Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ten Thoughts on Inception

1. My second viewing only intensifies my biggest misgiving from the first viewing: has any film since Lady in the Water spent this much laborious time reciting the rules of its own game, which constantly change anyway, and thus become subject to new, gregarious articulations of mutable "rules"? At the 1 hour, 59 minute mark, Leonardo DiCaprio says to Ellen Page, "There's something you ought to know about inception," and I'm thinking, "Jesus, how much exposition does one film need?"

2. Partly for being drowsy and partly for my own inadequacies, I was one of the people who didn't follow Inception all that well the first time out. So, when I would read in reviews, "Anyone complaining that Inception is impossible to follow has just given up on any willingness to think at the movies," etc., I was both sheepish and defensive about feeling, "Well, I love thinking at the movies, and I was frigging lost." I don't know if I was more awake this time, or just had so much more of a leg up having seen it once, but the plot didn't feel any tougher to follow than, say, last year's twisty caper comedy Duplicity. Just without any of that film's delicious fizziness.

3. I still think way too much of Inception is given over to shoot-outs, explosions, and rote, Greengrassy chases through mazelike cities, when the script is going to such ambitious and laudable lengths, however tortuous, to stake out a new form of intellectual thriller.

4. God bless costume designer Jeffrey Kurland. I loved the duds the first time out, but they are just as natty and pleasurable the second time out. Excepting the fact that Ellen Page is just never going to look comfortable in a short-skirted business suit, high heels, and a French twist, every single "look" in this movie is a grabber without being a show-offy spectacle.

5. God bless cinematographer Wally Pfister and his team of camera operators. No question a Pfister-Nolan visual style is starting to feel a mite too predictable. Still, there are moments where (for example) just by making a sudden, jittery, handheld circle around Marion Cotillard, as she and Ken Watanabe advance toward a huge mahogany table, the image itself quivers with tensile, nightmarish energy that feels more "dreamlike" than do many of the ornate spectacles in the film.

6. It still feels profoundly naïve of the film to pretend that planting an idea in someone's head, even with the added task of making them feel it's their own idea, is actually harder than removing an idea that already resides in someone's head. Anyone who teaches already knows the reverse to be true: exterminating a misconception or a prior belief is much tougher than introducing a new thought. If any doubt remained, the 30% of Americans who still claim that Obama is not a U.S. citizen live and breathe so as to prove how ideas can be externally implanted but privately cultivated as if based on autonomous inspiration and real knowledge, rather than propagandistically induced, and experienced very much as one's "own" conviction. Hilariously, the same film that tells us how hard it is to import a single idea into someone else's head nonetheless depends on our accepting that someone else's brain will recognize an entire, city-sized mindscape, boutique-designed by Ellen Page, as a plausible product of its own subconscious.

7. I think the film might have worked better if we spent the first while in Leo and Marion's shared dream state, which she's still enjoying and which he's starting to feel itchy about inhabiting indefinitely. Watching him attempt his first, duplicitous act of inception—so as to trick her into thinking the world isn't real, and that suicide is necessary—would provide a story-driven rather than a fussily expository means of explaining how inception actually works. It would also start us distrusting or disliking Leo and feeling sorry for Marion, so that the turning of those identificatory tables felt more complex over the rest of the film. As it is, he's way too much the self-pitying hero, and she's way too much the evil, recriminating haint. The revelation of how he made her that way comes far too late, and is structured too much like the rest of this hyper-edited film, to land the immense moral and psychological blow that it's probably meant to.

8. The exploding-café scene between Leo and Ellen, which looked weirdly fake and unfinished in the cinema, still looks weirdly fake and unfinished on DVD. Both actors look like they've been uncomfortably forced to sit in front of a green screen, while being assured that something digital and awesome will be happening around them. The CGI here is way too shoddy, too Tempestesque, and neither of them looks remotely sold on the moment. But then, even in the hurtling van, Leo falls well short of, say, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the simple act of looking plausibly asleep. Leo just looks like he has his eyes closed and is waiting for someone to say "cut."

9. Part of what confused me about Inception the first time was understanding exactly whose "dream" we are in during the interstate-chase, the zero-gravity, and the Antarctic sequences. I am the first to concede, this doesn't seem quite so difficult now. Still, I have a hard time seeing the first or third of those realms as anything Ariadne would design—there's no linking stamp of personality between her characterization and her work, and she gives up much too easily and quickly on the elaborate conceits of her first, Paris-as-origami experiments. Her brilliance and her impetuousness are the first things we learn about her (she can't say no to this assignment, even when her ethics and reason tell her she should), so Ellen Page's soft-spoken playing of the character already feels like a bit of a letdown. More than that, though, such a free-thinking upstart would never have designed that boring Antarctic planet or the snowbound fortress therein, which are no easier to connect with Eames, the dapper, muscular, puckish, effetely virile "forger." The links between dreamer and dream-state, or architect and dream-state, are entirely notions of the script, without enough substantiating hooks into personality.

10. Still, Inception tries to do a lot, and takes a big risk on the cognitive stamina of its audience, which I ought to have appreciated more than I did the first time out. I still find the film heartless and overthought, with almost chillingly stock images of romantic, filial, and parental love, but I can at least work up a bit more enthusiasm for its palimpsestic gambits and its elegant visual surfaces than I did last July.

Revised Grade: C– to C+

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Blogger Aaron said...

I'm almost positive I've read that the scene where the Paris street explodes actually exploded around Leo and Ellen rather than being done in CGI. I'm sure things were added in post but I believe there were actually explosions around them.

3:29 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Very possibly so, although it looks to me like a lot of the exploding material has been visually added in post. Either way, the actors don't look integrated into the moment, whether profilmic or digitally created.

3:41 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

I was probably one of those "critics" (ha) that was surprised people called it confusing. I liked it a bit more than you, but it was just so very obvious...almost tutorial, which is one of the reasons I felt little emotional connection. Then there was the fact that Leo (who I usually liked) seemed painfully bland, he was supposed the emotional link and his performance didn't help.

(Your #7 is brilliant

3:50 PM, December 11, 2010  
Anonymous SVG said...

I didn't like Inception but I love reading different people's thoughts on it.

"Still, I have a hard time seeing the first or third of those realms as anything Ariadne would design there's no linking stamp of personality between her characterization and her work"

This irked me too. The dreamscapes were both un-dreamy and un-architectural- they reminded me more of something that you'd see in a video game more than the work of a young hotshot architecture student. It was all very anonymous corporate America (I liked this look in The Dark Knight).

3:59 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

I used to love mathematics, puzzles and analytical thinking in general but I think I've totally lost it.

I was confused by both Inception and Duplicity :p

I totally agree on the "heartless" and "overthought" criticism as well as on what Andrew said. I think that if Leo's performance was better and it would have helped the film a lot. I know, duh, but my not caring for his character was a big minus for me which might have made me be more harsh on the film in general.

I'm with the people who thought the film used complexity to pretend to be deep. Kind of in the way Social Network was smart-ass-y instead of insightful on some occasions. But I liked the latter much more. Visually, too.

Lovely write-up again. Duh ;)

4:34 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger Glenn said...

While I think Inception is obviously a better film than Lady in the Water, is it wrong of me to suggest that I kinda got more of a kick out of all the crazy explanations and puzzles in the Shyamalan film than Inception's?

I agree with most of your points.

6:20 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I agree with most of your points, but still like Inception a whole bunch more.

One of the biggest assets for me is Marion Cotillard's performance. She's does a lot for the movie that doesn't give a lot back to her; she's a lively presence, and she gives it a darkness and a pathos that it wouldn't otherwise have. I think her performance is the best the film. (She has this odd habit of being the best thing in her American projects, stemming all the way back to A Good Year.)

I was wondering what you thought of her!

7:43 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Fully agreed with all these points. And, I might add, one of my biggest issues with Leo's performance is that, given a late-breaking plot revelation, he's supposed to be playing much older than he is. I think it a huge missed opportunity that he doesn't telegraph more paternal or wizenedly exasperated feelings towards JGL's or Page's characters, especially given the supposedly audience-identificatory strain of his character's yearning for his abandoned children.

9:10 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@A:EE: Hey, I'm happy for people who "got it" the first time. Like I said, I did feel defensive, but also a bit sheepish. It's not an easy plot, and some key points hurtle by ("We've gotta go down another level, then kick ourselves back up!") but I have no problem admitting I was back in the remedial pack on this one. Agreed on Leo, though I'm less and less often a fan. (Read: barely ever.)

@SVG: I agree that a lot of the physical styling that works well in other Nolan pictures was less successful here. I was a little disappointed in myself for reacting so tetchily to the film's version of dream logic: it didn't feel surreal or oneiric at all, but I suppose there's no reason every "dream" movie has to feel like Mulholland Drive. It wasn't until this re-watch that I realized that, at least in my opinion, the dreams feel weirdly disconnected even from the characters who are having and designing them, not just from my own preconception of how the film would look and work.

@James: I don't mean to imply Duplicity is easy, either! They both make you work, but I managed to keep up with Gilroy's movie, and not so much this one. I can see why some people feel similarly about The Social Network. I admired that movie more on the level of composition and movement, but I felt almost nothing about it. People have told me it really grows on them as time passes, and I really feel nothing for it. But I do think it's well-made.

@Glenn: I agree. Lady in the Water comes close to pure detritus, and Inception is nowhere, nowhere near, but there is at least some kick to Shyamalan's unbelievable conviction in his crazy-ass concoctions (often, admittedly, the kick I feel comes at his expense). The more oppressive Nolan movies just feel like walking through a graveyard.

10:11 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Sam: I think Cotillard looks fantastic here, and finds ways to strike poses and sculpt expressions (facial and verbal) that make the movie seem really chic. It struck me that she gives a very similar performance to the one she gave in David Lynch's Lady Blue Shanghai; she's a phenomenal model, and she seems to know when modeling, coordinating her face and body to the light and mise-en-scène, will help a movie more than a "performance" will, per se. I'm always fascinated watching her. I quite like what Cillian Murphy does with his role, too, and Tom Hardy. They're still my picks from this cast.

@Colin: Totally agreed. Somehow this sort of role not only seems earmarked for DiCaprio these days, but it's even taken for granted that it's what he's best at, and I just don't get it at all. The scene where he watches Mal take her dive off the ledge feels like it's excerpted from a half-dozen other DiCaprio performances, where he strains against the flatness of his own emotionalism, in more and more bathetic contexts. I'd have preferred someone cockier, and at least a little older, someone who seems to provoke you to question his own appeal, rather than just being dull and off-putting. Billy Crudup? He'd fit right into Nolan's preference for chiseled, somewhat unknowable men. Viggo? Campbell Scott? Giancarlo Esposito? Idris Elba?

10:21 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

inception does remain a grading puzzle. it's the movie that i initially liked that i soured on the quickest this year.

i had zero desire to watch it a second time because i knew the exposition would make me crazy. the only reason it didn't bother me as much as that much exposition usually bothers me is that I needed the help to keep up ;)

but this was interesting to read and your ideas about it are so persuasive that i like it even less now.

but it has its moments and i admire its ambition and cool beauty. and i love seeing JGL in that suit and love Tom Hardy's performance.

11:46 PM, December 11, 2010  
Blogger Colin Low said...

I admit, partly because of that promotional long shot on a suited man's back against two walls of skyscrapers that's common to both The Dark Knight's and Inception's ad campaigns, I do wonder what Heath Ledger would have done with the role had unforeseen tragic circumstances not struck. Sure, he would have been younger than Leo, but then again the role doesn't so much demand a more middle-aged man as an actor who could project having lived many more years than his looks would otherwise suggest. But moving beyond the realm of impossible conjecture, I find myself pretty stumped about the alternatives. (Viggo excepted, I don't know enough of the work of the men you've name-checked...)

1:02 AM, December 12, 2010  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Can I second Nathaniel to say that I loved watching Tom Hardy in this film?

Also, though I did enjoy the film a lot the first time around, I was really disappointed in the IMAX where I saw it. "Is this all we paid extra for?" I asked the friend with whom I saw it. It felt as though we got a lot more sound and a very crisp picture, but somehow I wanted More. Maybe the idea that IMAX is awesome was placed in my subconscious by ... Tom Hardy? No such luck.

1:44 AM, December 12, 2010  
Blogger Alex Constantin said...

hmmm... I loved it the first time. It was so wonderful to watch :)

i'll see how i feel about it in a couple of months.

5:38 AM, December 13, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in defense of ariadne, she's doing what any good architect would do - filling the design brief. She does exactly what her client asks her to do, which is to build anonymous spaces that draw no attention to themselves, you don't need to inject personality into that - she's, strangely, one of the most realistic representations of the profession on screen.

5:06 AM, December 16, 2010  

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