INCEPTION (2010, directed by Christopher Nolan, 148 minutes, U.S.)
ENTER THE VOID (2009, directed by Gaspar Noé, 154 minutes, France)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
I was maybe an hour into Inception before I found myself thinking, move over Last Airbender, this movie has got to be the biggest bomb of the summer. So convoluted the audience around me was snickering at the endless exposition, Inception’s action framework is stretched beyond all elasticity while Leonardo DiCaprio’s stroke-tempting intensity borders on parody. It was only after the movie that a fellow critic enlightened me the fact that the film had boasted a 97% ”Fresh” on the critic aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. I guess it is me in the dreamworld but let me give you the view from here…
DeCaprio is Cobb, the world’s greatest “extractor;” a man who can sneak into another’s dreams to steal information. He is usually hired out to work this magic for corporate espionage (the morality of which is left unexplored) but here he is hired by the mysterious Saito (Ken Watanabe, Ra’s Al Ghul of Nolan’s Batman Begins) not to steal but to insert an idea into a young corporate head Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy). That idea is that Fischer should split up the business empire his father created, which we’re assured will be for the good of world (another fact neither questioned or challenged). Cobb will have to go deep into his sub-consciousness for this mission, to a dream within a dream within a dream, to get this job done. To do this he needs to ensemble his “Dream Team” (sorry) of super hot and foxy young people, to construct, inhabit and manipulate Fischer’s subconscious, as well as a chemist to drug him into the deepest levels of sleep. Booking a international flight, they sedate Fischer, then kidnap him in his dreams as they attempt to implant their idea in his head while battling a dream army that has been set up in his sub-consciousness to stop them.
Is that clear? Nolan does his best to make it comprehensible in the film, stopping things dead every five minutes or so as the dream architect (played by Juno’s Ellen Page, much more likable without Cody Diablo’s words inserted into her mouth) asks for clarification over and over again. One can keep track of these convolutions but it’s a joyless exercise, sort of like those word scrambles old people labor over in the daily newspaper while trying to fend off Alzheimer’s disease. There is a small joy to working out puzzles like this but even that is quashed in Nolan’s Chinese box because just as you find your way he makes up an arbitrary new rule out of nowhere, a nullifying exception that changes the ground beneath his characters.
Nolan’s vision of the dreamworld is no rationality-defying circus either; aside from the occasional showy anomaly it looks pretty much exactly like our world, much of the action taking place in a luxury hotel with all the personality any luxury chain of hotels lack. Joseph Gordon-Levitt from (500) Days of Summer is at work there, where at least the gravity is variable (an effect made by using the revolving room trick Fred Astaire displayed in Royal Wedding); poor Cobb is stuck in a ski battle against a mountain fortress that seems right out of some minor Roger Moore Bond film. Like in most of Leonardo’s films these days he’s also battling a tragic past, his wife (Marion Cotillard who won the Oscar as Edith Piaf last year) is dead and haunting him from his sub-conscious, where his kids are stuck as well.
The entire second half of the film is paced like an exhausting climax, with all five agents laboring in a different sphere, moving at different speeds and having various relationships with “reality,” a concept up for grabs at any moment. They’re also dodging endless machine gun fire, less suspenseful than usual since getting hit only means that they’ll wake up, although they may linger in pain for hours, days, years; I can’t really say how long with confidence. Directing kinetic action has never really been Nolan’s forte, a handicap amplified when he gets four climaxes spinning at once, including a slow motion van crash that must take at least a half hour to hit the water below. It’s a feat of sustained tension Nolan does not even come close to finessing, especially since none of the team except Leonardo have a back story or a character, they’re all just cogs present in order to move this ludicrous action movie to it’s finale.
It is that shifting landscape that keeps the film from sweeping us up. An action film should be propelling us towards a goal but as each dream level opens up beneath us we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, the finale might be an hour or five hours away. A sinking feeling began to arise that the film’s answer might lie a few Matrix-style sequels away. The film’s conclusion only illuminates the hollowness at Inception’s core; what do we find out at the end, that dreams aren’t real? Somewhere in there I think Nolan wants to draw parallels between making movies and conjuring dreams. Instead he reminds us that bad movies, like most dreams, are forgotten soon after they are over. It’s never been such a pleasure to wake up.
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Much more persuasive was last night’s sold out Danger After Dark screening of Enter The Void, Gaspar Noé’s Christmas Carol-like dissection of the life of victim of drug violence. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is an American twenty-something beginning to deal drugs in Tokyo, where he lives with lovely younger sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). When he get gunned down in the bathroom of the club called “The Void” his soul levitates and begins to take a near three hour single-shot P.O.V. tour of his life and the consequences of his death.
Like Inception, Enter The Void travels back and forth in time and through alternate realities but with an intuitive grasp of place that does not flirt with confusion thanks to Noé astounding and still-growing mastery of the art of cinema. While he was still alive we see and hear hints of Oscar’s situation, his borderline incestuous relationship with his sister, his attraction to older women and his tensions with his friends. Floating across the neon-soaked Tokyo skies, all these details get filled in, intercut with the greatest acid trip light show since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even over its at times repetitive length, Noé maintains a suspense on where this soul is destined: is this just a head trip fermented by the drugs Oliver smoked at the opening (drugs said to be made of the same chemical one’s brain releases at death) or is this tragic soul truly headed for the other side? Noé maintains his ability of provoke with fleeting moments of explicit sex and graphic violence but this is the first film he’s made that feels like that rarest of cinematic events: a film the everyone should see. If only because there never been anything quite like it.
The Danger After Dark Festival continues on through Monday. Tonight is the disappointing Big Tits Zombie 3-D, a film never more interesting than its title, with fleeting moments of cheap 3-D and mammaries at which Russ Meyer would sneer dismissively. Saturday presents Red, White & Blue, a character-driven drama with down-and-outters daring sadistic sexual oblivion in the deep South. There was a slow-building tension that was increasingly absorbing until the advance screening DVD froze around the 50- minute mark (a problem it turns out every critic in town was grappling with). It definitely had my curiosity piqued enough to show up for Saturday’s screening, especially since the film’s star Amanda Fuller is scheduled to attend (it always seems brave to speak in front of an audience that just watched you explicitly mime copulation over ninety minutes). Unavailable for advance screening is Sunday’s provocatively titled Serbian feature The Life & Death of a Porno Gang and Monday’s Hong Kong thriller Vengeance, directed by action auteur Johnny Tu. Then we can let our pulses rest as we return to an art house cinema that recedes toward the duller side of the psyche’s edge.