Nolan elegantly probes world of dreams in “Inception”

The Forger (Tom Hardy) and the Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dream of big guns in "Inception."

“Star Trek” touted space as “the final frontier.” Christopher Nolan’s expansive, brain-bending “Inception” makes a case for human dreams as the true unexplored, untapped realm. There’s an underbelly of reason there. The outer boundaries of dreams — even more than the blackness of space — could be unknowable, or just inconceivable. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire who invades the subconscious of his mark and steals information, spends more time in dreams than in reality. He believes he can navigate the human subconscious better than anyone and that he can control his own.

The characters in “Inception” feel much like the people in human dreams — ephemeral and furtive, but with an element of humanity that smudges the line between the conscious mind and the subconscious. There is a core of emotion to them that sets “Inception” far apart from typical heist films (the scenery and the apocalyptic-feeling Hans Zimmer score do the rest). We know little about Dom’s team members, but their interactions provide some real-world touchstones. Though these people could be projections of someone’s subconscious, but that’s beside the point. They instill a level of trust between viewers and the director. Dom’s capable team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man who researches Dom’s marks; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger whose arguments with Arthur supply the film’s funniest moments; Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architect Dom hires on his father’s (Michael Caine) recommendation; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist skilled at creating sedatives. The job, proposed by business tycoon Saito (Ken Wantanabe), will be the trickiest Dom has attempted: infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s company, and plant the idea to dismantle his inheritence. This, however, is not an in-and-out job. Dom and crew must descend into dreams within dreams and root the idea in catharsis. Yet the deeper Dom goes into Robert’s dreams, the deeper he goes into his own, and Dom’s memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) are bursting their prison.

Much like “Memento,” the structure of “Inception” defies linear analysis. The beginning, middle and end are there; they bleed into one another. Besides, the story is dreamlike in the way the beginning is hazy. All the immediacy lies in the middle, which is where viewers find themselves. There are dreams and meta-dreams and even dreams inside those; Nolan fashions these dreams, designed by Ariadne and populated by the mark’s minds, like everlasting gobstoppers. The dream layers seem interminable, and the only way to leave them is through a kick: the feeling of falling, or death, in a dream. There’s only one way to determine reality from a dream, and that’s the presence of a person’s totem, an artifact or self-made object. (Dom’s metal top is integral to the fabric of the story and to his memory of Mal and the part of his subconscious only Ariadne has seen.) The thought of making visible this shifting other plain boggles the mind, but Nolan — with an astronomical budget and shoots in six countries — pulls it off. He’s limited only by his imagination, and his imagination is vast. Mountain fortresses on snowy peaks, cliffs collapsing into the ocean, trains that barrel down city streets, fights in revolving hotel halls — these are sights that demand and deserve marveling. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, when combined with Zimmer’s trumpeting score and Nolan’s gift for confounding, is a sight to see.

More surprising than the images and the stunts, though, are the characters. Written in true Nolan fashion, they are not swallowed up by their majestic surroundings. Page finds curiosity and, better still, empathy in Ariadne, both amazed and horrified by the job she’s accepted. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are a dream comedy team, lightening the atmosphere with their bickering, while Watanabe is no-holds-barred intensity. We can’t discern how close to the vest Saito is playing, and Watanabe doesn’t want us to. The talents of Caine and Cotillard continue to make impressive what should be minor parts. DiCaprio’s Dom is becoming the actor’s specialty: the man eaten away by pain and guilt he’s convinced he can hide from everyone. He assumes he’s the architect when it’s possible he’s as lost as everyone else.

Grade: A-

Review: “Brick” (2005)

How far can a movie coast on style? If Rian Johnson’s snaky-plotted, murky, hyperarticulate “Brick” is any indication, the answer is “far, very, very far.” There’s not one element left uncalibrated, from the score (equal parts “Chinatown” and “Casablanca”) to the colors (all gray-tinged) to the dialogue (make friends with words like “yegg” and “reef worm”). Shot for shot, “Brick” looks and sounds so unassailably cool that if the characters don’t hold water, well, we barely notice.

Certainly modern movie characters who spout off lines like “the ape blows or I clam” or “I’m not heeling you to hook you” are jarring enough, but Johnson goes one better by setting “Brick” in a SoCal high school that exists as its own society (like “Heathers” sans smartened-up Valley Girl affectations). There are caste systems to be maintained, mores to be observed; there is protocol to be followed. And save for the vice principal (Richard Roundtree) and a mother or two, there are no adults in sight in this world, the students — all precocious enough to put those long-winded “Dawson’s Creek” mopers to shame — are free agents in this eerie, surreal blur of a world.

One of the amazing things about “Brick” is the way Johnson draws us in (granted, it takes a good 30 minutes, a discerning eye and a fair amount of patience) and coerces us into accepting this eerie world as reality. Panache can do that to a viewer. The young actors, particularly the versatile Joseph Gordon-Levitt, work hard to sell the concept: Brendan Frye (Gordon-Levitt), a high school pariah by choice, gets a panicked call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She’s in trouble, she says, and that’s all he gets before he finds her dead body near a sewer. Determined to help the only girl he ever loved, Brendan and his pal The Brain (Matt O’Leary) make like gumshoes. (When do they have time for class, you ask? Homework? Showers? Best not to ask too many logical questions.) Their sleuthing leads them to an underground drug ring headed by The Pin (Lukas Haas, scary in his supernatural calm), who never leaves his oafish, loose-cannon bodyguard Tugger (an explosive Noah Fleiss) far behind. Haas and Fleiss have the chops to turn their characters from harmless kooks — a pusher with a cane? — into men (albeit young ones) no one should want as enemies.

From here the complications flower. Also in the mix are Laura (Nora Zehetner), a pretty socialite who’s more conniving than she looks; Kara (Meagan Good), a wannabe femme-fatale; and Dode (Noah Segin), Kara’s flunky and a hopeless drug addict who knew Emily more intimately than he’ll admit. All have varying degrees of involvement in Emily’s mysterious death, but Johnson deserves credit for making their parts seem more intricate than a series of “aha!” moments. Although there is a lot of talking, there’s also a surprising amount of violence and one hell of a pedestrian-plays-chicken-with-a-car sequence. In all honesty “Brick” is such a complex film that it rewards multiple viewings (in this way it’s a fitting precursor to “The Brothers Bloom.”) The director demands that the audience do the work in unraveling the story; even though the characters provide explanations, we’re not sure we can trust them. And Johnson plots the movie in such a way that even though we see events happen, what we’ve seen only makes sense at the end … and maybe not even then.

So yes, the script, the dense plotting, the ripped-from-Raymond-Chandler dialogue — all require a willful suspension of disbelief to work, but once the surrender happens the full ambition of “Brick” crashes down. Stupefying, isn’t it, that a film this high-concept could keep us riveted until the bitter end? Gordon-Levitt shoulders much of this responsibility, and what a performance he gives. He’s always had chameleon-like talents; here he takes that to another level. Gordon-Levitt nails what few emotions the closed-down Brendan lets slip; he lets the character fill him up top to bottom, and he lends “Brick” what little (very little) emotional authenticity it has. With him doing the selling, there’s no choice but to buy in.

Grade: A-

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

Review: “The Lookout” (2007)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes measure of a life lost to a brain injury in "The Lookout."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt measures life lost to a brain injury in "The Lookout."

Too often thrillers, in the hands of the wrong directors, make one of two mistakes. First, the pacing is too fast, the action too furious, which leaves the characters undeveloped and forces viewers to watch a series of things blow up. Or the pacing is too slow, the action too sporadic, which allows the characters to develop but leaves viewers too bored to care. “The Lookout,” a gripping character study directed impressively by Scott Frank, makes neither of these mistakes. The briskly-paced film, which features another stunning performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, starts off with a literal bang and never lets up … until the slightly deflated end.

The film’s opening credits give viewers a brief introduction to Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt), a hotshot college hockey star who’s got everything, including a gorgeous girlfriend (Laura Vandervoort). But a split-second error in judgment violently separates his life into “before” and “after”: Pratt crashes his convertible into a stalled farm combine. The resulting traumatic brain injury ends his career and his charmed existence.

Fast-forward four years. Pratt, now a night janitor at a no-name Kansas City bank, has no life to speak of: He has no girlfriend, his only friend is his sarcastic but kind-hearted blind roommate, Lewis (superbly acted by Jeff Daniels), and he has to record everything he does in a pocket notebook to make it through each day. His memory sequencing problems, mood swings and disinhibition make him reluctant to interact with anyone, including his well-to-do family. Into his gray world comes Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), an ex-classmate who meets Pratt at a bar and tells fumbling loner he once looked up to him – he even dated Pratt’s older sister. The serpentine Spargo plays on Pratt’s insecurities and introduces him to “Luvlee Lemons,” an eager, attractive exotic dancer (Isla Fisher). It’s then Spargo reveals his ulterior motive: He wants Pratt to help him rob the bank whose floors he mops every night. Set all this intrigue against the blank, colorless, obliterating wintery Midwestern landscape — captured wonderfully by cinematographer Alar Kivilo — and “The Lookout” becomes as chilling as it is captivating.

What’s more intriguing is the way Frank, a screenwriter-turned-rookie-director, lets his characters take their time whittling away at our nerves. Goode banishes all memory of his icky-sweet role in “Chasing Liberty” here. His Gary possesses an oily, slightly menacing charm: He’s got a near-psychic (or sociopathic) ability to read people, discover their weaknesses and exploit them for personal gain. And what’s frightening is that he’s a downright likable fellow, the sort of chap who’d buy a round for strangers at the local dive bar. It’s a layered, commendable performance. Creepy, too, is Greg Dunham as Spargo’s right-hand man – he has but four lines of dialogue and exudes ungodly menace. The kind that, if you saw him in line in front of you at Bi-Lo, would make you pick up and move somewhere far away. Like Timbuktu. 

Daniels more than holds his own as Lewis, a wannabe restaurateur (he’s even picked out a name: “Lew’s Your Lunch”) who looks out for Pratt but never coddles him. His comic timing is dead-on (prepare to cackle when he tells Luvlee how he lost his sight), but better is his ability to show Lewis as a no-nonsense man who can peg a phony in a heartbeat. And Gordon-Levitt provides yet more reasons why he’s this generation’s finest working actor. His work here is unshowy and almost heartbreaking in its simplicity. As Pratt, he extracts maximum emotion from the character’s minimal dialogue (observe the wrenching clip where he tells his bewildered father “I can’t play chess anymore”). He looks and sounds like a man on the verge of collapsing beneath the weight of guilt and unfulfilled dreams.

Such commendable acting doesn’t disguise the frustrating flaws in “Lookout.” Fischer’s character does a disappearing act that’s puzzling. The robbery feels oddly out of place, since Frank spends so much time letting us know his characters. And the closing moments are too neat, too simple. Still, it’s not enough to ruin “The Lookout,” which is filled with characters who are anything but simple. 

Grade: B-

“(500) Days” an inventive, touching look at lost love

500_Days

In "(500) Days," Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel discover a harsh truth: Love isn't all you need.

“Next time you look back, I think you should look again.”

There are many memorable lines in “(500) Days of Summer,” Marc Webb’s attentive, carefully crafted ode to 20-something love lost, but none resonate this strongly. Call it “hindsight is 20/20″ for the 21st-century indie hipsters. What simple beauty there is in this observation, for who doesn’t see the past through the haze of happiness? Who bothers to remember what actually happened, the ugly parts unpainted, unsanded, unprettied?

Welcome to the universal appeal of “(500) Days of Summer,” a movie about a romance that sours naturally and a man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s heard too many pop songs (hint: he loves The Smiths) to believe that can happen. There’s a kind of endearing, tortured earnestness in Levitt’s Tom, who channels all those ideas about love everlasting into the greeting cards he writes. He may own a T-shirt that emblazoned with “love will tear us apart,” but he damn sure doesn’t believe that. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a free spirit who loves her independence and doesn’t give a fig about soulmates, he’s certain he’s found just what he thinks Ben Braddock did in Mrs. Robinson. And so the exquisite agony begins.

What makes that agony so achingly real, not the slightest bit generic, is the way Webb unfolds Tom and Summer’s story. Much has been written about the way Webb plays with the concept of time in the film’s script, leaping from the beginning of the relationship to the end to the middle with just a screenshot and a number (i.e., Day 1) to guide us. There’s no concealing the fact that this is a commonplace gimmick, but it’s an extremely effective one in a movie about failed love affairs and how we recall them. Does Day 1 really mean more than Day 37, or Day 185, or the last day? Webb suggests not, since our brains capture snapshots, not linear, neatly drawn timelines. Nor do we number the days. The beginning, the end, happy times in the middle — those are the things that stick with us.

There are other things besides the time splicing that Webb, a big-screen novice, does to make “(500) Days” surprising, unusual and unforgettable. Consider a dance sequence — that Levitt, arthouse boy though he is, can cut a rug — after Tom’s first night with Summer. Or a clip where the cityscape of Los Angeles become a crude sketch, fading around Tom’s slumped silhouette. Webb pokes such self-conscious fun at some staples of the romantic dramedy genre that you can’t help but smile. If only it didn’t go so wibbly-wobbly at the en- … oh never mind. For a new director capable of this level of ironic self-awareness and humor, a little forgiveness isn’t out of the question.

Webb’s eye for details, however, is matched by his unusually keen eye for talent. Deschanel’s an obvious and spot-on choice for Summer (she’s lovely and quirky and retro, the Indie Trinity), but Levitt? The really intense, moody guy from “Manic” and “Brick” and “Mysterious Skin”? Any remaining reservations about his talent — sure he’s edgy, but is he leading man material? — evaporate in “(500) Days of Summer.” He finds humor in darker moments and exposed nerves in quieter, happier ones. Tom’s experience with Summer could be cloying or irritating, but Levitt finds the tragedy there and gives us a man who, after years of bad programming, grows up. Watching that transition is one of the chief pleasures of the insightful “(500) Days of Summer,” a look at the ways bad love changes us as much — usually even more — than the love affairs that end with wine and roses.

Other characters pop in and out with insights that nudge Tom along. Notable is Chloe Moretz, who plays Tom’s younger but infinitely smarter sister Rachel. She’s the voice of reason that cuts straight through all his syrupy, sentimental, useless greeting card crap. Wise, too, is Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler), who offers another uncomplicated but revolutionary insight of his own: “She’s better than the girl of my dreams,” he says of his girlfriend. “She’s real.” Such wisdom and hope in those words. And if we’re half that smart, that’s exactly what we take away from “(500) Days of Summer.” 

Grade: B+

“Summer” begins July 31

Given all my puffed-up talk about chick flicks, I think it’s time to (whispering) come clean about something.

I’m a sucker for a good indie romcom.

And if said indie stars Zooey Deschanel or Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Well, the Big Giant Head himself couldn’t hold me back.

Thus, it looks like July 31 will be my lucky day, since it’s the (tentative) day that Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer” opens in Charlotte, N.C. (Surprise! There are perks in living 29 miles from America’s 18th-largest city.) I’ve had my eyes on “Summer” ever since I heard Levitt and Deschanel were teaming up to play the starcrossed couple in question. I’d have to check with my pal Dear Diary, but I’m pretty sure this will be the best cinematic pairing since Paul and Jason. Levitt has morphed into an actor of formidable talent, making good on the promise he showed in “3rd Rock from the Sun.” (What? He was a teenage and he held his own against John Lithgow. You don’t think that’s impressive?) He consistently chooses difficult, non-mainstream projects — “Brick,” “Manic,” “Mysterious Skin,” “The Lookout” — that show his range. He’ll make for a quirky, rough-about-the-edges leading man. Deschanel has a history of being the best thing in bad (re: “Failure to Launch,” “The New Guy”), strange (“The Good Girl,” “Winter Passing”) or fiercely independent (“All the Real Girls”) movies. If she sings even half of one song, it will make the price of admission worthwhile. 

Still need convincing? Take a gander at ZooJo’s re-enactment of “Sid and Nancy.” If it doesn’t convert you, there’s just no talking to you.

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