18 July 2010

Review: Inception

Genre: Drama (Romance) / Action / Sci-Fi

Christopher Nolan's 2010 feature Inception bears the mark of the film-maker in its commitment to action, fervor, and tension in the narration but ultimately is a completely different type of film-work from that which the director has before given his audience. Though perhaps Inception is laced up front as a tight and intricate psychological construct proper, the underlying romantic cistern slowly swilling its defiantly nectary water verily belies this construct by supplanting its roots in the screenplay under those of the romance's own. And, if any should question this deep and most elemental romance, ballasting the entire work, one need look no further than the conclusive scenes for one's fait accompli answer: The narrative never mattered really, like the top spinning on its delicate axis the narrative was but the ballooned bell lathing itself over and over again on that axis in elegant yet beguiling design.

Mr. Nolan fortunately seems to be aware of this fact and does no unjustice to himself by trying to conceal it beneath casuistry or effrontery against the couple of lovers, played typically by Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Cotillard; indeed, their abiding indulgence into one another is given its quite comfortable due even amidst the delicately engineered harry of the pinnacle sequence of the film - a sequence so well edited that it alone should stand for an end-of-year award, abashed be all its competitors. (Also particularly strong therein were Mr. Pfister's cinematography, especially in its capturing the suspended movements of Mr. Gordon Levitt in the set hotel, and Mr. Walsh's art direction and Mr. Kurland's costume-designs, which together never once faltered to the extent that I began to doubt in my mind the suspensive belief that each concentric sphere of simulated reality in the plot of the film would and could be for some characters, involved both inside and outside the screen, true.)

However, ultimately the romance that is the greatest part of the pitch on which this film rolls becomes the cliché that detains the film from fully escaping its otherwise impeccably (i. e., distantly) produced quality; savage cliffhangers that bluntly compel the viewer to question the finality of the narrative are adolescent filmmaking's stratagems, usually reserved by the studios for those films that have the potential to be or that already are set to become franchises/series, each part of which needs the springboard of its predecessor. And, like there was for Brazil (1985), I'm wondering, is this unclosed and potentially springboard ending the honest ending of the film or the studio's turgid recommendation for ultimate pizzazz? Only Mr. Nolan knows for sure, I suppose.

In any case, his screenplay was not without flaws outside this tacky ending. At the other end of the arc, the play suffers from the trouble that must plague every writer of an apud mundum alienum set film: How may I as a writer explain the premises and rules of my alien world to my audience as comprehensively yet unobtrusively as possible? In answer, a good and common tactic is to introduce as a necessary part of the cast a character who himself or herself is a novitiate into the alien world, so that by his or her learning its ways and wonders the audience may learn them too - and, in truth, Mr. Nolan does utilize this tactic well to a degree in his Inception, through the introduction and play of Ms. Page's character, the young and scrupulous architect Ariadne (obviously not unconsciously named in a nod to the Ariadne of Classical myths). However, despite Ariadne's for the audience vicarious induction into the world of active dreaming that places Inception - or perhaps due to the relative lateness of this induction in the film's arc - Mr. Nolan troublingly still falters, opening the story with bald statements and declarations of the governing rules and principles of its dreaming-setting (assumedly lest his audience miss these core connections). These awkward declarations not only make for bad screenwriting in a general sense, but also undermine the credibility of his characters as permanent and enduring figures, familiar with the worlds in which they operate as they are familiar to each other, and - moreover - the credibility of a guiding premise of this particular screenplay itself: the premise that it is unimportant to the experiencer the means or method by which he or she has arrived at where and when he or she is here and now, that it is important to the experiencer only that where and when he or she is here and now is here and now and that a plot may from here and now continue un-broken or un-upset into the future. In short, by breaking the screenwriter's fourth wall and explicitly telling the audience the rules of his game, Mr. Nolan is not only giving in to sloppy and weak film-making but also and moreover letting go especially sloppy and weak this-film--making, because this film of all films relies on and takes pride in jettisoning out its characters into forays entirely en train de mise-en-scène. Straying from this premise, even if for the audience's confidence, is a high inconsistency in the crafting of this film.

Yet, this inconsistency is not the only inconsistency in the film's crafting. Another almost equally prominent inconsistency is visual, in that the mise-en-scène particularly in the dream scenes is oftentimes incoherently rigid: literal and physical. The film-makers, Mr. Nolan and Mr. Pfister primary here among them, seem strainingly unwilling to diverge from their ties of the conventions of filmic story-telling and indulge themselves - as they could have and should have - into the techniques and trappings of fantasy (i. e., by bending the realities of their images as they have bent and do bend the realities of those images' worlds). Indeed, aside from the few still physical (i. e., optical) special effects that the film carries, the film - excluding its pinnacle sequence's managing the zero-gravity environment - is almost entirely devoid of any permutation, quavering, or bending that one may expect from a film immersed in dream-fluid. Inception is radically different from your previous works (e. g., The Dark Knight, 2008; The Prestige, 2005; Memento, 2000), Mr. Pfister; it is not of a world tied down and limited by real physics. It was therefore disappointing for me to see you and your director so seldom treat it as such an exception; content-based distortions of reality were not enough; optical distensions and exaggerations, as most incipiently was captured by your slowed imaging of Mr. DiCaprio's early emergence from the water in the bath-tub (, could have added so much to your work.

One final critique, sirs: I was often worried throughout my viewing of the film by the degree to which Mr. Nolan let Mr. Zimmer's thumping score inflate the emotions that his other director's tools (e. g., actors, cameras, words, backgrounds) were there to convey. While I have to be hesitant in my making of this point since I have not seen Inception without its score, I nevertheless feel compelled to cite the director for leaning so heavily on his composer's emotional pounding to do the legwork in communication - for there was little indication that I would have felt as strongly the emotion of the action before me, if there had been no musical enhancements, as I did because there were. At its heart, this dearth of indication is pausing at best in my appreciation of the already evident abilities of the film-makers to perform well behind the lens.

The bottom line for Inception, then, is not that I disliked the work but that I - I believe, rightly - could have liked the work much more. Were it not for the limitations of creative vision that I have identified to be hampering the thorough coherence of the film, I believe, the film could have been an extraordinary addition to the medium's canon. The aptest quote of which I can think to succinctly summarize this jostled appreciation is Cate Blanchett's from Mr. Scorcese's The Aviator (2004), in which Mr. DiCaprio also starred (though to greater success): "You're not extending enough on your follow-through. Follow-through is everything in golf, just like life. Don't'cha find?"

Grade: B+, only partially realized.

P. S. Though I accept the persistence of the usage of the basic tropes of understanding that were excerpted in the 1950s from the "everyman's handbook of psychology" in today's film-making, I have to ask, why are these tropes and their usage still so persistent in today's art? I mean, doesn't anyone read the new psychology today? Ahem, Mr. DiCaprio (Shutter Island), why?

Review: The Kids Are All Right

Genre: Comedy

Let me write plainly here, lest I misstate my primary conviction about directress' Lisa Cholodenko's rompous The Kids Are All Right: Ms. Bening is flawless. Yes, you read that adjective correctly: flawless. Rare be it the time that I bestow upon an actor from my lofty perch of this tiny blog an encomium so whole that I must use terms conveying perfection, now is such a time. Behold, all who may still have a lingering doubt about the aptitude and strength of this actress who has delivered stellar performances before (e. g., in American Beauty, 1999), the testament to an undying magnitude that confirms her as one of the greatest in her profession who is still professing. Truly, I have never seen Ms. Bening better, more confident and fuller in her actions and emotions, than I have seen her here, in this charmingly cool and moderne Summer film.

Now, what else is there to say about it.... Ms. Moore, playing Ms. Bening's spouse in the film, was wonderful for the most part as is normal for her, though for the rest of her part she did seem to be fumbling a bit with her character's coherence and thus upsetting the rhythm of her words and actions. Nevertheless, overall she was in control. Completing the adult trio, Mr. Ruffalo held his own against the women by playing his rollicking and somewhat desultory sperm-donor character loosely, jangly, and somewhat stuntedly - as were apt for the type. However, he too seemed to teeter at times on the verge of uncertainty and there, in his attempts to keep his character constantly moving lest like a target it be sighted and pinned down, he loses a bit of the credibility that he as a figure should otherwise have had. The two younger actors, playing the two catalytic kids of the title and the plot, react assuredly to the frequently dilemmatic tensions, caused in large part by their relatively puerile parents; they were well cast.

Beyond the acting, the film did suffer a bit from tendentiously spotty direction by Ms. Cholodenko, who though the brilliant writer of this work seemed at times not to know how to best make her jewelry shine, if you will. For prime example, instead of letting the focus of the film reside outside Mr. Ruffalo's character and exclusively inside the four-membered family where the final scenes reveal the heart of the film is, she voyages out, at times bringing Mr. Ruffalo's character to the center of the narrative and thus extending to that character a degree of empathy and provision that belies a later absolute dismission of him from the party. While one may argue, as does the family, so does the film; but such an argument fails to capture the perspective of the camera, which only once crosses the barrier, from third-person external to first-person omniscient in its plot-narration, and so such an argument lacks a consistent thread of support under the entirety of the production of the film to an extent that denies its plausibility.

Still, The Kids Are All Right but for these tepidly remarkable foils leaves the audience a bit richer than it found it initially. The writing, as I've already said, is concise and fun and the costumes were quite cool. And need I say any more about Ms. Bening's leading performance?

Grade: A-/B+, great Summer fare.

16 July 2010

Trailer: The Social Network

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