Love: INCEPTION

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?

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Like: 500 Days of Summer / Don’t Like: The Guy Who Co-Wrote 500 Days of Summer

July 17, 2009

So every once and awhile I’m privy to one of those neat screening/Q+A things with the makers of a movie. They can be pretty fun. I don’t like going to them for big-fun-type movies as the audience for these things are usually pretty jaded. But I just recently got a chance to see 500 DAYS OF SUMMER in this aforementioned manner.

The film is actually pretty charming. It’s emotionally simplistic to a degree, but it wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve and while many of the creative devices have been done (or even done to death), it does them earnestly so, completely refraining from diving into an irony induced coma; which is admirable. The film has a particularly wonderful first 30 minutes or so, filled with all that good stuff one likes: humor, cleverness, bluntness, creativity, and perfectly paced cinematic devices (not to mention and excellent use of title cards). And then it’s not as if these qualities disappear from the film completely, but just that the sharpness and clarity of the intentions haze into a kind of murky area. It just falls into a pattern of redundant scenes where, I dunno, stuff happens. That sounds like a lazy statement on my part but I assure it’s not. Since we know where the whole relationship is going (it is declared so at the beginning) we just get a run on in juxtapositions, which again are very fun at first, but the transition game eventually wears out its welcome. Luckily the film ends aptly, and without any resolution-y hiccups. All in all, it’s good stuff.

Sure I had minor quibbles. The kind of stuff you overlook when being sufficiently charmed by a movie (which I was): The very admirable and talented Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the all too familiar lead of the blank slate generic sad sack of a man who gets wooed by the manic, tempestuous girl who doesn’t want anything serious or permanent in life. It’s a tale as old as time, yes, and Zooey Deschanel’s Summer is appropriately enchanting. But I didn’t sense there was a real understanding of her character, and what she wanted in life. Of course the film makes no bones about conveying that JGL’s character does not understand her either and that is much of the source of conflict. But shouldn’t the writer have some idea? The world of the movie itself? I dunno. If one thinks like that than in retrospect you kind of have a hollow feeling about 500 Days. True, JGL comes out understanding the most basic of lessons, but just barely so. It’s a very juvenile point in the love development path, but once again, the film was charming so I was ready to go to war of the sort of obviousness and juvenility that wasn’t apparent to the main character.

We almost left before the Q+A… In retrospect I wish I did.

(First off, in order to discuss this I must get spoilery. If you you want to see the movie and plan on enjoying it. Stop reading. Cause I’m about to be dispariging.)

The film has a great opening in which the author makes it clear he has some anger with the real-life surrogate of the titular female. It was a great thing on the screen and got big laughs. But I thought it was a comic exaggeration… you know… something for effect.

Boy was I wrong.

500 Days of summer is about a sad sack who falls in love with a girl who doesn’t love him the same way and can’t commit to him. Why does he? Cause we like the same music! She’s not a vapid whore! She actually talks to me! She validates my existence with her acknowledgment! It’s sad sack story for a reason; while most guys have been there at some point in their life, no doubting it, there’s still something very juvenile about it. There are so many real-life girl and people issues to get into without resorting back to the “girls just don’t like me” issue. It’s just a juvenile issue. I’m sorry it is. That doesn’t mean it’s not valid. But it’s, like, a high school thing… That’s not a love story for 30 year olds. And this is a film about 30 year olds.

So when I was there watching the co-writer speak… ugh… He was clearly very nervous and that’s fine, and he had some funny anecdotes and really seemed to mean well… but then things just kept becoming very apparent… I really hate speaking like this, but these are kind of inescapable conclusions the audience seemed to be coming to… and not to be crass, or judgmental, but… I have never seen or listened to someone who seemed like a nice, well-intentioned guy who was really so secretly angry, resentful, neurotic, self-pitying, self-centered, insecure, juvenile, and all in all kind of a general pre-occupied dick about his own state of life. It was as if the whole world was mean to him and that’s not fair! True, none of this was that overt, but it was practically oozing out of every word he said. The Stuff-I-Like-Gal came to the same exact conclusion and we made virtually no conversation or gesture or eye roll during the entire Q+A. And yet we came to the exact same conclusion. Terribly unfair of us? Possibly. But possibly obvious too: The guy angry little man.

And look, it’s not as if one can’t be an angry, resentful, neurotic writer and have angry, resentful, neurotic protagonists. But you have to display some clue about your own self-identity. Woody Allen was the master of this because he UNDERSTOOD that all the problems/conflicts in his oeuvre were ultimately of his own doing. And for decades, it was fascinating to watch. Lots of others writers did it before and lots have done it since to pretty entertaining results.

And this poor screenwriter… He didn’t get that it was all him. He really didn’t. You see 500 DAYS OF SUMMER was based on his real life. Almost to a T. And as he talked you realize, he didn’t get that it’s about the kinds of girls he was attracted to. In the film, JGL never acknowledges any of his own shortcomings. In fact his character has none. He’s the perfect nice guy. The world is too tough on him and he’s lonely and all he needs is a girl to reflect the love he shows her everything is perfect. But of  course the girls can’t do that. They’re flighty creatures. They break up with him so, Summer is the encapsulation heinous evil bitch who broke up with him. Really, even though they weren’t in those blunt words, he was outright saying this!

And watching this co-writer, coming to that realization… it sort of ruins 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. The film just wasn’t what I hoped it was when the credits rolled. I had hoped it was just a clever movie where a couple of writers crafted a great story with humor and drew on life experiences…

… Instead, it was the story of this asshat’s life with the lines he wished he said.

There is nothing worse in the writing world. Granted, it’s probably the best version of that kind of thing I’ve ever seen (funny, charming, whatnot). And I understand the inclination to write the story of your life. It’s something every writer sort of goes through when they first start writing. But eventually they realize just because “that’s the way it happened” doesn’t mean it has any sort of validity whatsoever with the realm of the screen, or page or whatever the medium of the writing (Todd Solandz’s first half of storytelling is about this very subject, and it’s an extraordinary film)… But this guy didn’t get it. Or who knows, maybe he did and couldn’t get over those hangups so he just barged ahead anyway. I’m not really sure. I just know the kinds of things he was saying:

He said the entire movie was based on two girlfriends who did the exact same thing to fuck him over.

He acknowledged that neither of these relationships lasted longer than 6 months (wow, what life changing time frames!).

He actually said the entire movie happened to him with the exception of a dance number and one other scene. He was bragging about this. He wanted us to feel bad for him. Like he got a raw deal. Again, screwed over by these bitches.

He bragged about being on set as an “authenticity” expert and being sure they got the details of how it really happened.

He talked about how the entire script was nothing but a way of dealing with the break up.

He talked about how insipid and self-involved the two girls who inspired Summer were. And that when they read the script they had no idea it was exactly about them and said they identified with JDL’s character. Then turned to us screaming about how “THAT’S SO YOU!” in shocking anger.

He admitted that the Summer character exists as an object.

He admitted that the two girls were not unlike all his other relationships too.

He admitted that the two girls were still the equivalent of clueless harpies who went on to find love after not wanting to commit to him.

He admitted that he doesn’t understand why the girls did any of what they did, but that’s “how it happened.”

He admitted that he doesn’t understand why girls keep “doing this to him.”

He admitted that the girls perspective doesn’t get any representation in this film.

He admitted that the hopeful ending isn’t real, that the new girl relationship ends just as badly, just something to convey a kind of hope to the audience.

And then it becomes obvious. The resonance of 500 DAYS OF SUMMER is in its detailed perceptions. Moments in which the audience perceives true moments because of the authentic voice. E.g. a real life anecdote being interesting, but not corresponding to a great context beyond the truth of the anecdote itself. Which means there is no real over-arching truth. No validity to the co-writer’s perspective. Which renders the entire scope aimless, unfeasible, and lacking credibility.

It is a story written by a guy who has no idea that he is the joke.

It’s a cruel statement. I’m aware. But in the end 500 DAYS is simply a tale of vengeance. A recreation of events to make them singularly sided. A self-edited history whose charm and guile may be the most upsetting things as all, because under that facade lies a film about women being basically evil. And not really getting that it’s about weak-willed men whose own insecurities betray their noble intentions. And it’s skewed to make a conclusions of the world where this kind of perspective is okay for men to have… where it is the truth… where it is good.

I’m sorry, I appreciate the will for stories to be honest as much as anyone… but no one wants to watch someone work out their psychosis at every one else’s 10 bucks.

… It’s a good thing it was a screening then.