Top 5 Directorial Debuts: Part I (the 2000’s)

So this weekend, I was revisiting Sex, Lies, and VideotapeSteven Soderbergh’s explosive debut feature film from 1989 – and a few thoughts came to mind. First, was how fast time flies. I vividly recall seeing this intelligent and intimate little film in theaters with good friends and raving about it long after – 23 years ago! Second was how well the film holds up – a whole generation later, it is just as affecting and impressive as it was when it (and by proxy, Soderbergh) was the talk of Hollywood. Finally, and what inspired me to write this post was the question – where have all of the splashy film directorial debuts gone? You look at the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and the names of filmmakers who came on the scene in striking fashion are pretty outstanding. The decade 2000 – 2009…well, not so much.

Take the 1980’s. And look at the awe-inspiring names who came out of it…not just directors who started in the 80’s, but those who made waves in their very first film. Soderbergh is just one – and with “Sex, Lies…” (and his Oscar nomination for it) you knew he was the real deal. Cameron Crowe (1989’s Say Anything), Barry Levinson (Diner), Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), and Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat) are just a small handful of filmmakers who burst on the scene in the 1980’s. Perhaps most notably would be the Coen Brothers, whose debut film Blood Simple came out in 1984. Most critics felt something special with the talents of Joel and Ethan. Vincent Canby of The New York Times sure did, declaring Blood Simple to be the most impressive debut feature since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane. Talk about lofty praise and grand expectations. Now, nearly 20 years later, the Coen Brothers have managed to surpass those expectations and remain at the forefront of American film directors, creating extraordinary work on a consistent basis.

The 1990’s? More impressive names and the talent, just as significant. Quentin Tarantino brought us Reservoir Dogs in 1991, Paul Thomas Anderson hit the screens with Hard Eight (1996), and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave was released in 1994. Other exceptional debuts? Larry Clark (Kids), Sean Penn (The Indian Runner), Christopher Nolan (Following), John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), and Todd Haynes (Poison).

However, you’d be hard-pressed to find many stellar debuts since the millennium. Of course new directors emerge each year, but it seems that it takes them a few putts to actually sink one in. Very few come on the scene with guns blazing and a blitzkrieg of amazing press. So I did some research and looked up all of the directorial debuts since 2000. There weren’t very many to pick from, but here are my Top 5 Directorial debuts since 2000. I’d love to hear from you and see who you might put on this list.

5.  Scott Frank (The Lookout, 2007)

Frank’s resume as a screenwriter is super-impressive (Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, just to name a few). What’s even more impressive? His debut as director with this smart, savvy and hugely entertaining crime thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I was so impressed by it that I actually put it at the top of my favorite films of that year. Levitt’s character is a young athlete with a promising career. A tragic accident derails all of his hopes and dreams and years later, as he tries to sustain some state of normalcy, he is coerced into robbing a bank. A great achievement and a film that I would recommend to just about anyone. I am left wondering why it is taking so long for his follow-up…

4. Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, 2005)

He’s not just on this list because he’s a fellow Long Islander, but because he is responsible for bringing a new wave of comedy to a completely new generation of film-goers. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call him the modern day Mel Brooks or even (dare I say) Woody Allen. Known mainly as a writer, Apatow debuted with this delightful, smart, and hysterical film starring Steve Carell and Catherine Keener. In most of his works, Apatow has a tremendous knack for giving us perverse and (at times) disgusting comedy, but combining it with remarkable heart — as he does here with poor Carell and his little…problem. Apatow has also managed to highlight the comedic talents of a fresh new batch of actors who have appeared in a number of his projects. An impressive debut, a major player, and one of the funniest films to come out in recent years.

3. Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, 2006)

Perhaps it’s in the genes. After a number of short films, Reitman came out with this dark comedy and was, in my opinion, one of the year’s very best. This biting satire stars Aaron Eckhart as a company spokesman for big tobacco. While trying to put a positive spin on a substance that kills millions, he tries to maintain some relationship with his young and impressionable son who looks up to him like a rock star. Great script, terrific performances, and deft direction. A memorable debut from a talent that has since come out with strong works such as Up in the Air and Young Adult — seeming to get the most from his gifted actors — and has clearly developed a style and voice all his own.

2. Neill Blomkamp (District 9, 2009)

A fantastic directorial debut and a movie that I put at the #1 spot of that year. Based on his short film a few years prior, District 9 offers a superb analogy of the horrific events that took place in District Six of Cape Town during the apartheid era and deals with themes of xenophobia and segregation. I’m not even a sci-fi fan at all, but I couldn’t help but be moved and amazed by Blomkamp’s masterful work. Love the style that it is shot in and Sharlto Copley delivers an outstanding performance as Wikus van de Merwe, a mild-mannered manager at the Department of Alien Affairs, whose entire life is changed when he becomes infected. And to think this was Copley’s first time acting in a feature film. This film is an extraordinary cinematic achievement — and it will be very interesting to see what the future holds for this very talented artist.

1. Todd Field (In the Bedroom, 2001)

Little Children was a remarkably powerful film and a tremendous achievement. But In the Bedroom marked Field’s debut as a filmmaker, after years of being in front of the camera. This film, starring Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, and Sissy Spacek was, in my estimation, one of the very best to come out the entire decade. Field not only adapts Andre Dubus’ short story with expert precision, but gets A+ performances from his entire ensemble and creates a mood and New England-y feel that is unmistakable. Field makes the kind of film I would so want to make — as we watch a grieving couple try to cope with the tragic death of their son — and see the father (a magnificent Wilkinson), begin to take matters into his own hands. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat through this movie – and it never ceases to move and affect me. To me, In the Bedroom is the debut of the 2000’s — and I will be in line very early to see his next film Creed of Violence later this year.

Other very impressive debuts by filmmakers I’d love to see more from: Sarah Polley (the very moving Away From Her), Steve McQueen (Hunger), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and I really hope that the brilliant writer and director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) gets back behind the camera soon!

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART II’ will cover the 1970’s, the best decade of cinema ever!!!

Oscar Nominations 2011: My Thoughts

The nominations for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards were announced early this morning and, like most years, it seemed to be quite the ho-hum affair – very few surprises, many who were snubbed, and even more who won a nomination thanks in part to fervent studio campaigning and “bandwagon word-of-mouth” via the blitzkrieg that is the media. Though it doesn’t lead the pack in nominations garnered, David Fincher’s The Social Network looks to be the early odds-on favorite – and though I thought it was a very good film, I can’t help but think how lucky it is to be released in what was yet another weak year in motion pictures. I look at the titles of the 120+ films I have screened so far this year (and still a few I must soon see) and see many good films that made their way to movie screens in 2010. What I fail to see are many great films released. One, two….three? Does anyone see three? Can I get a three? Anyone? [insert cricket noise here] It seems to me, to be indicative of last year and the recent years that preceded it – a bunch of solid, quality films and very few truly remarkable ones.

In any case, I thought I would share with you my immediate reactions to the list of nominations for this year’s Oscar. Please feel free to comment and leave your own thoughts on the Oscar race.

And let’s be real. All of these Awards ceremonies, the gluttony of presentations we see with each new year are just fodder…they really don’t mean very much at all…To be honest, it is all just meaningless filler – that is, until my own prestigious Magic Lantern Award nominations are announced! The most distinguished always makes the final entrance – and, if I may say, that holds true here as well. I will make sure to post the 1st Annual Magic Lantern Awards noms within 7-10 days. Sorry for the delay – I just need to make sure and see a few more select films.

OK, enough. My quick reactions to the Oscar noms:

What is the point of having a category for the ‘Best Animated Feature’ if you are just going to consider these films for the ‘Best Picture’ category? It seems to me that nominating Toy Story 3 for ‘Best Picture’ is an absolute waste – and completely unfair to a number of films that were very deserving of the 10th slot. We all know how this plays out anyway – no chance in hell of winning ‘Best Picture,’ but a shoo-in to win the Animated category.

I was afraid that Jesse Eisenberg would win a ‘Best Actor’ nom and sure enough, he did. Eisenberg did what he always does in the very same manner. He just happened to do it in a critically acclaimed film. What’s next? Michael Cera gets a nod for the one role he doesn’t wear a hoodie for?

Kudos to the voters for remembering and honoring much smaller/lesser seen films that deserve recognition such as: Jacki Warner’s chilling performance in Animal Kingdom, John Hawkes’ terrific work in Winter’s Bone, the intriguing documentary Waste Land, the very nice costume designs in the otherwise lackluster I Am Love, the impressive art direction and costumes in Alice in Wonderland.

Did Robert Duvall do or say something to piss Hollywood off at some point? His performance in Get Low was one of the year’s best and I thought, a shoo-in for a ‘Best Actor’ nom. Seems a shame that James Franco and Eisenberg get these slots. Don’t worry, Bob…there’s always the Magic Lantern nomination soon coming.

Speaking of James Franco – it has crossed my mind that if he were not co-hosting the Oscars this year, he would not have been voted in for ‘Best Actor.’ So he cut off an arm. Big deal. Not many stand-out performers by lead actors this year, but I can think of 5 better right off the bat. And while on the topic of hosts – this odd experiment of Franco and Anne Hathaway has boring flop written all over it.

Thank you voters for not encouraging the pretentiousness of Christopher Nolan with a ‘Best Director’ nomination. It’s bad enough the film is nominated for Picture (though certainly deserving of its Cinematography and Art Direction nominations). Thank God it was left out of the Editing category too – because that could have used some chopping up.

I saw Rabbit Hole (good) and Blue Valentine (not so good). Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams give good performances. That’s it. Good. So many others are far more deserving this year – we nominate male leads in foreign films…why not Hye-ja Kim (Mother) or Noomi Rapace for giving the year’s gutsiest performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The omission of Rapace is this year’s biggest snub. And, Annette Bening surely deserves a nomination here – they just picked the wrong film to nominate her from.

I am thrilled to see little-seen The Illusionist nominated in the ‘Best Animated Film’ category. But where the hell is the absolutely charming and intelligent My Dog Tulip? The film has received nothing but praise and they only nominate three films anyway. Seems to be a glaring omission from here. Gorgeous animation, wonderful narration by Christopher Plummer and one of the year’s smarter films.

Jeff Bridges. That is all.

Looks like comedies get left out in the cold again. It’s tough to squeeze them in, I understand – but in looking at all of the nominations – there aren’t a lot of laughs going around. City Island, Kick-Ass, Wonderful World, Please Give are all fine films…just couldn’t break through here. I know I piss all over the Golden Globes, but maybe the Oscars should start thinking of having a ‘Best Comedic Film’ category. Something to mull over, at least.

I still strongly believe there needs to be an award for “Best Performance by a Child.” There always seems to be a few solid performances given by actors under the age of 16. It is my belief that the work of a young child of say, 12 should not be compared to the work of an actor with years of experience and training. This would also avoid the whole Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin disasters. The Academy made the smart step in creating a category for animated films – this needs to be the next step. Chloe Moretz was too good this year to be excluded and Ms. Hailee Steinfeld (who was wonderful in True Grit) should not be going up against the multi-layered talents of Helena Bonham-Carter and Melissa Leo.

We’ll see how the race takes shape over the next few weeks. The King’s Speech made a mighty statement by winning the most nominations, perhaps putting a small dent in the momentum of The Social Network. Right now, it seems like a 2-horse race, but again…we’ll see how the media’s influence starts to shape the outcome.

As always, I am looking forward to watching the telecast, despite the inane choice in hosts and predictable ‘Best Picture’ nominations.

Next Up – The Magic Lantern Award Nominations!!!

You know…the real shit!

10 Fun Film Superlatives for 2010

Two things. One is that with 2010 now complete, everyone’s Top 10 lists have been coming out. I can’t do this just yet as there are still a handful of films I need to see before composing my own. I never like to rush such a list as I take it kind of seriously (too seriously, if you ask me) and it takes a while for me to figure it all out. So my personal Top 10 List of 2010 will probably be posted in the next few weeks.

Second nugget. I don’t follow any Awards shows, but have been glued to the Oscars since I was a child. I watch them each year without fail and many close to me refer to the Oscars telecast as my Christmas. I know they are very political in nature, but this does not seem to deter my passion for following them. Each year that the nominees are announced, I (like most of my film blogging companions) am left feeling happy for some who are recognized and angered at the omissions who I feel were worthy of great praise. I see where all of the marketing, campaigning and politicking take effect and taint the list of nominees. So, I have come up with my own solution. Now that I wield such enormous power with this Film Blog, I will start my very own listing of Awards — The Magic Lantern Awards. I will post my own list of nominees in the “major” categories and decide upon a winner, who will be awarded the prestigious Lantern (small print: actual award not real). Sure it will all be just one movie buff’s opinion, but I shall not be swayed by anything doled out by the media or other awards ceremonies. So I will be working on that and releasing the nominees quite soon (I know – you are all waiting with bated breath).

In the meantime, here are 10 superlatives (or stand-outs) in film for the 2010 year – 6 very positive and 4 that are…well, not so positive. As always, your comments and feedback are encouraged. And here we go!

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Awarded To: The Red Riding Trilogy

This honor does not go to a terrible film that I wasn’t expecting much from in the first place (see Grown Ups or Cop Out). This is for a movie I thought would be great and turned out to be a big let-down. When I saw the trailers for The Red Riding trilogy, I couldn’t wait to see all three films (1974, 1980, 1983) that centered around the Yorkshire killer. It looked suspenseful, exciting and dark. Turns out that it was all one big snoozefest. I couldn’t believe how slow and uninteresting it all was. What a downer.

MOST OVERRATED FILM

Awarded To: Inception

I have already come to terms with the fact that Christopher Nolan’s opus is going to garner a slew of awards and nominations in the months ahead. I want to make clear that I don’t think this was a bad film at all. There were some great aspects to it (see my review here). I just never got on the bandwagon that many bloggers and critics hitched to declaring it to be some kind of masterpiece. It was visually stunning and challenged its audience. But there was a lot left to be desired, such as plot holes, poor characterization, and much needless over-indulgence on Nolan’s part. Again, not a bad flick – just so highly overrated.

Honorable mention should go to all the praise that Jesse Eisenberg is getting for his lead role in The Social Network. I really liked this movie and he was fine in it – but he really didn’t do anything he hasn’t already done in his other films. Same delivery, same persona, same style. I am hoping that a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar slot isn’t wasted on this mediocre performance.

BIGGEST PIECE OF SELF INDULGENCE

Awarded To:     Prodigal Sons

I wanted to go with Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here — absolutely fitting in that it seemed as if Joaquin Phoenix and Affleck served only to gratify themselves here with this ho-hum project. In the end, I had to go with Prodigal Sons, a documentary by Kimberly Reed. Reed happily turns the camera on herself (and her family) in her return to Montana for her high school reunion where she was once a star athlete, and yes, a young man. In her long absence away from home, she had a sex change operation which has caused much friction between herself and her adopted brother, Marc. Marc made for a fascinating subject, but Reed is so overly concerned with herself throughout the film that we are left wanting more of an exploration on Marc. It is oh-so-obvious that she wants so desperately to get dramatic reactions from her old classmates when they now see her as a woman. It backfires, as everyone seems more than fine with the extreme transformation. The whole time I kept thinking this came off as a glorified home video made by someone who wants much more attention than she deserves. A real, “Look At Me!” piece of filmmaking.

BIGGEST WASTE OF MY VALUABLE TIME

Awarded To:     Catfish

Again, I’d love to go with Grown Ups here, but I kinda knew what I was in for walking into the theater. Instead, I’ll go with the “documentary” that led viewers to think one thing in the trailer and provide something completely unsatisfying with the end product. I have made my strong feelings pretty clear in earlier postings (see here), so I will try not to repeat myself. Suffice it to say that this was a manipulative, anti-climatic and insulting film. And after the appearance made by its creators (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, & Nev Schulman) on the nationally televised “20/20,” I still say that they’re hypocrites (see why here). This was a tremendous waste of 87 minutes that I will never get back – 87 minutes that I would have rather spent doing something else that I hate…like trying to repair something or ironing all of my trousers…even turn on any of the crap that airs on primetime TV would have been a welcome reprieve.

And Now For The Good….

 

BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

Awarded To:     The Fighter

Marc Wahlberg, as the struggling boxer Mickey Ward, is very good as the centerpiece to David O. Russell’s powerful film….the supporting cast around him is nothing short of extraordinary. The casting could not have been more ideal here. Melissa Leo again proves that she is one of our most gifted actors (though often overlooked) in a towering performance as matriarch of her clan. Though the character doesn’t win our sympathy, Leo certainly owns the screen and commands our attention. Jack McGee plays her husband and is terrific as a man torn between his loyalty towards his wife and his dilemma-ridden son. All of the Eklund sisters are cast beautifully and have the look and feel of Lowell, Massachusetts. It is also a pleasure to watch Amy Adams finally take off the princess tiara and get her hands dirty in a meaty role that she takes complete advantage of. Adams is wonderful and is a force to be reckoned with as she battles wits with her boyfriend’s over-protective mother. She is also pretty damn sexy to watch as well. But the real standout among this talented ensemble is Christian Bale. Now, I am not a fan and I really don’t much care for the guy, but I never let my personal feelings inhibit my critique and what this gifted actor does as Dicky Eklund, the drug-addicted former boxer clinging to a what-might-have-been past, is nothing short of spectacular. Sitting in the theatre, I could not believe what Bale was doing and he had my complete attention. A marvelous performance that is deserving of every accolade I am sure it will get. A stellar job by a top-notch cast.

Honorable Mentions The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and You will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

BIGGEST WAKE-UP CALL

Awarded To:     Waiting for Superman

As I said in my initial review (which you can view here), if you have a child or want to see how pathetic the education system is in this country (as opposed to others who are ahead of us by leaps and bounds), then you must see this eye-opening documentary by Davis Guggenheim. The statistics here are startling as teachers and school systems across the country continue to fail the generations of tomorrow. Unlike Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, which I considered to be a somewhat biased documentary with some errors in facts presented, Waiting for Superman is not subjective at all and lets the facts do all the talking. The film explores our joke of a tenure system as well as those educational crusaders who know how to turn the madness around and educate our children properly – but fight tremendous opposition and a futile uphill battle. Like Food, Inc., The Cove and Jesus Camp, this is an alarming wake-up call for anyone who is willing to open their eyes.

MOST IMPRESSIVE BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE

Awarded To:     Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)

This was a toughie as the distinction could just as easily go to Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), or Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass; Let Me In) – all doing astounding work in 2010. I must also add that it is nice to actually embrace and feel good about the success of a child star…I was getting so used to experiencing my knee-jerk reaction of wanting to turn off the TV if my eyes landed on Dakota Fanning.

In the end though, I was left most impressed by the work of Swedish actress, Noomi Rapace for her jaw-dropping performance in the Stieg Larsson trilogy (mostly for its 1st installment, which I still can’t get out of my mind). Rapace turned in one of the most courageous performances by a leading actress that I have seen in years (Tilda Swinton in Julia or Mimi Rogers in The Rapture come to mind). As the troubled and fearless computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, Rapace is flawless and is more than up to the ever-demanding task of everything this poor character has to endure. And it’s not simply what Rapace must portray, but her every move, however subtle, is right on the money. It angers and upsets me that her name is barely being mentioned by critics throughout all of the year-end Awards hoopla. Was the first film released too soon in the year? Is everyone’s memory that poor? Or is it because she is a foreign actress that we are not acknowledging this remarkable talent? Whatever the case, the American version of this trilogy is (sadly) in the works and I don’t even have to see it to feel secure in the fact that no matter how effective Rooney Mara may be, she won’t come close to what Rapace was able to capture here.

MOST DESERVING OF AN OSCAR NOMINATION
(Though Will Likely Be Snubbed)

Awarded To:     Noomi Rapace (see above)

                   

You can also include Michael Nyqvist for the same film, who many overlook and is overshadowed by the “showier” role of Lisbeth. I also fear that Hye-ja Kim’s fascinating performance in Joon-ho Bong’s compelling Mother will go unnoticed, due to either forgetfulness and/or sheer ignorance. Jeff Bridges rightfully won the Oscar for ‘Best Actor’ last year and I hope that doesn’t deter those in power to nominate him once again for his magnificent turn as the drunken U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers’ impressive remake of True Grit. It should come as a shock to no one that Bridges is the epitome of awesomeness in this gripping western.

BEST FILM YOU HAVEN’T SEEN

Awarded To:    Cemetery Junction

I was getting used to seeing Ricky Gervais in ridiculously funny comedies, but here, he and co-writer/director Stephen Merchant present us with a more touching and heartfelt dramatic comedy. This is one of the films that I can’t imagine anyone watching and not enjoying it. Set in the 1970’s in a blue-collar English town, the movie revolves around 3 young friends, with one (Christian Cooke as Freddie) dying to get out and onto bigger and better things. The supporting cast is great, which includes a stuffy Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Felicity Jones and Gervais himself in a backseat role as Freddie’s father. I also appreciated the depth given to all of the supporting characters and what they were going through too. Gervais’ scenes are quite amusing, but the film is a moving drama at heart that showcases the scope and talent of Gervais and Merchant. I don’t recall ever seeing this in U.S. movie theaters, but I rented and did a write-up of it (see here) because I was so happily surprised at how good it was. Charming and poignant, the movie tackles such themes as love, family, friendship, and loyalty. A great little film that unfortunately, I don’t think many have seen just yet.

Honorable MentionsMy Dog Tulip and La Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard)

MOST DELIGHTFUL SURPRISE

Awarded To: Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (TIE

                                    

These two films were such pleasant surprises to me and among the year’s best films. Matthew Vaughn’s highly entertaining Kick-Ass took me completely off-guard with its intelligence, humor and unpredictability. Chloe Moretz rocked in this movie as Hit Girl and Aaron Johnson made a charming lead as the awkward teenager who has fantasies about becoming a real life superhero. Nicolas Cage hammed up his supporting role – and I mean that in the best way possible. Judging by the way it ended, a sequel is surely in the works and this time, I won’t wait to rent it. I have high hopes now.

As far as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, word of mouth led me to finally watch this one. I’m not big on Michael Cera. I mean, he’s funny at what he does, but he only does one thing. Here, he is pretty much the same (albeit a different hoodie), but the film is just done in such a unique, stylish fashion. Adapted from a graphic novel, Scott must defeat his new girlfriend’s 7 evil exes if he has any shot at staying with her. Sounds silly, but I loved it. The screenplay (like Kick-Ass) is clever and the supporting cast is great. If you haven’t seen either of these films and you’re in the mood for a comedy, I would surely recommend both — as they had me laughing out loud.

So that’s it. Ten fun movie superlatives to kick-off the end of 2010. Now to get to those few films I have yet to see – and work on my exalted Top 10 List…and the nominees for the 1st Annual Lantern Awards! I know…you can’t wait, right?

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Inception” (** ½)

Christopher Nolan’s Inception was perhaps the most widely anticipated movie of the summer; a summer besieged with lackluster remakes and sequels; a summer filled with mediocrity. Acknowledging the depth of Nolan’s past work (in particular, Insomnia and Memento), I too was looking forward to seeing this new sci-fi thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard, though I remained cautiously optimistic. Now, the film has had an impressive opening weekend at the box-office and has received a tremendous amount of critical and public acclaim. And though it is at times an engaging and entertaining film, it falls well short of its pre-perceived hype that had already declared it a “masterpiece” before it was even released. In fact, there is no reason to even be thinking of throwing around the overused “m” word in this case – the word is so recklessly thrown about too much as it is. But, I digress…

Inception is an easy enough movie to explain, however hopelessly wearing and nearly impossible to follow. That is because this is a film about dreams and nearly everything that we see here is a dream, or a dream within a dream — or as arduous as it sounds, a dream within a dream within another one. It’s an easy out for Nolan and he takes full advantage of it, believing that he is giving the public something to mull over and analyze, when really, he has a full-proof “out clause” for any perceived hole in the story, of which there are a few. Nothing needs to be logically explained here — it’s all surrounded by dreams…the writer’s ever-tempting “fall back.”

Set in the near-future, technology has now advanced to the point where people can enter into and access the dreams of others. Enter Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), a thief who specializes in entering people’s subconscious minds and extracting their ideas and thoughts. Cobb is fighting his own personal demons which build in the various dream sequences throughout the course of the film. Living from job to job, he wants nothing more than to be able to enter his home country once again and be reunited with his two small children, who he hasn’t seen in years. Enter the mysterious business tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe) who presents Cobb with a very intriguing proposition and the chance to return to his children for good: rather than extracting an idea from someone’s mind, Saito wants to hire Cobb to implant the seed of an idea into the mind of the wealthy heir of a gigantic business conglomerate (a wooden Cillian Murphy). This process — called “inception” — has seemingly never been done before, though Cobb insists it can be done and takes this one last risky job for a chance at redemption. “Assemble your team!” Saito shouts out from his private helicopter and with that, we are introduced to Cobb’s team of professionals.

Let’s start with that team, shall we? A fine collection of actors who are given very little to do. Nolan is not interested in giving these characters any depth whatsoever and we learn almost nothing about the entire lot. The result is that we are left with uninteresting, 2-dimensional characters who we have no emotional connection or investment in. His right-hand man and trusted associate Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), meticulously plans out all the intricacies of the mission, his forger (Tom Hardy) takes on various identities within the dreams, and Yusef (Dileep Rao) is their chemist who makes sure that everyone is properly in a deep sleep. But Nolan needs someone to explain all of his rules about the dream state to the audience, so he has Cobb hire a new architect (Ellen Page), someone who creates the structural design of the dream world. The dialogue in these parts, is a bit stiff as it really only exists to explain and narrate to the audience what is actually going on. Rao and Gordon-Levitt are fine, though kind of just “there.” Hardy actually brings a charm and certain suavity to Eames, the forger. Watanabe, though very fitting, is very hard to understand throughout because of his thick accent and a lot of dialogue is lost. Clarity is always a good thing. Ellen Page is simply a complete misfire here and brings almost nothing to the role of Ariadne. She plods along throughout the movie with little emotion and I just never bought into the silly idea that Cobb’s associates, who have worked with him for years, aren’t aware of his volatile mental state as it concerns his wife (who haunts him in each and every dream) — but the girl who has been on the job for a few days knows all about it and continues to pester Cobb to let the others in on his little secret. Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s wife, and as we come to expect, she is quite captivating here and keeps our attention on her whenever she appears. The scenes between husband and wife are very well done and it’s the only time DiCaprio really gets to work his acting chops. Cotillard’s presence is pervasive, even in those scenes which she is not in. Michael Caine is wasted in his two scenes and it is a wonder why he even needed to play such a thankless role other than having worked with Nolan before.

Of course the special effects here are remarkably impressive, but at this point, isn’t that to be expected? I don’t really count that as such a major plus at this point, knowing how far technology in film has come. We watch DiCaprio and Page calmly sit outside a Parisian bistro as the city is blowing up all around them. Very cool to look at indeed, but when you know the two actors are sipping cappuccino in front of a green screen, it takes something away from the experience. The art direction truly stands out as does Hans Zimmer’s score. Lee Smith has the very tiring and impossible task of making sense of all of this and does a commendable job.

I must say that I was very much engrossed in this movie for the first hour. I loved the dynamic of Cobb and his wife and the idea of inception struck me as original and compelling. Everything is set up pretty well and I’m waiting to see how this mission will take shape. It’s when the team puts their “mark” (Murphy) under sedation that the film slowly begins to go south…and boy do I mean slowly. I have never minded a long film in my life, so long as it’s engaging and worth the time. The last hour of this movie just lumbers along at a painstaking pace you can’t wait for it to end – and that is never a good sign. What takes 40 minutes here can easily have taken 20 minutes, but I fear that Nolan falls so in love with his own vision that it comes back to bite him. Memento is the much tighter, smarter film; not to mention, the more entertaining of the two.

I have read a number of glowing reviews over the past couple of days and I wonder to myself if they were watching the same muddled mess I was watching. There is the idea that people were going to fall in love with this film no matter what they saw (which certainly happens). Perhaps compared to nearly every summer movie out there, this simply looks more impressive than it is based on comparison alone (which happens as well). I know that Nolan has a devout following and this is yet a third hypothesis. Look, I don’t think this a bad movie by any stretch — and I will certainly give it another viewing, which I feel it deserves. But I like to remain truthful and honest in my criticism and as much as I wanted to love it too, I cannot get past the many flaws that are quite clear in this work. In many ways, this is a cold movie — in mood, narration and approach to its audience. In areas it has remnants of The Matrix and Dreamscape, two films that I would give much higher recommendations to. In the end, I know this film will wind up on nearly every critic’s Top 10 list of the year, and I know when I see that, I will still be shaking my head wondering why….hoping that this too will be a dream that I am suddenly waken out of.

Rating:      
Year:          2010
Director:   Christopher Nolan

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