PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Christopher Nolan, 2010, Warner Home Video
It begins with a man washed up on the beach, awaking as if from a dream, waves crashing around him.
What happens next? Dreamland cubed.
Christopher Nolan's Inception -- with Leonardo DiCaprio as a tortured guy who shoves dreams into your head -- is obviously some kind of masterpiece. It's a truly mind-bending science fiction movie about the power of dreams, the persistence of memory, the anguish of lost love, the chains of conscience and maybe as much as anything else, the sheer lunatic joy of making a big, crazy action movie spectacular with no rational limits on either your budget or your imagination.
Nolan uses the magic of movies and moviemaking to try to bend our minds and play with our heads, to put our imaginations into overdrive and to expand the boundaries and possibilities of big-budget studio movie-making. Dom/DiCaprio's job, manufacturing dreams, is the perfect movie profession, and Nolan plays it, and him, to the hilt.
At one point, Nolan folds a whole packed Parisian street in on itself. Later, he turns a plush hotel corridor into a zero-gravity battlefield, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Di Caprio's right-hand man) swimming through the air or dancing from wall to ceiling to wall like Fred Astaire hoofing his way 'round the revolving room of Royal Wedding. Elsewhere, Nolan and his company drive an express train through a Los Angeles street in the middle of a car-chase shootout, or have two characters walk up (and simultaneously down) a set of steps modeled after M. C. Escher's famous moebius strip endless staircase -- until the movie's effects wizards break the steps loose and set the walkers free.
Nolan, like the young Orson Welles, is blessed (and cursed) with the moviemaking tools that Welles compared to the world's biggest electric toy train set, and he summons up one surreal image or ferocious action blowout after another. Brilliantly, swiftly, he and editor Lee Smith cut from year to year, character to character, country to country, city to city, with a mix of stylistic chutzpah and loony abandon that perhaps only a moviemaker with a budget in the $200 million could muster.
The result has already been subject to all the obvious movie comparisons. But Inception, a movie drunk on the magic of movies, goes further. The film is full of grand illusions, grand flourishes. Hans Zimmer wrote the non-stop, bombastic but emotion-drenched score, which suggests Wagner at the Apollo; Edith Piaf, no less, sings, under the credits, her heart-twisting memoir/anthem of defiance "Non, Je ne Regrette rien", which also threads though the entire movie.
It's excessive. It's overblown. But above all, it's a movie by a filmmaker who loves movies, and wants to explore their possibilities in an arena as endless and bewitching as that Escherian staircase. Inception is like a heist thriller fashioned by Lewis Carroll, reincarnated, and based on some three-dimensional chess game -- or like a whole roller-coaster ride designed by Escher, a wild plunge that keeps dropping though one Phillip K. Dickian alternative reality-world after another, until finally it almost leaves us where we began (delirious, washed ashore on a beach, below towering crumbling cliffs) -- and then takes one more step.
It's hard to synopsize any of this, because the whole movie is literally (and subliminally) one surprise and shocker after another.
Still, it won't hurt you to know that DiCaprio's Dom Cobb is an American exile in Europe, and that he's a highly paid, inwardly tormented specialist in the art and science of extraction. "Extraction" involves invading a human subject's subconscious dream state to extract information -- a process prized by corporations who want to steal ideas from each other.
Anyway, Dom is hired, in our future and in the movie's past, by the suave Japanese magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe of Tampopo) for a complex extraction job on a corporate rival. But Dom is asked this time to reverse his usual modus operandi: To implant an idea (or use inception) in the mind of a young corporate nabob-to-be, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), whose father, corporate head Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite) is dying, before the eyes of Bobby, and of Tom Berenger as the troubled legal counsel, Browning.
To help, Dom assembles a team of old reliables (dead-serious right-hand man Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and genial chemist-anesthesiologist Yussef, played by Dileep Rao), old rivals (brash "forger" or impersonator Eames, played by Tom Hardy), and fresh faces (brainy architect Ariadne, played by that freshest of faces Ellen Page.)
Since she's new to the game, Dom has to give her a crash course in everything you wanted to know about extraction and inception but were afraid to ask). Her key function? Love and plot. Ariadne, it seems, is also the protege of brilliant, compassionate professor Miles (played by Michael Caine, who maybe should be incepted into every noirish movie), and Miles is also the father of Dom's tragic dead wife, Mal.
That's the premise of the story, and you'll understand why too much further synopization may be unwise or unwieldy.
It's rare to see a big Hollywood super-production for adults that's this complex, this ambitious, this amusingly tricky and this this woundingly personal -- or that has so much psychological layering and emotional resonance.
One of the movie's great pluses is that cast, especially DiCaprio. As he did in Scorsese's Shutter Island, one of Inception's only artistic rivals among the big Hollywood movies this year, DiCaprio supplies this show with a solid emotional center, anchoring a story that often seems in danger of flying off into zero-gravity FX limbo. Cottilard and Page help humanize Inception as well, and so of course, does Caine. And, in fact, so do all the others, in dreams or out.
Shrek Forever After (B)
U.S.; Mike Mitchell, 2010, Paramount
Shrek Forever After is supposedly "The Final Chapter." The mega-grossing DreamWorks feature cartoon series, which began with a bang in 2001 -- a Cannes Film Festival Official Selection, and a best animated feature Oscar -- has had is ups and downs in the two sequels since (2004's business-as-usual Shrek 2 and 2007's so-so Shrek the Third). But this Chapter Four in the hip fairytale of the enchanted Princess and her surly green Ogre love, won't spell bankruptcy in anybody's books.
It's a funny movie, well-executed and well-acted, and it's also a pretty good story.
That can't have been easy. The problem with making a follow-up to the 2001 Shrek is that, in narrative terms, it was perfect in itself. After Shrek the Ogre (Mike Myers), completed his quest with his ever-rapping Donkey pal (Eddie Murphy), and kissed the beautiful, but fitfully monstrous Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and she became not all-Princess but all-Ogre, and the two went off to live happily ever after in a world that didn't have the Looks-Uber-Alles hiring policies of the average American TV show, the story really had nowhere else to go.
But like all automatic sequels to big hits, it went there anyway. Fast. Luckily, in those next two Shreks, Shrek and Donkey picked up some interesting travel companions -- most notably the swashbuckling little pussycat Puss in Boots, voiced to a fine turn by Pedro Almodovar's old pal Antonio Banderas. And the movies were entertaining enough, if not exactly the sassy, dreamy, wise-acre, Cannes-smashing triumph the first one was.
Shrek Forever After, though, has a nifty premise. There's a new villain in the kingdom of Far Far Away -- well-actually an old villain, recycled from the Grimm Brothers: a smarmy, duplicitous, wicked little bad-chappie named Rumpelstiltskin, drawn as if he were a midget Jim Carrey or '50s comic Orson Bean, played like Billy Crystal as the devil, and voiced very amusingly not by a star actor but by a cartoon factory working stiff: DreamWorks' head of story Walt Dohrn.
Rumpel, you'll remember from Grimm, was always hoaxing and misleading people and robbing them blind on contracts, which suggests he had a future not in fairyland but on Wall Street. Capitalizing on Shrek's middle-age malaise, a discontent that hits him at his Shrek triplets' hectic birthday party -- and cognizant of the Green Guy's yearning for the old days when he could just roar and everyone would run away -- Rumpel offers him a contact. Shrek will get one day as the old horrific monster of the first movie Shrek. And all he has to give up is one insignificant 24 hours from sometime in his childhood.
Such a deal! And such a soundtrack! (Everything from "I'm a Believer" to the Carpenters' "Top of the World.") Unfortunately, Rump's contract has a Catch-22, an It's a Wonderful Life clause that wrecks Shrek's world and turns Far Far Away into someplace from which any Ogre would stay far, far away if we could: the shadowy, dark side Rump of Fairyland. The insignificant day Rumpelstiltskin chooses for foreclosure is the day Shrek was born, meaning that -- in the new alternative-world Phil-dickian Far Far Away, run by Rump, the Goose, the Pied Piper, and lots of Wizard of Oz-y witches looking for Shreks to shred and Totos to stomp -- Shrek, like Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey, was never born and never existed.
What a mess! People may be scared of him, but nobody knows Shrek. Donkey, now a beast of burden for the local witch brigade, doesn't know him. Puss, now a lazy fat cat who can barely buckle his swash, doesn't know him. The Gingerbread Man doesn't know him. Fiona, now the leader of the local Ogre rebellion against the tyranny of Rumpelstiltskin, doesn't know him, and won't kiss him. And a true-love kiss is the only thing that will wipe out the bad contract, foil Rumpel's plot and restore the Shrekian order.
The movie's new director Mike Mitchell, doesn't exactly have the most intimidating credentials. Both Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo and that sequel of sequels, Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo are on his resume. (Shame!) But he does a good job here, not only getting snappy performances from everybody (probably not that big a trick, considering this cast, which also boasts Larry King and Regis Philbin as Doris and Mabel), but deftly modulating the pace and mood from frenetic to somber, and the dramatic-comic hues from bouncy-light to horrific-dark.
For his amazing ability to act the ass, Murphy deserves a standing donkey ovation. For her Joan of Arc-ish inspiration -- with her evergreen beauty, and a heart, as the DreamWorks advertising department might say, Somewhere Ogre the Rainbow -- Diaz deserves a Princessy salute. And for his incredible penetration, as Puss, into the heart of feline cunning and cat bravado, Banderas deserves all the fancy-feasting, all the executive purring (and the promised spin-off movie) DreamWorks can provide. What an Ass! What an Ogress! What a Puss!
As for Myers, what can we say? What a Shrek! Do the roar, dude. There is life after The Love Guru.
U.S.; Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington, 2010, Virgil Film and Entertainment
Restrepo is a documentary about the war in Afghanistan that's beautifully shot and terrifyingly convincing. The color photography is crisp and clear. The subjects, a platoon of American soldiers in the mountains, are amazingly candid. The directors -- journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and combat photographer Tim Hetherington -- try to capture the images and the words of their subject, the men of the Second Platoon, 183rd Airborne Brigade, and not obviously intrude on them. They succeed, admirably.
So we see the Second Platoon's daily routine, watch them as they horse around, listen as they're being interviewed by the filmmakers, watch an occasional battle from ground zero (usually signaled by bursts of gunfire and the camera image jerking around as the photographer tries to get his bearings). At the end, we see some of them leave. After fifteen months and over 50 casualties in the region, they will all leave, as the Americans abandon the Taliban-infested area, the Korangal Valley, regarded as one of the world's most dangerous hot spots.
The title refers to a 20 year-old medic named Juan Restropo, who was the platoon's first casualty. Restrepo, whom we see very briefly, was a happy, generous guy who played the guitar and was very much liked by his buddies. They named their digs after him: Outpost Restropo.
The movie is all about war, danger and friendship -- and judging by what we see here, the Afghanistan war is a pretty awful one to have to fight. There's nothing obviously political in Restropo either way: no flag-waving, no military bashing. Junger and Hetherington's movie focuses instead on the men who have to fight the war the politicians whip up: the kind of war that most of those politicians --including bellicose chickenhawks like Dick Cheney -- never fought and never will. That's the true politics of it, I guess. As Sam Fuller once explained, if you make a war movie and do it honestly, it always becomes anti-war. And maybe it always becomes pro-soldier as well.
U.S.: Fritz Lang, 1955, Warner Archive
Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis) isn't known for swashbucklers, but this adaptation of the lusty best-selling novel by A. Meade Falkner -- in which Stewart Granger plays a dashing, lusty, sword-slashing outlaw on the Dorsetshire coast -- is both lush-looking and exciting, though befitting Lang's roots as king of noir, a lot of it takes place in the dark. Granger, playing Jeremy Fox, connects and connives in various ways with that cad's cad George Sanders, witchy Joan Greenwood, solemn Viveca Lindfors, and various brawny tavern thugs, though his heart seems to belong to child actor Jon Whiteley, who acts if his character just wandered in from a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. (Whiteley himself seems decades too early for some Oliver! additions.) Warning to alliterators: Though the Truffaut-Godard-Chabrol staff of "Cahiers du Cinema" liked Moonfleet a lot, ranking it high (near Psycho) on their 1960 "best" lists, this other "M" movie of Lang's is not half as good as Metropolis, M or any of the Dr. Mabuse films, though it is as good as Ministry of Fear. You may want to sharpen your Lang chops by sampling it. (Made on demand at warnerarchive.com or wbshop.com.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S./U.K.: Paul Cotter, 2010, Film Movement
A not-so-close-knit British family -- taciturn World War II RAF bomber pilot Alistar (Shane Taylor), his too-compliant wife Valerie (Eileen Nicholas) and their bad-tempered, self-centered failure of a son Ross (Benjamin Whitrow) -- embark on a not-exactly-planned, not-quite-wise road trip to Germany, after the parents have an accident, and Ross, on a tight schedule because of his love life, is pressed into reluctant service as driver. He's a bad one, and his father has a bad conscience -- about the bombing run in which he participated over half a century ago.
Cotter's fine, extremely canny movie, done with an immaculate comic precision and darkish undertones, is about families and war and guilt: serious subjects which it imbues with a breezy, almost farcical lightness. That doesn't mean the film doesn't move us. The little and big disasters of the trip, the bizarre family dynamics, the ever-passing landscape and casual, sometimes odd populace, and the strange, unexpected, almost screw-loose ending, accumulate into a stinging portrait of a family coping with memory and each other, and maybe of a Europe whose scars healed too soon, and whose redemptions arrived too late. (Extras: Edgar, a short film about pain, loss, old age and scant options; Bomber commentary by Cotter; behind-the-scenes extras.)
Denmark/U.S.A.: Lars von Trier, 2009, Criterion Collection
Lars von Trier strikes again. The beginning looks like a poor man's Citizen Kane, which segues into a disease-of-the-month teleplay that becomes a Sam Shepard two-character Gothic pop drama in the deep woods, and then finally goes full-bore horror and metamorphosizes into something almost as creepily violent and nauseatingly graphic as the Saw movies.
Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Cannes "best actress" winner for this) are a couple who lost their infant son, who was playing at an open window while they were preoccupied, making love. He's a therapist; she's a sexual historian specializing in bad women. This couple prove that there are some things you just can't talk out, especially when there are chains and axes lying around.
Lars von Trier isn't a likable director, and I think there's a genuinely sadistic element to his vision, which comes exploding out here. But it is a vision, and he's a real filmmaker. Be aware that this movie is going to repel and annoy and maybe creep you out. Then watch it, if you can.
Antichrist, by the way, is dedicated to the late Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Andrei Roublev), whose lyrical influence is visible in some of the forest scenes. I can't imagine Tarkovsky liking Antichrist, but I may be wrong. (Extras: commentary with von Trier; video interviews with von Trier, Dafoe and Gainsbourg; seven video pieces on Antichrist; Chaos Reigns at the Cannes Film Festival, a documentary on the film and the furor it caused at Cannes; booklet with essay by Ian Christie.)
Argentina: Lisandro Alonso, 2009, Kino
Another excellent minimalist, neorealist quest film from the writer-director of La Libertad: Here, a taciturn Argentine sailor (played by nonprofessional Juan Fernandez) journeys from the port city where his ship is docked, to the small Tierra del Fuego logging town where he once abandoned his family and where his old mother now lies dying. The dialogue is spare, the scenes tend to be one-take tableaux with moving camera, the mood is sad and restrained. Here is a picture of common people done without sentimentality, but with great reservoirs of unspoken feeling. Among modern minimalist art film directors, Alonso is one of the best. His landscapes and people stay in your mind like visions of the real world haunting us like waking dreams. In Spanish, with English subtitles. (Extras: booklet with Alonso interview; stills gallery.)