Inception

Inception is very smart, very slick, and very interesting. But ultimately, it fails to tell a truly satisfying story. In truth, Inception would have been better as an indie film rather than a blockbuster– we want a satisfying story from our blockbusters, not ‘challenging art.’

Seriously, Chris, just tell us if the top falls or not.

That said, this is a fascinating look at what you can do on film.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released July 16, 2010

Written by Christopher Nolan

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Leonardo Di Caprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, and Lukas Haas

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Dom Cobb (Di Caprio) is an accomplished thief. But he doesn’t burgle homes; he burgles minds. His specialty is extracting ideas from people in a dream state, usually for the benefit of corporations that hire him. He has a solid team that includes Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Hardy), and the newcomer Ariadne (Page).

Cobb has a dark, mysterious past that is slowly revealed throughout the story as he infiltrates people’s minds. But now Cobb has a new client that doesn’t want him to extract an idea, instead Cobb is to plant an idea. This is called ‘inception’ and is supposed to be impossible. It is also extremely dangerous.

Cue the mind-bending twists of rolling cities, spiraling hallways, and a cryptic top. The story unfolds at a brisk pace, throwing our protagonists against some unknown and not understood adversaries.

And we have the ending that isn’t an ending because it poses a question that we have been wondering the entire film but refuses to answer it.

Critique

Everything about this movie is truly wonderful and pleasing, despite it being at times hard to follow. The premise alone is fascinating and is explored wonderfully, with Nolan finding inventive ways to use modern film technologies to lend realism and eye-popping effects to what sometimes feels like a retro mobster film. The writing, up until the end, is engaging, with Cobb being both ruthless and sympathetic– indeed his ruthlessness is well founded on his past.

The rest of the characters are also interesting. Nolan clearly put a great deal of thought into each character, making sure that the film would allow each one to explore his or her arc fully. Arthur is particularly well done, as is Eames.

The problem is that the ending isn’t an ending. It’s a redundant question that the audience is robbed of the answer to. I worry that Nolan didn’t want to commit to an answer, which was why he didn’t give an answer. If that is the case, Christopher Nolan needed to buckle up and just answer the question the way the story needed it to be answered.

Otherwise, Inception is a fantastic film. Highly recommended.

Content warnings: Some language and violence.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 4.5

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Lincoln

Lincoln is a staggering accomplishment that could only have been done because of one man: Daniel Day Lewis. He has a lock on the Oscar for best male actor.

It helps that Spielberg did the very best job he’s ever done as a director.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released November 16, 2012

Written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Sally Field, Gloria Reuben, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, and Lee Pace

Rated PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is well into his presidency and the Civil War is destroying the nation. His Emancipation Proclamation threw the country into an even bigger turmoil and now he is trying to pass the 13th Amendment, which would federally ban slavery in the USA. But he is faced with loads of opposition, from people who think the amendment will prolong the already awful war to people who feel that their way of life is being attacked.

At Lincoln’s side are his wife (Field) and oldest son (Gordon-Levitt), along with William Seward (Strathairn), his loyal and good Secretary of State and several other loyal staff members. They have a housemaid/nanny named Elizabeth (Reuben) who helps personalize the struggle against inequality and slavery.

This movie is about Lincoln and his supporters’ efforts to ban slavery with the 13th amendment. Key supporters include Thaddeus Stevens (Jones), Preston Blair (Holbrook), and W.N. Bilbo (Spader). The movie, along with being a clinic on acting, is essentially a political thriller that hinges on a historically powerful personality doing anything he can to get his way.

Critique

Lincoln suffers from a somewhat deification of Lincoln. That said, Lincoln openly and brazenly admits to having broken laws of the land in the ways he has tried to maintain the union and in how he has gathered extraordinary executive power.

That line from the trailer? “I am a president clothed in immense power.” That line is in the movie and is a fairly honest depiction of the hubris of this man and president. Kushner acts like he has written an honest portrayal of Lincoln that shows flaws of vanity and pride, and the portrayal sort of does that, but on second look, there’s an indulgence and a permissiveness being offered for what Lincoln did. There’s kind of an attitude that “Yeah, the Southerners had a good point about state and federal powers and all that, but.. slavery! and.. Lincoln– gosh he was great, wasn’t he?”

Obviously, slavery was and remains an immoral practice and it is a stain on the history of this nation. But less obvious is the problem that this movie fails to highlight– the civil war was not ONLY about slavery. Slavery is what we are taught to accept as THE SINGLE THING that drove the civil war and secession etc. And this movie preaches that doctrine, overlooking very valid arguments about sovereignty, law of the land, rule of law, and the free market.

So writing and deification and indulgence aside, Lincoln as an acting clinic and political thriller is very effective, despite being somewhat too long. It rings a little dramatized, but that is easily forgotten in the power of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. This may be the single best acting performance ever put to film. Not only does he embody the popular vision of Lincoln, which is actually pretty much a caricature, he makes the 16th president a human being who seems like people we know.

Sally Field makes a game effort and does well as Mary Todd, but she looks like Sally Field, so.. Gidget.

There’s not a lot of story told beyond the amendment and family issues, so the movie is a little too long as it deals with these things– making the pace a little slow. But the film is quite understated in general, which is due to a surprisingly deft touch of Mr. Spielberg. That said, don’t go see Lincoln if you’re short on sleep.

Content warnings: grim images of battle, some language

Writing: 4          Acting: 5+          Overall: 5

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Looper

Despite the often-distracting make up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face, designed to make him look more like a young Bruce Willis, Looper is an engaging and effective suspense film that satisfyingly deals with time travel and also tells a pretty great story. It’s worth a look, folks.

Here’s a trailer:

Now the deets:

Released September 28, 2012

Written by Rian Johnson

Directed by Rian Johnson

Starring Emily Blunt, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Pierce Gagnon, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels, and Garrett Dillahunt

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Looper is the story of an orphan boy raised by a gangster to be an assassin of targets sent back through time, and how he ended up having to kill himself.

All kidding aside, that’s essentially the story in a nutshell. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a ‘looper,’ a fellow who blows away targets of a criminal mastermind who lives 30 years in the future. Joe has a designated place where he sets up a tarp and waits for the exact moment that the target appears on the tarp, head covered in a sack, Joe’s payment (all silver bars) strapped to the target’s back. Joe shoots the moment the target appears.

Everything is going well until Joe learns that multiple other loopers are ‘closing their loop,’ which is what happens when the future baddie sends the looper’s older self back to be killed by himself. He’s been saving his pay so he can retire and live a life of peace, but then his older self, ‘old Joe’ (Willis) shows up and gets the better of him.

Now Joe has to chase himself. Old Joe wants to redirect the course of Joe’s life so that his life goes the way old Joe has lived it, without a certain tragedy. But then the plot thickens when Joe discovers that Old Joe is trying to find the mastermind criminal as a child and kill him.

Now it’s a race to find the kid and when that’s done, it’s a question of whether or not you kill a kid to save a bunch of future lives. The kid’s mother is played wonderfully by Emily Blunt. The story culminates with intense sequences of violence wherein justice is brought to the gangster in present time who runs the loopers, played with a chill evil by Jeff Daniels, followed by an emotional climax that decisively completes a story complicated by time travel.

Critique

You worry about a movie dealing with time travel, much more so when the premise of the story involves a future version of a character meeting the present-day version of himself. But Rian Johnson wrote a screenplay whose premise is driven by the characters, not the nifty central conceit. For that reason, the set ups and payoffs are finely tuned and effective.

Added to the strength of the character-driven script is the excellent acting. The makeup, good though it is, on Gordon-Levitt’s face is distracting because he has such a recognizable face, but he doesn’t let it stop him from acting the crap out of the character. He’s asked to be ruthless, lost, confused, terrified, then in love and determined. He does a great job, as does Bruce Willis. Emily Blunt does her usual excellent job, giving intelligence and strength to an already powerful character.

To top it all off, the effects are limited to enhancement of set and props, whereas the action is visceral and emotionally powerful. Looper is the best time travel movie made to date, and is one of the most effective, intelligent, and most intense action films of the year.

This is a great, great, film and is worth full price.

Content warnings: language and violence, plenty of blood.

Writing: 5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

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Premium Rush

Although Premium Rush has a terrible name, indeed, it sounds like a type of pizza delivery, it in fact delivers a fun story, solid performances, and quite a few thrilling action set-pieces.

Here’s a preview:

Now the deets:

Released August 24, 2012

Written by David Koepp, John Kamps

Directed by David Koepp

Starring: Dania Ramirez, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Jamie Chung, Wole Parks, Aasif Mandvi

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) is one of thousands of bike messengers/couriers who tear around New York City daily, risking life and limb to deliver packages and other sundry items to people all around the city. Wilee’s past is alluded to, but we only know that he was once a promising law student and that now he rides in order to milk life to its fullest.

He’s in love with Vanessa (Ramirez), who likely reciprocates the feeling but is not pleased that Wilee is content with living the rest of his life on a bike. She wants more. On this day, Vanessa’s roommate, Nima (Chung), requests Wilee be the one to deliver a mysterious envelope to a man across town. Nima is clearly stressed out, but the envelope is too skinny to contain any interesting amount of money.

Wilee takes the envelope, business as usual, but a cop, Bobby Monday (Shannon), shows up, asking for the envelope. Wilee sticks to his company’s policy and refuses to hand over the envelope, heading out to get it delivered. Monday follows and the race is on, with Wilee running afoul of a determined bike cop and also having to contend with Manny (Parks), a hot shot messenger who is trying to get with Vanessa. What ensues is a variety of breathless bike chase scenes, some clever writing for a group of solid actors, and a pretty entertaining, albeit cheesy, film.

Critique

Premium Rush is not too worried about flash effects or modern skeptics. Wilee is flawed in his adrenaline-junky-ness, but otherwise, he’s a determined guy who refuses to let the obviously corrupt cop get the better of him. The script is spare, telling a straightforward story with two relevant and emotional subplots. Much of the time is spent with Wilee furiously biking. These bike messengers must not have even an ounce of body fat; how they can maintain that pace for so long is stupefying.

You’ve got some great set pieces, with a camera following extended, very impressive bike chase scenes for remarkable, long scenes. You’ve got an action film with a sympathetic and charismatic hero and a very funny at times, but quite brutal bad guy. You’ve got people talking like real people, extremely great shots of NYC, and a bunch of actors, many of which are new faces, doing a very good job with an enjoyable story.

What’s not to like?

Well, we’ve seen much of this before, although there’s an edginess and tension to the bike scenes, along with a nicely understated music score, that accentuates the action differently and better than other movies we’ve seen this stuff in before. Gordon-Levitt carries the movie well with his charm and ability, although there are a few times when he seems to be channeling stoney-faced Keanu Reeves.

Michael Shannon adds fun and tension. He’s sardonic, human, frequently funny, and altogether a pleasure to watch. What is not pleasing is that the Vanessa character is too much a plot-device and not enough of a real person.

This movie is recommended.

Content warnings: some language, some uncomfortable violence

Writing: 4          Acting: 4          Overall: 4

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