Tag Archives: neo-noir

Memories are Made of This

In the past, I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir-in-reverse Memento for its narrative and setting, as well as its place in Nolan’s filmography. However, I’ve never really addressed it visually, and that’s about to change—because Memento is this week’s entry in The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series! Memento is a very attractive film, courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer (and Nolan’s partner-in-crime) Wally Pfister; it’s set in a generically urban, sun-drenched part of California, pierced with greenery, but you still get a sense of something sinister lurking down the frontage roads and inside the grungy hotels.

The film’s greatest visual coup is how it alternates between its bright-but-menacing color palette and a crisply nightmarish black and white, intuitively associating each one with different time frames. Yet I still found it hard to pick out a single best image. It’s universally pretty, but few shots really stood out to me. That said, I really love how Nolan and Pfister shoot actors. Stars Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss are sexy people, and the film exploits that fact for all it’s worth during their brief but torrid affair. (This is an edge Memento has over Nolan’s bigger, more ambitious projects: for all their virtues, you could never claim that The Dark Knight or Inception are especially sexy. Except when Heath Ledger’s in his nurse costume.)

Thus, this is my best shot for Memento:

It’s a rare moment of tenderness and vulnerability. Even though Leonard and Natalie are modeled on the film noir archetypes of the tough private eye and the heartless femme fatale, here they’re just two lost, lonely people. They’re in the midst of exchanging morning-after banter as the film reaches its end/beginning, with Natalie caressing one of his tattoos and saying, “It’s pretty weird,” to which Leonard responds, “It’s useful.” Nothing too special about the dialogue, but it’s the gesture that matters here. She brings her hand down across his chest, then touches it once again, hesitantly.

Then they physically separate, changing their clothes and getting ready for the big day ahead. Leonard may soon forget this moment, along with Natalie’s identity and her fractious relationship to him, but for the audience it lingers. It’s erotic, but not gratuitous. It’s sweet, but definitely not sentimental. It’s fleeting, just like all of Leonard’s experiences. It’s also beautifully lit against a backdrop of rumpled sheets, with the late-morning sunlight playing on Moss’s hand and Pearce’s torso. It’s absolutely my best shot.

I have a few others I’m fond of, especially ones that capture Carrie-Anne Moss’s casual bitchiness. Or better yet, since everyone loves a symmetrically shot death scene:

[Interestingly enough, my second-favorite shot is also the favorite of JA at My New Plaid Pants. It is an awesome shot!]

Nolan and Pfister accomplish something special with the visual interplay between Leonard’s hellish current life and his last few memories, set before and during the murder. It reminds me of the wistful editing patterns in Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, which is ironic, since Jonathan Rosenbaum once dissed Memento as “gimmicky and unpoetic” compared to Resnais and his experimental successors. Memento certainly has its flaws, but it’s more than just a pastiche-filled puzzle. It has traces of feeling, as well as dark wit, tucked inside its thorny narrative. And it’s an excellent showcase for the serpentine Moss and the sensuous Pearce.

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Link Dump: #19

As you may have noticed, Pussy Goes Grrr has been postless for almost a solid week. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) Ashley’s classes recently started and 2) I am still buried, à la Ted Danson in Creepshow, in my 25-page comps (i.e., giant senior project) on female sexuality in horror. But never fear! Starting probably next week, we’ll have some new, exciting blogging surprises in store for you. Potentially including something really, really awesome. Be sure to tune in and find out! (I love talking about the Internet like it’s a radio.)

In other news, Angela Bettis plays a great neurotic/psychotic in May (2002), which is what 1/4 of my comps is about, but Anna Faris as her lesbian coworker is just so goofy and lovable that she steals every scene she’s in. She’s the malapropism-wielding yang to May’s awkward, understated yin. “Do you like pussy… cats?” That should be this blog’s motto. That said, here are some links:

  • William Ahearn writes extensively about the origins of the term “film noir.”
  • Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian profiles influential (and awesome) feminist artist Cindy Sherman.
  • Not Coming to a Theater Near You has a piece on private eye movies of the 1970s, when Elliott Gould was the new Bogart.
  • EdenCafe gives us “Self-Love, Sex Toys, and Men,” which could also be titled “How NOT to Write About Sex Toys.” It’s comically atrocious, and inane enough to make an entertaining read.
  • Speaking of horrible things, Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins wants you to know that The Kids Are All Right sucks because it didn’t make enough money, and it’s about lesbians. Also the Golden Globes are evil. And MLK apparently agrees with him.
  • After making a jackass of himself at the NYFCC awards last week, professional martyr Armond White explains in voluminous, self-aggrandizing detail why he has been wronged. By the Internet, naturally. Then J. Hoberman responds. (If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of White’s personality or his obfuscation-happy criticism.)
  • Gasp! Breaking news: Archie Comics is dropping the Comics Code Authority seal of approval from its products! Tony Perkins was right; the liberals are destroying American culture!

We had so many wacky search terms this week that I had to prune the list. We can’t just let any ol’ search term into the hall of shame, like the unimpressive “frog vag,” “leg cast fucking,” or “best looking vagina in 2010.” No, they had to be extra weird this week. Some I picked because of the phrasings: “you might gonna get raped maybe” sounds so indecisive that it renders itself meaningless, while “nope can’t go to hell,” with its unpunctuated urgency, makes me imagine a sequel to Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman travels to the underworld – flying Qantas, I assume.

From the “Bizarre Free Association” Department comes “bus ride,clit,” and we have another oddity that combines bad grammar and redundancy, “she are fucking a female cow.” The last (and best?) brings together unbelievable vileness, forcefulness, and length, and wins our Yuckiest Search Terms of the Week award (I guess), because it’s “i am going to hold you and that dog is going to fuck your pussie video.”

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2010: The Year We Make Lists

It’s that time of year again. Just when everybody else is busy decorating and throwing away 2010 calendars, film critics everywhere are releasing their best-of lists. A.O. Scott picked his; so did Roger Ebert. David Denby talked about Boston and gave a cutting description of Inception: “like a giant clock that displays its gears and wheels but forgets to tell the time.” I still don’t think Inception deserves the critical thrashing it’s received. I may have been more than a tad overzealous in my initial review – “it lived up to all the expectations,” I claimed hours after seeing it – but in a brain-draining summer crammed with sequels, prequels, and lowbrow shit, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, original heist movie was a welcome reprieve – even if it is an overexplained, ultimately pointless white elephant.

The summer’s other, more lasting treat was Toy Story 3. It was the second sequel to a computer-animated kid’s movie about toys, yet it ended up being one of the most thoughtful, powerful, and humane movies of the year. Not since the song “Worthless” in The Brave Little Toaster (1987) has a film tapped so effectively into the transience of inanimate objects, and our relationships to them; although it’s not perfect (some of the jokes fell flat), it harnesses all of the franchise’s built-up good will of the past 15 years during its gracefully cathartic ending. My favorite part remains the subplot wherein the teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty) takes on the role of a southern political boss. Animation’s not just for kids anymore. And you know what else? It never was!

Later in the summer, I was moved to tears by the realistic depiction of relationship being torn apart and pieced back together in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Topical in its nuanced representation of same-sex marriage, questionable in the way that the lesbian Jules (Julianne Moore) falls into bed with sexy sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the film abounds with strong performances, headed by Moore, Ruffalo, and most of all Annette Bening as Nic, the stern breadwinner of the family. On the wackier, more in-your-face side of the gay comedy spectrum is the recently released I Love You, Phillip Morris, which gives Jim Carrey both a juicy, dense role as a con man/pathological liar, and a cute boyfriend in the form of Ewan McGregor.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to talk about the Movie Of The Year, at least according to critical consensus and award reception: David Fincher’s The Social Network, which is cruising on its way to a likely Best Picture Oscar come February. It’s been seized on by critics as emblematic of 2010’s zeitgeist – which involves digitally connecting with other human beings, it seems – even though it’s not so much about Facebook as it is about betrayals and shady business deals, with the irony that founder Mark Zuckerberg “doesn’t have three friends to rub together” acting as a nice analytical bonus. Part of The Social Network‘s genius is that it touches tangentially on so many themes, Big and little, that you can approach it from any direction – digital revolutions, friendship, ambition, Ivy League privilege – and come out the other side with a brand new set of questions.

Set at a Harvard that’s ominously drenched in muted green, the film makes the school out to be a hotbed of amoral genius, romantic in its intensity and dangerous to those around it, with Mark as its epicenter. Through Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed script, the characters speak either in high-speed banter (a game at which Mark invariably wins) or snappy, declarative soundbites. Fincher directs with Kubrickian iciness, and in Mark he finds his HAL. Eisenberg plays him as a borderline autistic “asshole,” a programming juggernaut who reveals the occasional human emotion as he systematically edges out any potential competition: the Winklevii (Armie Hammer as twin brothers) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella); his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield); and eventually his accidental mentor Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), culminating in a sit-and-think scene right out of The Godfather Part II.

Besides Eisenberg and Garfield, my other favorite part of The Social Network was Rooney Mara as Mark’s ex-girlfriend Erica; her lisping outrage at his presumptions introduced some humanity to a movie that sorely needed it. My least favorite part was the curt dismissal of Eduardo’s clingy Asian girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song), who was written to accommodate every conceivable stereotype and then dropped when it suited the screenplay. Now, on to a few other little accolades: I quite enjoyed The Town, especially Jeremy Renner’s performance  as the latter-day Irish equivalent of Tommy DeVito from GoodFellas; Edgar Wright’s totally one-of-a-kind direction of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World outshines any other part of that movie; Emma Stone in Easy A, a relatively disappointing, poorly written movie, quipped and sashayed her way into my heart; Katie Jarvis is unforgettable and trashily human in Fish Tank; and the Australian gangster movie Animal Kingdom is engaging, suspenseful, and has a mustachioed Guy Pearce. With that, I move on to my top 5 of the year…

(For what it’s worth, I went with a top 5 instead of 10 because 1) these 5 were, to me, head-and-shoulders above the rest and 2) I haven’t seen enough of the year’s films to really put together a complete, meaningful list. By sheer coincidence, I watched #3 and #1 theatrically back-to-back in July.)

#5: The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski

For me, the defining moment of Polanski’s latest film is when the unnamed title character (Ewan McGregor) tries to smuggle the all-important memoirs of former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) out of the office by attaching a flash drive to his laptop. As soon as he downloads the file, an alarm goes off and the ghost writer, terrified, runs from the room, assuming that it was triggered by his actions. But it turns out it was just a routine security drill, and the breach goes unnoticed. This scene is the perfect example of how Polanski’s precise direction – often assisted by Alexandre Desplat’s oddly playful score – establishes the darkly comic, paranoid atmosphere that makes The Ghost Writer one of the best films of the year.

A throwback to the classic Polanski of Chinatown (1974) and The Tenant (1976), the film casts a sharp eye on political corruption and the media as its protagonist unravels an international conspiracy involving his employer, the War on Terror, plenty of red herrings, and the CIA – as well as his mysteriously drowned predecessor. Brosnan applies all his post-James Bond charisma and sex appeal to the affable Lang, a historical stand-in for Tony Blair, while Olivia Williams steals the movie as his sharp-tongued, world-weary wife. (Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson also stand out in single-scene roles.) Although it may falter in its third act as its roman à clef storyline clashes with its secret agent theatrics, The Ghost Writer picks up just in time for a sucker punch ending, all told in Polanski’s inimitable, cosmopolitan style. Instead of being just another generic conspiracy thriller, it’s incisive, personal, and unexpectedly funny.

#4: Please Give, directed by Nicole Holofcener

Right from its opening credits montage of breasts being examined in a radiology clinic, Please Give distinguishes itself with its comic timing and courageous wit. A well-written, character-driven examination of body image, aging, privilege, and guilt, the film parallels the stories of two Manhattan families linked by the fact that Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) will own the apartment of the other family’s cranky matriarch, Andra (Ann Guilbert), once she dies. Out of the characters’ interactions and individual crises (whether it’s over needing $200 jeans or being disgusted by the large back of an ex-boyfriend’s new love), the story evolves organically, forcing each character to question their preconceptions and lifestyles.

Please Give doesn’t have much of a climax; people’s lives undergo minor changes, but there are no shocking revelations or character arcs. Yet in its own quiet, gradual way, it’s a very probing film filled with very complex characters, from the miserable, compulsively charitable Kate to Andra’s granddaughters, the bitchy, image-obsessed Mary (Amanda Peet) and the awkward, selfless Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Bound by no conventions but her own, Holofcener laces the film with moments of uncomfortable but perceptive comedy, acknowledging one harsh truth after another in subtle, intelligent ways: disadvantaged people can be mean, mean people can be right, and good intentions are meaningless. Largely ignored by critics and audiences, Please Give is one of 2010’s hidden delights.

#3: I Am Love (Io sono l’amore), directed by Luca Guadagnino

This long-gestating Italian import is both a showcase for Tilda Swinton’s considerable acting talents, and a movable feast for the eyes and ears. Its sweeping storyline is anything but original: Swinton is Emma Recchi, a Russian émigré married to a Milanese industrialist, who falls in love with her son’s best friend, a swarthy chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). They discreetly indulge their carnal passions in their spare hours, but when Emma’s devoted son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) begins to suspect the truth, harrowing emotional ramifications lurk around the corner. Interspersed throughout the film are other melodramatic subplots, detailing Emma’s daughter’s sexual self-discovery and the future of the Recchi company.

Dialogue and characterization are relatively insignificant in I Am Love, a film that foregrounds textures and sensory experiences. It’s all about the all-important taste of gourmet food, the thrill of an orgasm, and the visual juxtaposition of Swinton and Gabbriellini’s sweaty bodies with the gorgeous, fertile Italian countryside. Accompanying this sensual mélange, and complemented by the stirring strains of John Adams’ score, are explosions of emotional grandeur, culminating in a frantic, overwhelming crescendo. I Am Love may be all surface, but it’s a lavish, wonderful surface, and the sensitive, daring Swinton gives one of the best performances of the year.

#2: Dogtooth (Kynodontas), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

A brazen cinematic experiment executed with disturbing effectiveness, Dogtooth is both one-of-a-kind and insidiously compelling. Set at a sunny, idyllic estate in rural Greece, its premise sounds potentially gimmicky: a psychotic father and complicit mother have raised their three teenage children with false knowledge of the outside world, teaching them that “cunt” refers to a large lamp and that children can only leave the house when one of their dogteeth falls out, among other absurd lies. Lanthimos plays the story as both dryly funny and casually violent, brimming with open-ended satirical metaphors and provocative suggestions about family, free will, and private languages.

Deliberately paced but never pretentious, Dogtooth virtually dares viewers to keep up and follow it to its shocking conclusion. The characters regard their horrifying lifestyle with calm sobriety, treating their daily rituals – which range from merely useless to dangerous and even incestuous – with the same attitude we give toward brushing our teeth or washing our hands. With their sick games and perverse logic, the children prove that innocence and good behavior do not always go hand in hand. Dogtooth has its share of graphic, painful, and even unbearable moments (viewer be warned), but it’s also a film of rare insight and audacity, pulling off its transgressive stunts with understated flair. I feel like we’ll be discussing the cryptic, brilliant Dogtooth a long time from now.

#1: Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik

This year contained so many powerful cinematic experiences: the lunatic bravado of Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop; Greta Gerwig’s lonely compliance in Greenberg; and Michael Fassbender’s seething sleaziness in Fish Tank, just to name three more. But above and beyond everything, I was enthralled by the bitter duo of Jennifer Lawrence as self-reliant teenager Ree Dolly and John Hawkes as her hair-trigger uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. It’s a tense, sometimes terrifying film that still has room to breathe; it’s a drama of shared blood and backwoods codes of honor. Ree, who cares for her two younger siblings and mentally ill mother, has to track down her absentee father, an inveterate meth dealer, or lose her house – but in order to do so, she has to ask questions of people who just don’t want to be asked.

Even though Winter’s Bone takes place in Missouri mountain country as brutal and unforgiving as its title, even though its protagonist dwells amidst destitution and drug addiction, the film has an underlying humanity and a sense of Ozark heritage. It’s strange to say that I love a movie this superficially cold and forbidding, but I’m so drawn to Ree, the unbreakable survivor, to the disturbing, lived-in realism of her junk-filled surroundings, and to the inscrutable, intimidating secrets of her kinfolk. Winter’s Bone has scenes that are now blazed into my brain: the teeth-clenching “Is this gonna be our time?” showdown, and the grotesque, late-night climax that puts Ree’s mettle to the test. But it also has moments of laconic warmth, as when the injured Ree cuddles with her little sister. All year long, no movie touched me quite like Winter’s Bone. For that, I thank Debra Granik.

[By way of disclaimer, here’s some important 2010 movies I have yet to see: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Carlos, Another Year, Black Swan, 127 Hours, True Grit, Blue Valentine, The King’s Speech, and Rabbit Hole.]

So, dear reader, what were your favorites this year? What gave you the kind of revelatory thrills that Winter’s Bone gave me? Comment below!

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Great new movies: Ozark poverty and Italian opulence

Two Saturdays ago, I went with Rebekah of Happy Postmodernists to our local arthouse theater. We saw two movies, both fantastic, and you should go see both of them as soon as you can. The first was Winter’s Bone, the second film from director Debra Granik. It’s a disturbingly realist mystery set amidst the backwoods of Missouri, where 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must find her meth-dealing father or risk losing the house where she cares for her two younger siblings and catatonic mom. This material could have made for a sappy melodrama, or maybe a pedestrian thriller set in Deliverance country. Instead, it’s a starkly observational masterpiece, ably meshing the perilous investigation and moral uncertainties of a film noir like The Third Man with the everyday drama of raising children and surviving without a reliable income.

The style of Winter’s Bone is just extraordinary: it’s moody without being overwrought and suspenseful without being manipulative. Through Granik’s lens, rural Missouri is a dreary, desolate place, but always totally believable. And while many of the characters may be addicts or pathetic rednecks, they’re always discernibly human; especially memorable are Ree’s loose-cannon uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and Merab (Dale Dickey), the grimy matriarch who obstructs her search. Although they may live in barely habitable shacks, snort coke, and speak with molasses-thick drawls, the country dwellers of Winter’s Bone retain a past and a sense of belonging. In one particularly poignant scene, Ree and her siblings page through an old photo album and see Teardrop and their father as children. It’s details like this that root the film deep within the Dolly family, whose blood is shared by many of Ree’s potential enemies.

At heart, Winter’s Bone is a movie about a place, a people, and most of all a girl burdened by her diseased lineage and bravely facing a painful future. With its teenage detective, Winter’s Bone will probably earn comparisons to Rian Johnson’s high school neo-noir Brick. But as Rebekah and I concluded, Brick‘s delicious novelty and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan performance are totally blown away by the laconic but unrelenting power that Jennifer Lawrence brings to Ree. Winter’s Bone is as sharp and harrowing as its title, and in its best moments, its story acquires a semi-mythical quality, as if Ree and Teardrop were characters from forgotten folklore buried deep in America’s heartland. I hope to write more about Winter’s Bone later (and see it again!), but in the meantime, take my advice: it was very, very worth the $9.

The second half of our double feature was, in terms of style and content, on the opposite end of the spectrum from Winter’s Bone. While Ree & co. were so destitute that the idea of a sex life was out of the question, the Recchis in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love take sensuality and eroticism as givens. The film is a luscious, sweeping melodrama about a dynasty of Milanese industrialists led by the sturdy Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his wife Emma (Tilda Swinton, who also co-produced), a Russian émigré. But as corporate dynamics start to shift – Tancredi’s father retires and the son Edoardo steps up to help manage the company – so do the family’s emotional balances, and soon Emma flings herself into an explosive liaison with Edoardo’s best friend, a skilled chef named Antonio.

However, any given plot development in I Am Love is less important than the fleeting emotions and sensory experiences that set it in motion. No pleasure is too small for I Am Love to express cinematically, and taste and touch are given just as much emphasis as sight. Emma’s first real awakening comes when she bites into Antonio’s exquisitely prepared prawn, and the world literally darkens around her as she feels it against her tongue. Later, her orgasm receives just as much attention, as it’s accompanied by shots of the surrounding countryside, a swell of John Adams’ minimalist score, and a cut to the London skyline. The ecstasies of food and sex are manifested through the most lavish visual and musical analogues possible, and it’s to the movie’s credit. Fuck the misguided 3D that’s plagued theaters (and ticket prices) this summer; I Am Love‘s resiliently traditional photography really does pop off the screen.

The broad, magnificent brush strokes that fill I Am Love‘s canvas leave little room for interpersonal intricacies, which is a shame; Rebekah and I were both disappointed that the movie didn’t delve further into the relationship between Emma and Edoardo (and the significance of the ukha, an emotionally fraught, translucent Russian soup). But the film, unsurprisingly, does an enormous amount with body language, conveying enough for a whole conversation with a single motion of Tilda Swinton’s hand. Turning individual sensations into panoramic landscapes, I Am Love is a triumph of expansive artistry that’s even more enthralling on the big screen.

So if you’re in the mood for a great movie experience, don’t settle for whatever bullshit’s just been released (and besides, I Am Love has more to say about eating, praying, and loving than a million Julia Roberts movies). Instead, run to your nearest theater that’s willing to show subtitled films, and watch either Winter’s Bone or I Am Love! One’s a chilling, brutal document of poor midwestern life; the other’s overflowing with fine Italian food and Tilda Swinton’s nipples. Both unquestionably have my seal of approval, and are movies by and about fascinating, well-written women. Take your pick.

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Inception: Dreamscapes and Mind Games

Earlier this week, whilst participating in Things That Don’t Suck‘s Christopher Nolan blogothon, I described Inception as my most-anticipated wide-release movie of the summer. Well, last night I caught a midnight screening, and was enthralled: it lived up to all the expectations, the hype, and the mystifying trailers. This is only a tentative review, because the film hasn’t had any time to settle in my brain yet, but I think I can guarantee that we’ll be talking about Inception for a long time. It follows all of Christopher Nolan’s pre-established authorial tendencies, but adds in a few new tricks and twists to delight the senses and boggle the mind. It’s sort of a Borgesian action movie, with a dash of neo-noir and M.C. Escher. If that doesn’t convince you to buy a ticket, nothing will. Now, on to the movie itself…

The plot of Inception is relatively simple, as it follows the formula of every heist film from The Asphalt Jungle to Bob le Flambeur to the present day. A crook with a checkered past (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb) finds out about a risky plan with a huge pay-off, he assembles a team of specialists, they concoct strategies for every outcome, and they do the job, which here constitutes the majority of the film. But, as always, complications arise, and soon our team is in for the fight of their lives (or, rather, their minds). While the plot may be simple enough, it’s grounded in the complex techniques of shared dreaming, which is thankfully explained to us with the neophyte Ariadne (Ellen Page) as our stand-in. You can enter someone’s dream and alter it, you see, but not too much or else their subconscious projections will attack you. If you die in a dream, you wake up, except not always. If you think this is confusing, just wait till you enter a dream within a dream (within a dream, ad infinitum).

Nolan has tons of fun with these dreams and the nonlinear narrative techniques they allow. This isn’t just the same old chronological rearrangement as we saw in Memento, though; much of the film actually unfolds in parallel stories with different timescales. Between the hazy laws of dreaming and this layered storyline, it’s easy to get lost in Nolan’s maze, as I did once or twice. But it’s just as easy to retrace your steps and get back on track because he’s left a path for you to follow: the emotional arcs of Cobb and his team’s would-be victim, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). The former is dealing with the loss of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard); the other with the loss of his ornery father. In dreams, however, checkered past can become physical reality, and both characters must do some quick soul-searching – Fischer especially, since the team’s success depends on his emotional state.

Many films have taken place partially or entirely inside dreams. (See this recent Inventory for more.) Nolan one-ups just about all of them by manipulating the paradoxes, the irrational events, and the conflation of the symbolic and literal that are the stuff of dreams, all to enrich his action-packed, emotion-based story. I have only a few gripes with the film, like the way the performances sometimes feel cramped by the density of the script, preventing Page or Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays Cobb’s right-hand man) from shining as brightly as they have in other films. At some moments, the characters feel reduced to accessories of the plot, a failing Nolan is prone to. The resolution is also abrupt, slightly suspect, and predictable, but it’s a minor complaint given all the giddily warped physics and three-tiered climaxes that preceded it. Finally, you will be confused; for my part, I enjoyed it. That sense of disorientation is just part of experiencing a Christopher Nolan movie, and this one is easily among his best.

[END OF NORMAL REVIEW. SPOILERS AHEAD.]

Now that I’ve given a broad overview of Inception and why I recommend it, I want to get a little more analytical, which means giving away crucial plot details. As in Memento, Nolan embedded the end of the film in the beginning, though time this around, it wasn’t required by the overall structure. Yet Cobb washing up on the shore of Saito’s decades-long limbo doesn’t feel forced or tacked on. It blends easily into the real beginning, the two-layer dream interrupted by Mal. Nolan is playing on a very deep level with how we react to plot structure. Rather than thrilling us with just what’s on the screen, he engages us with the order he puts it in. So part of Inception‘s fun, as with Memento or any similarly puzzling story, is the cognitive experience of being demystified. And this synchs up with the film’s reality/illusion dichotomy, as we must use all the onscreen evidence to establish causality, chronology, and objective truth (if there is any).

With Inception, then, Nolan is really coming into his own. He’s refining his techniques and obsessions while taking them in more extreme directions. Mal, for example, is both of Nolan’s female character types (femme fatale and lost love) rolled into one, with both those functions tied together.1 Relevantly, the flashbacks of Mal’s story reminded me of a comparable film from earlier this year, Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Both films are strongly concerned with the noir theme of destabilized masculine subjectivity, and in both films, DiCaprio has a crazy wife seen only in flashback. Teddy’s wife in Shutter Island, however, never gets a crisis as compelling as Mal’s existential doubts, and the terms of the conflict are far more consistent in Inception. Cobb’s final confession to Mal – “I can’t imagine you with all your complexity…” – also rebukes any notion of the masculine gaze capably encompassing femininity.

Setting aside Cobb’s internal struggles, I’d like to touch on the film’s broader atmosphere. Nolan has a knack for making open spaces feel hermetically sealed. In Memento, Leonard could drive and drive, but he never escaped that city. In Inception, Cobb can fly and fly, but he’s trapped unless he can get back to America and his children. The characters’ jet-setting, like their costumes, is really a throwback to both film noir2 and to the glamorous, intercontinental heist movies of the 1960s, as well as the James Bond franchise. In its monochrome, streamlined décor and its genre trappings, Inception is something of a self-conscious pastiche infused with a totally fresh premise and nested structure. This is compounded by the fact that Cobb’s métier is corporate espionage: the conflicts between Saito, Cobol Engineering, and the Fischers act as a grandiose but hollow frame for the real, substantive story of concealed traumas.

Maybe Inception‘s greatest victory is how well everything hangs together, how it lays out its ideas and plausibly keeps them straight, even if the audience can’t. The team’s subtle strategy for manipulating Fischer determines the progress of the dream layers, convincingly translating the psychoanalytical into the physical. And I’d take the slow-motion sequences of Dileep Rao’s crash into the water, and the consequent shifting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s balance in the hotel, against anything The Matrix had to offer. Although comparisons are inescapable and it was probably a significant influence, The Matrix was so burdened by its pretentious, Joseph Campbell-inspired sci-fi mythos that it pales next to Inception, which is cleaner and straighter to the point. It’ll no doubt be the best American movie of the summer, since Nolan has replicated the masterstroke he pulled off with The Dark Knight: making an action movie that’s at once engrossing on a superficial level, but also genuinely cerebral. Now let’s see what he cooks up for the summer of 2012.

1Mercifully, Page’s Ariadne represents a departure from that schematic, as she’s a caring, perceptive woman who’s also good at what she does. Have I mentioned that I love Ellen Page?

2When Cobb mentions Buenos Aires early on, all I could think of was Gilda.

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