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This looks like just another war scene, but it’s threaded with horror. That’s this movie in a nutshell.

I was pretty conflicted about Interstellar and I’m kind of conflicted about Christopher Nolan in general. I, to an extent, agree with most of the criticisms that dog his work. But I also think Inception is one of the best movies ever made, with his Batman movies being some of the most overrated. To say I had low expectations for Dunkirk would be disingenuous because I had no expectations for Dunkirk. Good or bad. I was curious because it was a wartime event that hadn’t been covered in a huge movie, at least as a focus piece (Atonement has Dunkirk-related scenes). I was also curious to see what Nolan would do with a war movie, since he’s been doing high concept genre stuff for almost his whole career. On some level, I suspected that Dunkirk was about the safest move Nolan could have made after Interstellar failed to light the world on fire. I was wrong about this being a safe movie, but my lack of expectation was rewarded by one of the most pleasant and arresting surprises I’ve had in a theater for a super long time.

“Pleasant” is not really a word that you’d associate with this movie except maybe in the way I just did, where I’m really talking more about the feeling of surprise. Dunkirk is not so much aggressive as it is relentless and that energy, an almost constant rising action toward a very rewarding climax, is mostly steeped in the emotional resonance of horror even as it is delivered with familiar tropes of the war genre (duty, courage, banding together, grandiose and personal heroism, and so on). So while this is definitely a war movie, it’s also the second best horror movie of 2017. It is intense and it’ll make you squirm in your seat. A lot. All this while being one of the least violent, but loudest, war movies since Saving Private Ryan changed the game. What helps is Nolan’s mostly unsentimental point of view. This movie is not full of the customary jingoism and sentimentality of the American war film (these elements are present sparingly, and are mostly earned), but nor is it political in the sense of having a clear message about “war” except perhaps that it is something you survive rather than win.

There have been criticisms that there’s no story or characters here, but I think it’s interesting that Nolan stripped down his usual reliance on plot, exposition, and high concepts. He has the most trouble with plot and theme across his work, and these things are less important in Dunkirk than is the craft of telling a story through moving pictures.  There’s very little dialogue, so character comes across subtly through facial expressions and the few important choices that are available to each person. Dunkirk has a small, intimate cast, and approaches the historical events with a clever and almost seamless editing conceit of showing events at different points as if they are happening all at the same time… until they are. Dunkirk is a tremendous movie, and one that deserves to be seen at the best theater you have access to.

KIND OF HARD TO SPOIL THIS MOVIE, BUT FAIR WARNING ANYWAY Read the rest of this entry »

The chemistry between these two is a highlight of the film.

In Time is a movie that is so of the moment that it feels like it had to be on purpose though how Andrew Niccol (writer and director, also see the amazing Gattaca) could have predicted Occupy Wall Street is anyone’s guess. Maybe when he sat down to do the screenplay, he saw the writing on the wall. However it came to be, In Time has arrived just as an entire generation seems to have grown immensely tired of the abuses run rampant in America’s economic system. It is very much a movie for them, but also a loudspeaker for everybody who is sympathetic to the idea that our zero-sum capitalism is harmful. It nicely outlines some of the reasons why there are protest movements over the distribution of wealth and the subsequent balance of power in the United States and elsewhere. Because the film is populated entirely by young actors, a quirk provided by the premise, it also feels like a product of youth and as if it is speaking most directly to us. This combination is a powerful political cocktail and I hope that In Time catches on because it does have a lot to say to us, in this moment, now. Aside from all that, it’s an excellent movie that knows exactly how to walk the line between its lighter and heavier elements. Read the rest of this entry »

inception

I did see this incredible film opening weekend, but had to mull it over and talk about it a bit before tackling some kind of review. I also probably had to see it again, which I did, and now I think I’m ready to get into Inception.

First and foremost, if you haven’t seen this movie yet you should stop reading (SPOILERS AHEAD) and go see it. I’m serious and you’ll thank me. If you see any movie this year, it should probably be this. I’d like to say that about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World but I don’t know whether or not that’s going to break into the mainstream like Inception has. Once you’ve seen the movie and are bewildered trying to figure it out, come back here and I’ll toss a few ideas your way.

Second, I owe Devin Faraci quite a bit for influencing my analysis. If you’re interested in his take on the movie (and you should be), you can find it here:  http://www.chud.com/articles/articles/24477/1/NEVER-WAKE-UP-THE-MEANING-AND-SECRET-OF-INCEPTION/Page1.html

I will probably paraphrase him a bit, as I definitely agree with most of what he has to say but I think his analysis is worthwhile on its own.

Anyway, on to what I think!

The first question most people are going to ask themselves, and everyone around them, when the film ends is “wait, is he still dreaming?”. This leads to other questions, like “how much of what I just saw was a dream?”. It is tempting to think not only that the ending is a dream, but that the whole film is Cobb’s dream. Devin Faraci believes that the technology and dream-sharing stuff is all part of this guy’s dreamscape and it’s all very meta and geared to make the point that just because you’ve reached catharsis in a false reality, doesn’t mean that catharsis is itself false. While I may not go so far as to say that all of what we see is a dream, I definitely agree that there’s a theme about facing our psychological demons and working past them on a subconscious level and that however this battle is fought, and on whatever field, it’s real to us anyway. The masterstroke in relating this theme is that we don’t have to simply pluck it from the mechanism of the film, but that it is shown to us via Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and his own dreamed catharsis with his father. That event never happened and it’s very likely that old man Fischer didn’t like his son much and died a bitter old man grasping at his empire. Fischer will awake barely understanding how he’s reached these conclusions about dismantling the company and “being his own man”, and within the Philosophy of Dreaming that Nolan is so carefully constructing, these conclusions are valid even if not rationally thought through or driven by a waking encounter. This is not only an example of what is probably happening to Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) on a meta level, but is also a precursor to the catharsis he experiences with Mal (Marion Cotillard). That he’s conscious of reality at a higher level than Fischer is obvious to us, but we still have to ask ourselves by the end if that’s just one extra layer or two removed.

The film is pretty straightforward with no big twists. Even the ending is sort of playing out a question that should be growing in the viewers’ minds even as Cobb repeatedly doubts his own reality, spinning his totemic dredle and watching to see if it falls. I think this surprised a lot of people, who paid careful attention to dialogue and imagery so they could anticipate some kind of trickery. But this isn’t that kind of movie. With deliberate and masterful pacing, Nolan first uses Ariadne (Ellen Page) and later Fischer to explain the rules of the dream-sharing and how Extractors do their work. As these pieces connect, so does the bigger picture of the movie, culminating in one of the finest 3rd acts I’ve ever seen. The last 40 or so minutes is as tense, action-packed, smart, and rewarding as is deserved by all the excellence the precedes it.

Some of my friends have said it’s a bit underwhelming the second time through, or that there aren’t a lot of big moments that stick out. I think there are a lot of small moments that stand out and I’ll talk about a couple of those, but the reason I suspect that there aren’t so many big moments is because the movie is pretty understated until the colossal climax which is just big moment after big moment. I think one big one that will and ought to stick out is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his matter-of-fact Zero G fight sequence. That just sings on screen and is punctuated by his skill and quick-thinking when setting up a Kick for the dreamers afterward.

I don’t know how they pulled of the rotating environment much less the liquid grace displayed by Levitt as he propels himself wall to ceiling to wall, out-maneuvering his only slightly less skillful opponent. It’s one of the coolest scenes in ever and is the first big “whoa, that just happened” inventive fight since The Matrix. There are other big action moments, including Eames (Tom Hardy) brazenly taking out an entire army of projections in the fortified hospital layer of the dream. Watching him take guys out with all his characteristic cheek is great fun, but he’s no superman and is forced to rely on luck. What makes this bit so good is that it’s basically a centerpiece heroic battle in any other film, but played out in Inception by a secondary character in the midst of a huge and stunning climax. Taken in context, it should stand out as one of the best action sequences of the year, putting pseudo-military action movies like The Losers and A-Team to shame already. An earlier scene that stands out for different reasons features Cobb stealthily taking out guards by catching the shell casings from his silenced pistol and then dashing forward to catch his victims as they fall. It was a brief but assured scene, showing a confidence in action filmmaking that Nolan hasn’t earned until now (say what you will about Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but neither is remarkable for the action sequences).

While I can talk all day about the great action in Inception, the moments that really stood out for me, both big and small, were character moments. In a cast where everyone is firing on all cylinders, I may have a bias for Joseph-Gordon Levitt who is quickly becoming one of my favorite young actors. His banter with Tom Hardy’s Eames is great and illuminates both characters, but it’s his slow and subtle attraction to Ariadne that pays off in one of the best little character moments in the movie. Otherwise, Saito (Ken Watanabe) getting taken in by Eames forgery of a hot blonde, Yusuf (Dileep Rao) forcing rain by needing a piss, and testing the sedative compound on Arthur by tipping him out of his chair are all favorite little bits.

My favorite bigger character moments though? How about Cobb’s stunned expression as he wakes up on the plane, exchanging glances with Arthur and Ariadne and finally Saito, in whom Ken Watanabe infuses the silent and haunted awe and gratitude for Cobb’s efforts to find him in Limbo. I think that might be one of my very favorite little scenes, the expression on Saito’s face and then he snaps out of it and picks up the phone to honor the arrangement. But before that, the strange and dreamlike (har har) scenes where Cobb faces him in Limbo are spine-tingling and charged with yet another layer of catharsis. As they share the code-like phrases Saito left Cobb with before embarking on this adventure, we don’t need to see the gunshots that bring them back to the world because we’re already being carried on the swell of the performances, music, and realization of what the movie effortlessly convinces us is a miraculous accomplishment.

But is the ending that follows a dream? Does it matter? There are clues, like the totem not falling or the fact that the kids are wearing the same clothes and ages as in his memories. There are clues even earlier that Cobb is wrapped in layers of dreaming reality. What Nolan is trying to say with Cobb’s journey is that it doesn’t matter if it’s all a dream, the catharsis is real. Even if what we see or learn about Cobb’s situation is just a metaphor for blaming himself for his wife’s death and being unable to face his children, he has still settled his issues by the end of the film. Even if he doesn’t go home and beat murder charges thanks to Saito, he wakes up the next morning able to look his children in the face and let his wife go.

Devin Faraci also explains that the characters and their jobs, much less the mechanics of making dreams and creating fictions for subjects is an allegory of the players and processes of filmmaking and is thus in a sense autobiographical of Christopher Nolan’s philosophy about filmmaking, storytelling, much less his philosophy of dreams, closure, and catharsis in the substrata of life.

I have to agree with this, and then marvel even more at what Nolan has accomplished. A $200 million dollar scifi-action movie filmed in 6 countries with an all-star cast giving career-best performances that also happens to be a comment and exploration of filmmaking? Jesus.

Inception is just that much of a counter-punch to the usual cynically commercial, undercooked nonsense we normally accept as summer blockbusters and tentpole movies. And it’s not a sequel, or an adaptation, or a fucking remake. It’s an original work of monumental skill, care, and craft.

As Cobb says: “Never recreate from your memory. Always imagine new places.”

If it isn’t the best movie of the year, 2010 is going to be a good fucking year.


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