Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception (2010)

Before I launch into my review of Inception, let me just say that this is a fantastic film, downright dynamite and an absolute must-see. I'm just giddy about it. And now, the review proper:

Christopher Nolan's Inception is one of the most anticipated movies to hit Hollywood in a long time - probably the first of that anticipatory magnitude since Nolan's last and perhaps greatest venture, 2008's The Dark Knight - for a few very good reasons. First, it's Christopher Nolan's next film, and everyone's dying to see if he can continue his winning streak after making a comic book movie that's in the runnings for "instant classic." Secondly, Inception's marketing campaign is tantalizingly vague, unrevealing in an expertly intriguing way. Finally and most significantly, it's one of the only movies this year to be wholly and unequivocally original; it's not a sequel, a prequel, a remake, a reboot, an adaptation, a rip-off, or a retread. Inception is wildly imaginative, delectably innovative, and enthusiastically entertaining - unquestionably one of the best films of the year and a strong contender for the year's top honor.

Those in the know (namely, those who have seen it) are extremely reticent to talk about Inception on a plot level, desperately afraid that the uninitiated will have the movie spoiled for them. But what's delightful about Inception is that it's practically unspoilable; the major joys of the film come not from what happens, but how and why it happens. Still, if the following plot summary is in any way lacking, it's because I'm holding back; after all, being there is half the fun.

Inception introduces us to a radical new world, one in which dreams can be invaded, manipulated, and harvested. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a self-styled "extractor" who specializes in entering dreams and stealing important information from his marks - extraction. Already on the run from the law after mysteriously parting ways with his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who regularly appears in his dreams, Cobb is offered a chance to return home by pulling off a heretofore unheard of and presumably impossible task - inception, planting an idea rather than stealing one. And so, assuming inception can be done, Cobb assembles a team (which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page as researcher and dream architect, respectively) and sets to work.

Essentially, Inception is a heist film turned on its head; it's a heist film in which the object is to plant, not to steal, but thatn's not where the similarities end. Here we have the protagonist with a dark past, the characteristically complex team of misfits, the young novice (Page, who respectfully restrains her trademark snarkiness in deference to the film's concentration on verisimilitude), the mark (Cillian Murphy as a coolly cold corporate heir apparent), the shady yet wealthy backer (Nolan standard Ken "Fake Ra's" Watanabe, who adeptly handles the shift from suspicious to endearing), and the twist-upon-twist format that Nolan employed to widespread approval in his fabulous magician's duel The Prestige. Inception warrants comparison to The Prestige because both films relied upon warning the audience they were about to be tricked, but Inception takes it one step further by letting the audience in on the game; we're not on the sidelines but rather in the field with the team, figuring it out as we go along rather than letting our protagonists do it for us.

If I had to review Inception in only two words, I'd choose the phrase "mental calisthenics" because I can't remember the last time a movie made me keep my mind so concentrated to the point where I actually felt tired at the end of it all. Never mind those who say that the movie is "confusing" because what it actually is is engaging; Inception spells itself out for you, but it's up to you to follow along. The concept of "inception" is explained once and only once, so pay attention; this is a thoughtful movie but it's also a high-octane adventure picture with no time to backtrack or recap. Like the train that features into the film's climax, the course of Inception runs fast and unrelentingly forward.

There really aren't enough positive things I could say about Inception. It's a downright brilliant film, anchored by sharp and solid performances from all around. recently argued that the coming generation doesn't have an A-list in the bunch, but DiCaprio and JGL are obvious contenders for the next breed of A-listers. Riffing on his role in Shutter Island, in which he also had difficulties separating reality from imagined delusion, DiCaprio takes center stage here and holds the audience's attention, proving that he's at his best when he's playing a character with a few cards hidden - both from his fellow characters and from the audience. JGL is much more straightforward, doing a great job as a serious actor after proving he's got solid comedic chops in (500) Days of Summer. And working with very little character description, Cotillard is a vision (often literally) as Mal, maintaining a perfect balance between the mystery surrounding her character and the sense of importance underlying her many appearances. I've already spoken well of Page, Murphy, and Watanabe, but let's not overlook a small but vital role from Michael Caine as Cobb's mentor and tether to the world Cobb has had to leave behind.

The script is smart, the performances sterling, but the visuals are downright eye-popping. Nolan boasted of filming in six different countries (up from three in The Dark Knight), and it shows - scenery is strikingly gorgeous, ranging from Tokyo bullet-trains to the nighttime cityscape of Paris to the snowy mountains of... well, someone's dream. The standout visual piece, though, is a hotel in which conventional rules of gravity no longer apply (to explain why would be to betray one of the film's better surprises); while the scene has Kubrickian undertones with a rotating corridor straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan ups the ante by staging a fight scene in zero gravity - and it's one of the most breathtaking fights in recent cinematic history, outdoing the "bullet time" of The Matrix and the quick-cut style of the Bourne trilogy. Nolan's style is one that continually leaves his audience breathless because Inception insists on outdoing itself - visually and creatively.

If you haven't already figured it out, I'm nothing short of gaga about Inception. Before this review turns into abject gushing, let me close by noting once more that Inception is undebatably a top movie of 2010, a must-see for a myriad of reasons, and a sheer delight to behold. As if I weren't already stoked about Nolan's third Batman movie.

Inception is rated PG-13 "for sequences of violence and action throughout." Overall, it's pretty tame, with more emphasis on thrills than gore, although blood appears sporadically but never explicitly.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Groundhog Day (1993)

And now for something completely different - a light-hearted comedy (with strong philosophical overtones) that restored my faith in Harold Ramis and reminded me how much I love Bill Murray.

Groundhog Day, if it's not already, ought to be widely regarded as a modern American classic both for its aesthetic merits and its scholarly potential. Murray stars as weatherman Phil Connors, assigned to cover the appearance of groundhog Punxsutawney Phil on February 2. After completing his report, Phil finds himself trapped in a time loop; no matter what he does, he wakes up each morning on February 2, forced to relive the day over and over and over again, trapped in his least favorite town in America. From drunken disorderly conduct to petty larceny to pure gluttony, Phil soon discovers that his cloud has a silver lining - a Christmas Carol-esque opportunity to turn his life around and win the affection of pretty producer Rita (Andie MacDowell).

There's little question that Bill Murray is funny, and there's even less interrogation of the claim that Groundhog Day is among his best work. In a way, Phil Connors is the iconic Bill Murray role - obnoxiously self-assured, dripping with dry humor, and mildly misanthropic (Dr. Venkman of Ghostbusters is cut from the same cloth). So it's a pitch-perfect performance that Murray turns in here, bringing his trademark ennui and disinterested delivery to a character that so succinctly states what "the Bill Murray character" is. But there's a touch more at stake than just comedic timing and wry smirks; Phil's descent into depression when he realizes the futility of progress in his own personal hell is among some of the finer cinematic portrayals of despondency, and it's a credit to Murray that he can do drama as well as comedy - within the same picture, to boot.

The other performers are fine in their parts, though it's unquestionably Murray's movie. MacDowell is a strong foil for Murray, compassionate and optimistic in the face of Phil's sardonic nature. As cameraman/sidekick, Chris Elliott isn't distracting, which makes me forget why I'm not a big fan of his (though not entirely; he still owes the world for Cabin Boy). But perhaps the strongest supporting performance - groundhog aside - comes from top-caliber character actor Stephen Tobolowsky; fans of Glee will recognize him as ousted show choir director Sandy Ryerson, but it's here as "Needlenose" Ned Ryerson that most fans came to love him (I'd always liked him, but it took his "Tobolowsky Files" podcast for that affection to be solidified). Ned Ryerson is a scene-stealer in all the best ways, such that his (re)appearance(s) are among the highlights of Phil's day; just "watch out for that first step - it's a dooooozy!"

But the script is smart beyond just being clever. It's somewhat easy to write a punchline, to give a talented actor like Murray a one-liner he can use to zing another character, but to come up with a script as intelligent as Groundhog Day is a doozy, and so major kudos go to Ramis and Danny Rubin for an intellectually stimulating screenplay that transcends the obvious material and delves into psychologically and academically compelling material. What would such an experience do to a person - an egocentrist, in particular? Perhaps the best exploration of this concept comes in a key diner scene, in which Phil offers that he might be a god - not the God, of course, but one of them, one who's "just been around so long that he knows everything." Bordering on blasphemy, the film deftly navigates the issue by making it about Phil, not Phil's claim. And without distracting us with the cause of Phil's eternity on Feb. 2 (it's never revealed, nor even alluded to), we can focus wholly on matters of character and, to an interesting extent, destiny. But the film never gets bogged down in its own philosophical foundations, remaining abundantly entertaining and laugh-out-loud.

All this Groundhog Day accomplishes with imperturbability, unflinchingly cool and eminently amusing without becoming stale on repeat viewings (honestly, I've got to be past 20 on "times I've seen this movie").

Groundhog Day is fairly tame, rated PG "for some thematic elements," a description that does its best to obfuscate what's objectionable about this movie - basically, recklessness and a few suicides that are heavily implied but which occur off-screen (the most fantastical transpires on-screen, with a eyes-widening explosion).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Raging Bull (1980)

Move Raging Bull off of the "I can't believe I've never seen this" list and onto the "great American classics" list.

Martin Scorsese's "rebirth" picture, made at a tumultuous time in the film icon's life, is a biopic about boxer Jake La Motta (Robert DeNiro) on his way to a title challenge. Raging Bull follows Jake from his first fights to his later years of ignominy as a nightclub performer, but the film spends less time in the ring and more time examining the ways in which Jake's paranoia ends up dismantling his relationships with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and his gorgeous second wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty).

Raging Bull is many things at once - a feat that many films reviewed on this blog have tried and failed - but the most significant thing that it is not what a first-time audience expects. I had assumed I was in for standard biopic fare, a rise and fall story on a par with pretty much everything else Scorsese has done (and done well); imagine my surprise when boxing scenes take up very little of the film's runtime and lets the focus linger on Jake's private life - a move that makes an interesting statement about what makes a life significant. It is our relationships, Scorsese suggests, that define us, and consequently it is our own nature that determines how our relationships are to progress.

Raging Bull is dominated by absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking cinematography on Scorsese's part. While every Scorsese picture reviewed herein on this blog has earned high marks for aesthetics, the decision to film Raging Bull in black-and-white almost makes (as distinct from "breaks") the movie. The subconscious associations with nostalgia, the past, and moral absolutism - as well as the accompanying paranoia that befalls La Motta - create an ironically vibrant atmosphere amid the grayscale visuals on the screen.

This is due also in large part to DeNiro's stellar central performance. I think DeNiro - like Al Pacino, who's often connoted with him - has a tendency to phone in performances; there's nothing particularly stellar about his work in Meet the Parents or Jackie Brown, but he's earned a certain "DeNiro credit" for past services rendered. So if you're wondering why DeNiro is considered a top actor, look no further than Raging Bull, in which DeNiro plays a range of emotions and personality traits within one very complex yet fully plausible figure. All this is to say nothing of the sheer physical tranformation exhibited on the screen; no fat suits here - the extra pounds DeNiro carries as an older, doughier Jake La Motta are the genuine article. Featured co-lead Pesci (here in one of his earliest roles) does a solid job as the film's second banana, evoking lifelike chemistry with DeNiro and demonstrating his ability to be restrained rather than consistently over-the-top (as in Goodfellas and Casino). Moriarty kind of floats through this one, never misstepping but merely existing for the purpose of coming between Jake and Joey; she's pretty, which is all the script asks of her, but she doesn't have enough of a presence to ever take the spotlight away from DeNiro and Pesci - which is, of course, a good thing.

Like Casino, Raging Bull isn't exactly the kind of movie about which I can immediately gush after seeing it. In fact, the movie is unsettling in a lot of places: La Motta's fall from fame is heartbreaking, and his brief stint in prison is so violently uncomfortable that it's difficult not to look away (the latter being a perfect example of Scorsese's gift at knowing when not to cut a scene). It's also not straightforward (also a good thing), deftly avoiding cliches that in 1980 hadn't even been invented yet and thereby remaining freshly original. Though it's not a comfortable film, it's a viciously well-made one, representing the apex of the creative partnership betwixt Scorsese and DeNiro - two American filmmakers doing some of their finest work.

Raging Bull wouldn't be a Scorsese movie if it weren't rated R, this time ffor some very strong brutal violence - most of it set in the boxing ring - as well as about 100 F-bombs and occasional moderate sexual dialogue. One of Scorsese's tamer movies, but it's got its moments.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Iron Man (2008)

There are two kinds of comic books movies - the good and the bad. Within the division of "good" exist two subdivisions - the light-hearted and the heavy. Where The Dark Knight represents the pinnacle of what the heavy can accomplish in terms of cinematic excellence, Iron Man (released in the same year) is the finest example of a comic book movie high on thrills and - perhaps more importantly - unabashed fun.

Robert Downey, Jr. stars as weapons innovator Tony Stark, who's just debuted his new missile-within-a-missile project, the Jericho. After demo'ing the Jericho for armed forces contact James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark is kidnapped by terrorists who demand that he build them a Jericho. Stark manages to turn the tables on his captors, creating a suit of forged iron in which he effects his escape. After returning to the States and much to the chagrin of business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), Tony Stark begins to rebuild his legacy by stripping his company of its weapons manufacturing arm and by suiting up to fight the bad guys as Iron Man.

Iron Man is an important entry in the comic book movie genre because it reminds us that comic book movies can be fun without being campy. Bye-bye, market pandering of Batman and Robin; au revoir, angst of Ang Lee's Hulk. Here's a movie whose director - and consequently its protagonist - is chiefly interested in high-flying fun and in turning out a high-quality superhero flick grounded in good spirits and verisimilitude. It's difficult not to feel a swell of breathtaking ecstasy while watching Iron Man swoop through the skies, and it's downright impossible to remain coolheaded while watching the scene in which Iron Man destroys a tank while simultaneously validating the "cool guys don't look at explosions" trope; it's a scene whose very purpose seems to be to elicit a "Wow, that's awesome" reaction - which it does.

And if anyone can watch this movie and remain stoic and humorless while watching RDJ's performance as Tony Stark - a role he was, essentially, born to play - is a soulless, lifeless zombie. RDJ wears the character like a second skin, completely comfortable as the character and yet entirely believable as a real person. We're introduced to the character first as a fun-loving wisecracker whose life turns topsy-turvy before the AC/DC guitar solo can end, but quickly we get a sense of the facets beneath the witty exterior - the son in his father's shadow, the inventor with the guilty conscience, the objectivist profiteer with a heart of gold. All of these suits RDJ wears with coolly composed sangfroid, a convincing performance that's among the most compelling in any comic book movie - or, indeed, in any film of 2008, right up there with Heath Ledger's Joker and Brad Pitt's Chad Feldheimer. The other performers are good, too; Bridges is pitch-perfect as Stane, the ostensible villain of the piece, and Howard is such a fantastic foil to RDJ that one very nearly regrets the sequel's decision to replace him with Don Cheadle. But this is unquestionably RDJ's show, and he more than rises to the occasion.

A few disconnected thoughts: The special effects are dazzling, fun in a way that might be surprising for viewers expecting run-of-the-mill men-in-metal-suits-whaling-on-each-other action scenes. The glossy sheen on Stark's Iron Man suit is dazzling, lending a preternatural twinkle to his action scenes, and the combat is punctuated with bits of physical humor that prevents a disconnect from forming between man and mask. Also present are the Randian echoes that critics have noted; a particularly salient moment comes when Stark is told, "You really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?" And while I haven't heretofore read any Iron Man comics (I know, shame; I have an unread Masterworks on my bedroom floor, though), I can't imagine the film being any bit inaccurate as far as the hero's spirit is concerned.

If I could give Iron Man a more glowing review, I would. Suffice it to say that this is a phenomenal picture, at once an acccomplishment on celluloid and an exhilarating breeze of a picture - in total, the perfect summer blockbuster.
Iron Man is rated PG-13 "for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content." A few quick shots of bloody violence occur, but most of the violence is directed at a metal battlesuit, which scuffs and chips but never totally breaks. Mild flirting occurs between RDJ and pretty much every female character in the film, a few of whom wake up in his bed the next morning without showing more than bare shoulders.