Saturday, July 24, 2010

Inception

There’s a recording of ‘Mack the Knife’ where Frank Sinatra deviates from Brecht and Weill’s tale of white gloves, jack-knives and blood flowing in scarlet ribbons, and goes into a fantasia on all the other singers who have stamped their personality on the song:

Old Satchmo, Louie Armstrong, Bobby Darin
They did this song nice, Lady Ella too
They all sang it with so much feeling
That ol’ Blue Eyes, he ain’t gonna add nothing new

This is kind of how I feel about reviewing ‘Inception’. Is there anyone on the blogosphere (or at least that region of the blogosphere occupied by writers on film) who hasn’t written about ‘Inception’ yet? Is there a single review out there not weighted down by a comments section wherein rages debate on the implications of that already infamous final shot?

Is there anyone who doesn’t know that the film is about dream hacker named Cobb (Leonardo diCaprio) who is hired by a businessman to implant an idea in the mind of a rival? That the first half details how Cobb puts his team together and the second details their (mis)adventures in the dream state when their carefully delineated plan goes awry after their victim’s subconscious proves a little more resistant to their machinations than expected?

Is there anyone who hasn’t sung the praises of Nolan’s audacity in the set piece involving a van plunging from a bridge in the kind of slow motion that makes Peckinpah look like a speed demon? Who hasn’t marvelled at the intercutting between this and two other extraordinarily orchestrated set pieces which play out simultaneously in different levels of the dreamscape and across different lengths of time? Who hasn’t been impressed by how efficiently Nolan sets up the rules of this world of the imagination and plays scrupulously fair by them?


Have I missed any reviews that haven’t acknowledged how heavily the dialogue errs towards the expositional and remarked upon the heavy-handedness of some of the character names? (Cases in point: Ellen Page’s dream architect Ariadne, introduced in a scene where Cobb asks her to design a maze. Or Marion Cotillard’s Mal, the fact that the actress is French ramming home what the name translates as.) Have any of these reviews not written these tendencies off in the final analysis, minor quibbles compared to how goddamned entertaining, audaciously executed and beautifully shot the whole thing is? (Wally Pfister, Nolan’s regular DoP is worthy to be spoken of alongside Roger Deakins and Christopher Doyle.)

Is there anything in ‘Inception’ that isn’t absolutely flawless, from the often breath-taking visual effects and mise-en-scene (a train barrelling out of nowhere down a city street; an unblemished city of mind filled with the oddest little details; a street bending over and folding in on itself) to the uniformly excellent performance: diCaprio is as good as he’s ever been; Joseph Gordon-Levitt revisits his cerebral/cynical persona from ‘Brick’ but underpinned here with a streak of badass; Ellen Page graduates from the quirky, borderline annoying teenie of earlier roles and her intelligence shines through fiercely; Tom Hardy, unrecognisable from ‘Bronson’, camps it up to hilarious effect; Cillian Murphy, so often cast in cold or villainous roles, imbues the film with a wounded humanity; Marion Cotillard is sultry, dangerous and seductive and I for one wouldn’t have it any other way; Ken Watanabe imbues what could have been a plot function role with real gravitas; and Michael Caine, in what is essentially a cameo, proves that he’s Christopher Nolan’s good luck charm plus VAT.

In fact, the only problem with ‘Inception’ is that it’s almost too polished and accomplished. There’s none of the unpredictably that Heath Ledger’s magnificently reinvented Joker brings to ‘The Dark Knight’, crashing through Batman’s clearly defined moral rectitude and sending the movie spinning off in unexpected directions. Nor, despite the levels of the dream state and the brilliant construction of the climactic set piece(s), is the structure quite as clever or effective as that of ‘The Prestige’. Indeed, the last shot of ‘Inception’ seems almost manufactured in its ambiguity compared to the gradual and thought-provoking way in which ‘The Prestige’ slowly and slyly reveals its secrets.

None of which should detract from the fact that ‘Inception’ is one hell of a good movie. Seven films into his career and Nolan has yet to disappoint. ‘Inception’ might not be the absolute touched-by-genius best thing on his CV (that honour, as far as I’m concerned, still goes to ‘The Prestige’), but evaluated for what, after all, it is­ – ie. a big-budget tentpole studio release – it sets the bar arguably higher than any mainstream director currently at work.

5 comments:

Aaron said...

Nice write-up, Neil. I was thisclose to checking INCEPTION out at the other night, but now I think I'm going to wait until it comes out on DVD. Even though I've heard mixed things about it (either it's GREAT, or it's OK, but never bad) there's still so much hype that I already know I will be disappointed if I see it. Besides, I think I'm one of the few people out there who didn't like THE DARK KNIGHT with the exception of Ledger's performance, and while I do still think Nolan is a great film-maker, I'm not the type of person who thinks he's the savior of modern-day cinema. But, I will say that the great cast may make me change my mind and see it sooner than later.

Aaron said...

*at the THEATER the other night

Simon said...

Lovely not-review.

Though seeing as how JGL's Brick character was already pretty badass, and his Inception character is more professional than cynical, I'd say they are completely different.

Neil Fulwood said...

Aaron - although you'll probably get more out of 'Inception' on a visual level if you see it on the big screen, I can see exactly where you're coming from. I can't remember a mainstream release getting this kind of hype, nor queues as long at my local multiplex, since 'Revenge of the Sith'. Look forward to your review once all the fuss has died down and you can take a clear-sighted look at it on DVD.

Simon - good call. I probably should have described Levitt's 'Inception' character as coldly professional rather than cynical. What I was trying to communicate - and glancing back at my review (love your description of it as a "not-review", btw) I didn't quite express it properly - was that seeing Levitt in Nolan's film I immediately thought Yeah, that's the guy I dug in 'Brick', only this time he's got the hardware and the stakes are higher.

Thanks for commenting.

J.D. said...

I really felt that INCEPTION had a Michael Mann sheen to it right down to the immaculate suits that DiCaprio and his crew wear and the cold, industrial look of a lot of the film. So, as you can imagine I loved the film on an aesthetic level but I also thought the film was quite brilliant and ambitious in a way that a Hollywood blockbuster hasn't been in a long time (maybe since THE DARK KNIGHT?). As I've said in my review on my blog, I think that Nolan should be commended for not making yet another sequel, remake, reboot or adaptation from an existing work. And, it looks like from the current box office stats, audiences are also hungry for something original.