatrical character of the group (but of course, this is Nolan so never, ever does it even approach anything camp or unrealistic feeling). At this point it seems like I’m just trying to name everyone in the film, but I have to mention Cillian Murphy who does a somewhat thankless job so beautifully. Really, his emotional work and inner turmoil is the engine of the entire film; meaning without his performance, the film doesn’t work. And of course Michael Caine lends his perfect skills of being fatherly Michael Caine.

There have been three times where I have sat down and watched something and realized “In my entire life, I will never ever be able to do something anywhere near as good as this.” It’s depressing in a small way, but largely you’re awed by the work you’ve witnessed.

The first time for me was ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. In someways it feels like the off-beat comedic version of this same film and that Gondry-Kauffman cinematic marriage was the best film of that decade.  The second time for me was THE WIRE, whose depth and novelistic tapestry was the perfect amalgamation of profoundity, characterization, and plotting.

The third time was INCEPTION. The film is a big budget brilliant idea, perfectly executed. I am literally in awe of it.

INCEPTION is a flat out masterpiece.

And now….

Point by Point Spoiler Review:

-The hotel hallway fight scene…. Unreal. My biggest bone to pick with Nolan is he often films his action poorly (his best being the joker’s chase of the armored car). But this was absolutely hands down one of the best filmed action scenes I have ever seen. Nevermind the fact that he has merely pulled back the camera, but the movement is fluid and well-defined, not to mention that the action itself completely totally jaw dropping.

-How badass was Joseph Gordon Levitt in that hotel scene? Just unreal. So freaking good. I can’t stop gushing about it.

-Cillian Murphy’s arc and the moment of “inception” was so spectacularly well done. They way they built the layers falls exactly in line with what we know about psychoanalysis. And it managed to be emotional in a way that I never thought Nolan could be (he certainly had to dress it up though didn’t he?) Brilliant. Goddamn brilliant.

-The entire Marion Cotillard relationship was haunting and the end reveal was so surprisingly cathartic. It’s the kind of reveal that doesn’t make you go “huh!? What!?” but instead makes you go “YES! THAT MAKES PERFECT SENSE!” and helps explain the motivations of the movie. Just brilliant.

-Some people see the ending moment as a mind-fuck and tease. I strongly do not agree. On one hand the fact that the fact that the spinning wheel even falters a bit is indication that it is very much real so we can give up on feeling like “none of it mattered it was all fake!” And more importantly it doesn’t matter, Nolan’s deliberate choice to cut is not a tease or a forced withholding, but a brilliant way of telling us to embrace the ambiguity (and not in that shitty didactic LOST way either). And what’s more it’s a brilliant little wink. Want to know why that last layer is “not” real?

Nolan’s acknowledging that INCEPTION isn’t really because it’s a damn movie.

A little meta, but how is that not perfect?


Like: The Dark Knight

July 21, 2008

As of Today, The Dark Knight is the #1 film of all-time on IMDB.

Fuck the Godfather, Batman rocks!

Okay, it’s impossible to deny The Dark Knight is a very good film. I’d go so far as to call many of its aspects phenomenal and can’t imagine someone not liking the films as a whole. Universal adoration is tricky feat and TDK might have pulled it off. And sure, I hope it gets some Oscar respect because it is tremendously well made and most Oscar-calibur films are bland as sin (not including last years No Country and There Will Be Blood). And like most award films, TDK features a bevy of great performances (and even one classic performance). I hope it gets its due, yada yada yada, all that good stuff.

But… we need a little appropriation and discretion here. To those swarming the boards of IMDB, it’s not the greatest film ever. Time decides those kind of things. Not internet rating systems. Not critics. Not reviews. Not awards. Only Time. And time is the very reason people still reference Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction but seem to have forgotten about forest gumps very existence (seriously, I’ve seen more references to Cast Away recently in the wake of Wall-E).

Hell, I wouldn’t even call The Dark Knight the greatest comic book movie of all time. It’s in the conversation sure, but to make the argument so clear-cut as most critics and fellow nerds have is slightly ridiculous. Tim Burton’s original Batman was just as visionary, albeit in other ways. Even Spider-Man 2 dealt with a lot of the same issues as TDK and I might say it’s even more flawless. Hell, I had just as good a time watching Iron Man as I did this film. And that’s okay folks. Serious doesn’t = better. It’s just different.

Another thing. The Dark Knight DID NOT transcend comic book movies. That’s a bold face lie propagated by a lot of reviewers and people who don’t read comics. If anything, the movies have just finally caught up to the comics after 20+ years. There’s nothing about TDK that hasn’t really been explored by Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween, and The Killing Joke. And guess what? That’s also okay. It’s been a long time coming and I sincerely appreciate the effort.

I think what makes The Dark Knight such a hit with critics and audiences is that we all collectively realize there should be a lot more films like it. Iron Man was brain candy perfected, the very thing studios have been wanting to shell out to us for years. It was sweet, fun, exciting and light. A perfect concoction really.

So why is it we all go apeshit for 3 hour crime epic on the nuances of anarchy and alternative heroism?

Easy. Because we don’t get enough thoughtfulness in our popcorn movies. The studios are looking to turn in a product they can predict and so a genuinely scary bad guy who strives of anarchy makes em a little nervous. And our cultures “serious” films are almost as flimsy and predictable as the super-hero movies. The various endings of prestige pictures have become as predictable to american audiences as “the good guy wins.”

American film-going audiences are much better than people realize. Yeah, many can’t necessarily articulate their sentiments but they are perceptive as hell. and that’s why TDK is getting so much acclaim. It’s filling a void modern movies have left in us and I love that.

So as for the actual movie… here’s some nerd analysis:

TDK was bloated. There’s no way around. It was all incredibly well executed and directed so you don’t notice it so much. But damn, a lot of stuff never really came to fruition (what was the significance of Joker breaking the Asian crime-lord guy out of jail? I think he burned him in the money pile but it was never made clear. Seriously. Messy for something that occupied a half hour+ of running time.

The film also features a lot of great political, social, and legal commentary. It’s stuff you don’t get too much of in these films and that’s shame. Sure it’s laid on a little thick, but at least it’s not politico-lite (corruption versus good! etc). It’s a nice touch (Devin Faraci did some nice work in his review comparing it to The Wire)

Honestly, I loved Aaron Eckhart (I usually appreciate his work in general) and his take on Harvey Dent. He was really the driving force of the film since the entire plot is really just a reaction to his very presence. They enforce his whole persona very much: he is our very ideals, as the oft referenced “White Knight.” It was all really nicely observed. With Eckhart being our ideals, that leaves Gary Oldman to pull off some tremendous humanity as the everyman Lt. Gordon. Considering how many baddies Oldman’s played in his time it’s a special revelation to see him like this. I liked him just the same way with his performance in Batman Begins. Maggie Gyylleennhhaallll shows why Katie Holmes not-as-distracting-as-everyone-claims performance in BB was actually much worse than I thought: with just a few more scenes she turns the Rachel character from merely servicable to fully-functional with in the world of TDK. I’m amazed how much her presence changed the dynamic, and even made the endeavor a little sexual, which is desperately needed in the dour landscape of this films. And yeah, Michael Caine is good as always. Hell, all the actors in this film are just good.

Which brings us to Heath Ledger.

With Heath’s Joker, well, you really have to just see it. There’s no real way to explain and the reason the hyperbole doesn’t get in the way is because there’s no real apt way to describe it. It’s a special performance. It’s unique. It’s easily one of the great all time villain performances. My friend Ken aptly described it as “100% nihilistic glee” but there’s more to it then that. It’s jaw-dropping in its nuance and exclamations. The Joker’s intro to the crime syndicates (not opening bank job) was electric, the entire theater just came alive watching him on screen. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen something like that. Right afterwards, I wanted to see the film again, but only just his scenes. They took what was started with Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and perfected it. There’s no origin story. Attempts to throw a little pop psychology in the mix are wonderfully ridiculed by the Joker himself. As the Nolan bros put it, their Joker is “absolute.”

Which makes the whole thing a little bittersweet. There’s a line near the end where Joker looks at Batman and says “we’re going to do this forever.” It’s a tremendous nod to the endless cyclical nature of hero and villain in comics… But it won’t be going on forever. Ledger died and I think this incarnation of the character dies with him. Perhaps it’s just too good to spoil. It’s too much his own. And a part of me hates that. I hate that we won’t see more of him. Maybe it’s better that way, maybe it makes it timeless. But the very turmoil in my mind is proof-positive of the effectiveness of his performance: We want it to live forever.

You’ll also notice I haven’t made mention of Batman or Bale yet. That’s cause Batman’s boring.

Let’s get serious folks, people are attracted to Batman because he is our dark fantasy. He’s what we wish we could be, but that makes him far from human or interesting. In the better versions of the comics he’s only interesting when we get into those more difficult moral dilemmas. The film deals with that stuff tangentially but far too swiftly (I sincerely hope it’s what they address it more clearly in the next one).

But I finally came on board with this version of Batman with that memorable ending. Well, it’s memorable to me. It’s not a stunner or anything, but just a remarkable clarification of the things you realize they’ve been hitting you over the head with the entire movie. They finally get to heart of Batman’s very existence as really nothing more than an idea. Which is really the right way to go in this thing. At the very end, after we realize The Joker was really going after the White Knight Harvey Dent (Devin Faraci also did a nice comparison saying that Batman almost works as the Joker’s accomplice in anarchy), they finally bring it back to Batz. He makes a choice to sacrifice his own image, which is sometimes the one thing a hero is never seems willing to do. And by making that sacrifice, he honors his namesake:

He’s The Dark Knight bitch.