Monday, August 19, 2013

Movie Monday #21: Inception

 “An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules...which is why I have to steal it.”

--Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, Inception 

If there was ever a movie that totally blew my mind and left me with my heart pounding and my jaw on the floor, it was Inception.  I bought it back in January on a whim after hearing people talk about it online and hearing how it got nominated for all those awards.  I was wary of watching another Christopher Nolan vehicle, considering how boring The Prestige had been and how utterly ridiculous and confusing The Dark Knight was. 

Inception opens with our hero, Dom Cobb (played deftly by Leonardo DiCaprio), lying on a beach in Japan.  Brought inside to an old man’s home, the homeowner (Ken Watanabe) and Cobb have a mysterious exchange that’s intriguing but doesn’t make any sense.  As the old man reaches for a gun on the table, the film cuts to the past, where a younger Cobb and younger homeowner, who we learn is named Saito, are discussing a matter of security.  You’re led to believe that Cobb and his associate Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are secret agents of some kind...but then you discover that they’re actually operating inside Saito’s mind--specifically, his dreams.

Cobb, Arthur, and many others live in the near future, where the next level of espionage and thievery has been raised to a person’s subconscious.  Through an experimental device and sedating drugs, anyone can enter anybody’s dreams and extract their deepest, darkest secrets (bank account numbers, troop locations, etc.) and sell it to the highest bidder.

There are some basic rules to how this works, however.  You must have someone build the dream world for you (this person is called the “architect”).  If you’re killed in a dream, you wake up.  If you’re simply shot, it causes excruciating pain on the other side.  To wake someone, you “kick” them--knock them off a chair, dunk them in water, or push them off a building.  It’s the falling sensation that wakes them up, you see.  And the biggest trick of all is the “totem”--an item that tells you when you’re back in the real world (i.e., Arthur’s totem is a pair of loaded dice).

In the opening action sequence inside Saito’s dream, we’re also introduced to Cobb’s wife and nemesis, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who always shows up when he’s least expecting it and undermines whatever operation he’s trying to run.  Needless to say, Cobb’s operation goes to hell when Mal shoots Arthur and the dream collapses (which causes the entire building to fall apart like it’s in an earthquake), but they escape with their skin (and their brains) intact.

Unfortunately, Saito catches up to Cobb and Arthur and offers them a deal--instead of stealing ideas, normally referred to as “extraction,” he wants to know if Cobb can plant an idea, referred to as “inception.”  Arthur says it can’t be done.  Cobb says it can.  He takes the job, and Saito promises him that if he’s successful, he’ll be able to return to his children, who he hasn’t seen in several years.

For this job, Cobb’s going to need a new architect.  He travels to London and visits his grandfather, Miles (played by Michael Caine), who brings his brightest student to our hero’s attention--Ariadne, played by the underrated Ellen Page.  In an interesting job interview, Cobb asks her to draw a maze in two minutes that it would take him one minute to solve.  After several tries, Ariadne draws a giant ring and puts other, smaller rings inside of it, so there’s no way in or out.  The smile on Cobb’s face tells us that this is what he was looking for.

Gathering the rest of his team, Cobb prepares for the biggest gamble of his life--they’re going inside the mind of entrepreneur Robert Fischer, Jr. (played by a very grown-up Cillian Murphy) to plant the idea that he break up his father’s company and be his own man, thereby paving the way for Saito’s company and other companies to open the market.  To do this, they need to go three layers deep--a dream within a dream within a dream--and get so deep into Robert’s subconscious that he won’t remember them being there. Once this gets under way, the movie is a no-holds-barred, non-stop, adrenaline-pumping thrill ride.  I don’t intend to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the movie (and shame on you if you haven’t), but I’ll tell you this much: it will take your breath away.

This was my first time watching Leonardo DiCaprio in a film, and I was very impressed.  I guess the reason I’ve stayed away from his work was the ridiculous performance he put up in Titanic, but he’s grown up a lot since then, and so have his acting skills.  He’s the perfect guy to play Dom Cobb, a man haunted by his past who can’t even dream without the aide of a machine and some drugs.  You instantly connect with him, you feel sorry for him, and you want him to overcome his past in order to seize his future.  This was some of the best acting I’ve seen out of anybody in a long time, so hats off to DiCaprio for a job well done.

I’d only seen Ken Watanabe in one other film (that being The Last Samurai) before Inception, and I’ve got to say that I really like him.  The Japanese film industry isn’t known for its actors or its films (it’s safer to say that Americans identify better with the anime and manga they produce), but Watanabe-san is probably one of the best Japanese actors I’ve seen in a while.  He’s vastly improved over his performance in The Last Samurai, and the intriguing twists his character takes in the film allows for more range in his acting ability.  Hopefully we’ll see more of him in the future.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a very reserved and very respectable role as Arthur, the guy who’s been through the thick and thin with Cobb.  He’s the one who reveals to the viewer that Mal is Cobb’s wife, and the other shocker that she’s dead--what you see in Cobb’s dreams is his projection of her.  Levitt is a very intelligent, very talented actor who I always thought was capable of so much more, and he proves that he is in Inception.

I first saw Ellen Page in the off-beat dramedy Smart People, and I was left wondering where the hell they’d been hiding her all these years.  Now that she’s getting larger, better roles, I was really excited to see what she could do in Inception.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Ellen has the skills and depth of an actress twice her age, and the little touches of her growing closer to Cobb added some much-needed compassion to a movie that, otherwise, would have been very, very weighty.  I think Miss Page has a long career ahead of her, and I’ll be highly anticipating her upcoming projects.

The supporting cast also performs well, but the one actor I couldn’t figure out was Tom Berenger, who played Fischer’s advisor.  This is probably just me, but I’ve never seen him as an A-lister or even a B-lister, and with his age, he really didn’t fit in with the rest of the cast.  Even with those issues, this was probably one of his better performances, so we’ll leave it at that.

The music by Hans Zimmer was just astounding.  I’ve been very wary of Hans ever since his awful Tears of the Sun score, and I was beginning to wonder if he was losing his touch.  He earned so much respect from me with the score to Inception that I went out and bought the soundtrack CD, grinning like some idiot who had just won the lottery.  In a way, I had--the orchestral/electronic score that Hans devised for this film showcases every single aspect of Christopher Nolan’s vision.  The powerful crescendos, the orchestra hits, and the electronic percussion all comes together to make this one of my favorite film scores of all time, and proves that Hans Zimmer is simply the best at what he does.

The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas was, in a word, beautiful.  The locations and the sets all look so real that you forget you’re watching a movie, and I guess that was the point--to make all of this look like it was really happening, even though it was inside someone’s mind.  Dyas also gets extra points for constructing a staircase to nowhere and discovering the trick to making it look like it really did loop around itself.

The cinematography by Wally Pfister only added to Dyas’s beautiful production work.  Pfister captures all the varying exteriors, interiors, and locations perfectly, and everything looks gorgeous not only on DVD, but also in high-def, something that’s becoming rare these days. 

Christopher Nolan seems to be at his best when he’s universe-building, and it shows in Inception.  Here he presents to us a future where everything seems impossible and possible all at once, with compelling characters in very dire situations that could spell their life and death (in the real world and in the dream world).  While some people laughed at the movie and called its concepts “ridiculous,” I fell in love with the universe Nolan built and found myself in very familiar territory, trekked by the sci-fi and fantasy writers of old.

Besides my dislike for Tom Berenger and the lengthy run time (nearly two and a half hours), Inception is a perfect film.  You feel for the characters, the revelations are all in the right places, the bits of humor are well-spaced, and the rhythm of the plot is intoxicating.  If you haven’t seen Inception yet and you can catch it at a good price, then grab a copy, sit back, and prepare to be blown away. 

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