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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

[I don't soft-shoe around spoilers in my reviews. You are warned.]

Specimens of blockbuster cinema can often be the most difficult films to review, as they invariably travel through a sea of marketing filth, and the reverberations that pass through various filmgoer communities creates such a din of opinion-broadcasting that a close look at the work itself is nigh on impossible.

In the case of Christopher Nolan's Inception, the hubbub seems part of the film's character. Shot partly in large-format IMAX and featuring as many channels of sound as angels can dance on the head of a pin, it is a cacophonous and often a visually incoherent ride. The screenplay is marred by a long train of ill-advised narrative bunk, the actors trading bulletins of plot exposition while half-developed ideas about dreams, sleep, and imagination are made manifest via Nolan's Pier One visual aesthetic. The science is as torpid as the fiction.

Still, beneath it all, blooming in the unlikeliest of soils, Nolan is growing as a filmmaker. Stripping away the layer of the neophyte sci-fi scribe, the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time showbiz impresario, this Christopher Nolan's growing preoccupation with architecture impresses on one more deeply, by far, than any wisps of wonder he may hope to tease out of the knotty heist plot and its confusing shoot-outs. Citing a friend's test for a special film, dubbed "the sidewalk test," some films have you looking at the sidewalk outside the movie theater, afterward, differently than when you went in. Emerging from the Lincoln Square cineplex (cited by some as the only genuine IMAX screen in the city of New York), I found myself looking at the distant skyscrapers (of Columbus Circle and points south) differently. This is my kind of "movie awesomeness," although its antecedents in the film are hard to track: less the iconic city-curling image featured in Inception trailers, less the "dreams explode as they end" (which should be "dreams have explosions," but never mind), and more the looming towers along the beach in Cobb's "bottom dream layer," wide shot observations of the curled Paris's population moving about, oblivious to their newly-inconceivable geometry, Ellen Page toying with movable mirrors - these are sublime moments that escape, implausibly unscathed, from the path of the roaring juggernaut. This Christopher Nolan refrains from revealing the faces of Cobb's children until the surprisingly effective emotional payload is delivered in the final moments. (Their facelessness is the only element in the whole enterprise that feels genuinely dreamlike.)

And there is the extended set piece (which, unless imagination has deceived me, takes up better than half the film's running time), with a lazy salute to Kubrick, an unexpected hat-tip to Feuillade (with its images of nattily-attired, passed-out men and women tossed about a room like rag dolls), that seems to test the limits of Griffithian cross-cutting, and frames it in an explicit homage to Cocteau's Blood of a Poet (in which an entire story is told in the time it takes for a chimney to topple over; this time it's a passenger van), in which the protagonist's ensemble (the true star power of which is derived from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose ascension as one of our greatest actors is long overdue) dives through layer after layer of distortion and noise to retrieve some MacGuffin of essence, or salvation, or both. Which describes my encounter with this film to a T.
- Jaime N. Christley, Curator

Essential reading on the film:

"Always imagine new things: Notes on Inception, Part One"
- an exchange between Vinyl is Heavy contributors Jennifer Stewart and Ryland Walker Knight

- David Cairns, Shadowplay (comment community on Shadowplay is, unusually for blog standards, well worth reading)

"Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)"
- Noel Vera, Critic After Dark

1 comment:

D Cairns said...

Lovely! I would have accepted the lengthy exposition sequences if we had needed all that information later... But I like the way you rescue the film's genuine redeeming qualities from the surrounding din.