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For Your Consideration: 'Inception'

Inception is essentially a riff on The Matrix, using a non-linear narrative that gradually reveals more of the story's basic premises as previous realities turn out to be false. The virtual worlds within the mind created by director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan are not the elaborate video game of The Matrix but personal dreamscapes, invaded by a team of information thieves, who use elaborately detailed false dreams to steal valuable information from the vulnerable minds of sleeping targets. Nolan's interest in memory and the mind's inner realities goes back at least as far as his much less profitable (and low budget) film Memento, in which he cast Carrie-Anne Moss, shortly after her memorable role in The Matrix, as the murdered wife sought by a man who has lost the ability to form new memories. Nolan then spent several years turning out, among other things, high-budget blockbusters for the Batman franchise, neither of which was particularly good. Inception at least holds one's attention while you are watching, if its Byzantine complexity does not always stand up to harsher scrutiny, although the film is meant to be intentionally obscure. The Internet conversations about the meaning of fine details in the movie are potentially endless.

Leonardo DiCaprio is brooding and secretive as Cobb, the team leader, who hatches a plan to do the impossible in this world of dream adventurers, an "inception," that is, planting a false memory in a target to influence his future behavior. The client who hires them, a Japanese businessman named Saito (the suitably laconic Ken Watanabe), wants the son of his major competitor (Cillian Murphy, all pampered filial insecurity) to break up the company after the death of his ailing father (the late Pete Postlethwaite). After a botched audition operation, Cobb seeks out a new dream architect on the advice of his father-in-law (Michael Caine, largely wasted by the screenplay) in Paris. (This is one of the script's unexplained dead ends, as Caine's character is apparently both teaching in Paris and taking care of Cobb's children in the United States.) The young woman with the somewhat heavy-handed name of Ariadne, the smart and fresh-faced Ellen Page (most famously of Juno), has a talent for labyrinths and provides the metaphorical thread to find the way out of them.

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Lurking in the maze of Cobb's dreams, however, is a monster of his own, the memory of his wife, who also bears an unfortunately significant name, Mal, played with sultry menace by the ravishing French actress Marion Cotillard (reminiscent somewhat of her turn as a seductive but vengeful prostitute in Un long dimanche de fiançailles). The conceit of the layering of dreams within dreams is that actions in reality affect lower levels of consciousness, which are proportionally stretched out as time seems to slow. In reality as the dreamers plunge in a van off the side of a bridge, their dream personae float about weightless, allowing Nolan to create a memorable sequence as characters spin and crawl around all sides of a hotel corridor, for example. To time their recovery of consciousness, the team plays a song, Edith Piaf's iconic Non, je ne regrette rien, that synchronizes the "kick" or jostling movement that rouses them from sleep -- the song is a nice allusion to Cotillard's gorgeous turn as Piaf in La Vie en Rose. The composer of the score, Hans Zimmer, peppers the song throughout the movie, slowed down to initially unrecognizable speeds corresponding to the time shift in the dreams. (This is hardly a new idea, something that artist Leif Inge did a few years ago, stretching out Beethoven's ninth symphony over a 24-hour period, in that case without pitch distortion. Last year, someone did it to a Justin Bieber song, inspired by Zimmer's score.) Trying to determine what is real and what is dream at the end of Inception misses the point: Piaf's song is all about forgetting the past -- "Je me fous du passé" as she puts it quite firmly.

Most of the film's budget, reportedly about $160 million (in other words, roughly equal to the entire annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts!), probably went to CGI imagery. There are amazing effects, to be sure, as Paris folds back upon itself to create a prism of three-dimensional boulevards, or endless towers and apartment blocks grow up and crumble into the roaring ocean. Trains barrel down the middle of city streets, cafes explode around the protagonists, and an endless supply of projections carry and shoot lots of weapons. (While the film's chances at Best Picture or Best Screenplay seem pretty low, it will possibly get recognition in cinematography, art direction, score, or sound.) Still, it all feels less like an actual person's dream than a Hollywood executive's wet dream, with visions of summer gross revenue dancing in his head. Michel Gondry's Science of Sleep, with a budget of $6 million, all told, was much closer to the oddness of actual dreams.


Martin Fritter said...

This is a great blog and your movie reviews are almost as good as the music ones. But why devote space to an over-engineered mess like Inception? I assume that you place about as much value in an Academy Award as you go in a Grammy. Who really believes that Dances With Wolves was the best picture in 1990 (or any other year)?

I further assume that you have some reluctance about handicapping art.

It's nice, for example, that Annette Bening is getting recognized for The Kids are Alright, but Mother and Child was a better picture.

So if you build a readership for movie reviews, please use the platform to promote more interesting fare -- as in Science of Sleep.


Charles T. Downey said...

Many thanks for the kind words and the thoughts about the caliber of the work under review. My review should make it clear that I mostly agree with your assessment of this movie, but the point of this series of posts is to write reviews of all the movies up for Academy Awards. No, I have been saying in print here for a few years that the Oscars have become practically irrelevant because of some questionable awards, so I mostly agree with you about that, too. Still, one needs to have an opinion!

Martin Fritter said...

Well, we're obviously in agreement. One of the pleasures I get from Ionarts is exposure to works, artists and recordings new to me. You cover topics in greater depth does print media: for example Mahler recordings.

I certainly encourage you continue with film and hope that you will bring the same spirit to that medium.

I of course have my hobby horses, but I'm much more interested in yours.