Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inception review

Property The Daily Gamecock

Dreams. Few topics have so beguiled and frustrated filmmakers since motion pictures were first shot. For as long as critics and theorists have written about film, they have emphatically suggested that films themselves resemble dreams — they are projections of the world, an artificial reality resembling our world but always slightly eschewed from it.

Director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to experimenting with film narrative. “Memento” (2000) told a murder mystery in reverse chronology, while “The Prestige” (2006) mimicked the structure of a magic trick. With “Inception,” he takes on the meaning of dreams and consciousness, creating an awe-inspiring and fully enveloping parable of obsession and human frailty against a series of miraculously staged spectacle.

Leonardo DiCaprio, adding to his list of fractured characters combating their own tortured souls, stars as Dom Cobb, a thief trained in the art of “dream sharing” and “extracting” — entering a client’s subconscious dream space and stealing their deepest secrets. Living abroad as a fugitive from the United States, he struggles to overcome visions of his deceased wife and to find a safe way to be reunited with his children.

Asian businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers him a deal: if he can perform the elusive art of “inception” on Saito’s competitor Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), he’ll make Cobb’s criminal record disappear. Unlike extraction, which is portrayed as a refined art, inception is a little trickier — it involves planting an idea in a person’s mind so carefully that their subconscious believes the idea has been organically created.

Using the generic conventions of the heist film — the “one last job,” a gritty cityscape, dizzying layers of exposition and narrative complication — allows Nolan to counterbalance lofty discussions about the philosophy of dreaming and the nature of reality with a discernible and relatable narrative structure.

What’s most fascinating about “Inception” — even more than the spectacular action scenes that include a gravity-defying duel in a rotating hotel hallway — is the deep control over the narrative Nolan wields. Even though it’s almost impossible to know where the story will turn next, it’s always easy to follow what’s happening and why.

Filmmakers have always struggled to figure out how dreams should “look,” be it wild camera angles, bizarre lighting, incongruous editing or a general lack of logic. Nolan takes the opposite approach: his dreams almost always work by the established conventions of cinematic verisimilitude, albeit soaked in a thick level of mood.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has shot all of Nolan’s features, uses misty blues in exterior cityscapes and saturated oranges in interior sequences, creating popping and lush colors against fluid tracking movements and even compositions. He often adds highlights through dips into heavy lighting contrast and boldly geometric visual constructions.
Every step of the way, “Inception” is gorgeous to look at; a film truly in tune with how its visual conceit can aid the motion and arc of the story.

At the film’s climax, Cobb and his team, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his business associate and Ellen Page as a “dream architect” who can construct environments that double as mazes, they subject Robert Fischer to four levels of dreaming — a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream.

With different characters existing in each level simultaneously, one would suspect Nolan’s film would go off the rails and devolve into an indiscernible mess, a clutter of action, noise and space. Not so. Editor Lee Smith expertly coordinates the time and motion of each moment with an unbridled precision and rhythm.

While much happens in the labyrinthine narrative, screenwriter Nolan makes this film squarely about Cobb — his neuroses, his trauma, his struggle to separate dream from reality.

Further, part of Nolan’s economy is assuming we can catch up, balancing the given exposition against visual cues along the way to paint a picture of Cobb’s ever-deteriorating world without over-explaining the technology and circumstances. With the help of an intense performance by DiCaprio, Nolan’s epic and bombastic science-fiction vision is actually just as much a carefully rendered human portrait.

Ultimately, “Inception” retreats into the inner space of the subconscious, into the very genesis of an idea. It is about creation and destruction simultaneously. It is about mankind’s potential and also the consequences of exceeding one’s reach.

It’s also a wholly original piece that mesmerizes incessantly over its long runtime, ending with one final, ambiguous question: what is a dream, and does it matter what’s real and what exists solely in our subconscious?

Hollywood has been charmingly referred to as a “Dream Factory.” With all the industry he can muster, Christopher Nolan has constructed a paradoxically staggering dream of a film — “Inception” defies all logic, yet is perfectly logical.

We need dreams to make sense of our world. For Christopher Nolan, and for many impassioned cinematic spectators, films can provide equal opportunities to discern the world through an artifice.

“Inception” is a masterpiece of the mind, and a film that dares to take our breath away and pin our jaws to the floor, to show us what dreams — and films — are made of.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Knight and Day review

Property The Daily Gamecock

“Knight and Day” is a playfully off-kilter action caper whose sole purpose often seems to catapult Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz back into the certifiable A-list of celebrity. The movie is overstuffed with witty banter, breakneck action set pieces and a glossy chemistry between the two stars, yet it all too fleetingly delves into the kind of unhinged insanity its leading man seems to be reaching for.

In a summer awash with disappointing or mediocre films — Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” aside — “Knight and Day” comes as a surprise: a movie as goofy and senseless as its titular pun.
Cruise gets this, but he almost gets it too well. Cruise’s wacky supporting turn as movie producer Les Grossman in 2008’s “Tropic Thunder” won him praise left and right for sublimating his movie star glamour for a sickening, foul-mouthed caricature.

If Grossman was everything Tom Cruise isn’t, his lead turn here as Roy Miller is everything Tom Cruise “is” — every smile, every lock of hair, every body motion, every line of dialogue seems to channel “Tom Cruise: Movie Star.” In the movie’s manic opening act, this works wonders and helps give the film its buoyancy, but as it draws farther into the action, Cruise becomes less the film’s center and more just an element of its production.

What keeps “Knight and Day” from being as frenetically enjoyable as it strives to be is that it’s trying to make a major Hollywood blockbuster feel like an improvisation. It wants us to feel continually caught off guard by the eccentricities of the action and the rapidity of the banter, but it can’t help feeling overly familiar.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t tremendous fun at times. It knowingly plays up its MacGuffin — a central plot element that is both everything the story is about and of absolutely no importance — and sensibly plays the dynamic between Diaz and Cruise’s, which is at times magnetic.

But it’s still two movies at once — a super-serious action spectacle, and a no-holds-barred spy film parody. Take an action sequence set on a freeway late into the film’s first act, in which Diaz’s character drives an SUV down the wrong side of the road as Cruise shoots baddies from the hood of the car.

On one hand, it’s a joy to watch Cruise play straight face (or relaxed and goofy face) to Diaz’s freak-out. On the other, the stunts and chaos are well-staged action, but rarely do these elements seem perfectly conjoined.

Director James Mangold, whose last film was “3:10 to Yuma,” reaches high and manages to control all the elements of the production while still giving his stars space to roam within the frame. Of course, that also ends up being the central contradiction the film poses: Can something this expensive put every cent on the screen in tightly controlled spectacle and still find room for the megastars to comfortably play off each other?

While it may not be a consistent film, it’s still entertaining, and it’s great fun just to watch Tom Cruise play himself with such uncontained glee. The whole thing may feel concocted to its last smirk, but at least it’s a knowing smirk.