19 July 2010
Knowing the details of how Inception unravels will not ruin the film for you but going into it as a blank slate is still the most rewarding way to initially experience it. So it is enough to simply say that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an expert in extraction, which is the art of stealing secret information hidden in people’s subconscious. He and his team face their biggest challenge yet when they are tasked with inception – the seemingly impossible act of implanting thoughts into somebody else’s subconscious.
Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Films depicting different levels of reality that projections of the mind can occupy are now reasonably familiar. The Matrix first introduced the concept to mainstream cinema audiences and this concept has since appeared in films as diverse as eXistenZ and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Inception owes something of a debt to all these films, plus Dark City, but it is still a boldly original work that takes the idea in a new direction. Director Christopher Nolan has worked with complex narrative structures before in Memento. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight demonstrated his stylishly cold spin on the film noir aesthetic in his portrayal of the hostile city. All these elements come together perfectly in Inception to make it Nolan’s masterpiece to date.
Part of what makes Inception so remarkable is that it has been made to appeal to the broadest audience possible. The film’s internal logic in the way it depicts how the subconscious operates is carefully thought-out and explained in terms of how different levels of the subconscious can have temporal and spatial effects on the others. These ideas end up facilitating the extraordinary lengthy action sequence that takes up the final act of the film. It is conceptually complex but written so well that you are never confused about what is happening. There is nothing wrong with cinema that leaves you puzzled, perplexed or confused but it is also extremely impressive to experience a film that is mind-bending in such a digestible way. At the same time, at no point does Inception feel dumbed-down or overly explanatory, which was the significant flaw in Nolan’s The Prestige. In 2010 both Toy Story 3 and now Inception have demonstrated that big studio films don’t have to be disposable products only aimed at short attention spans.
Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Inception is cinema at its most rewarding. Hans Zimmer’s score complements the visuals and the emotional rushes throughout the film. It contains a lot more characters of importance than in most films of this nature and yet they are all fully fleshed out and identifiable. Inception is the sort of film that future films will be compared to for its structure, writing, concepts and action. Cinema is rarely this engaging on so many levels and if you have any doubts then they will be gone by the final shot that cuts to the credits at the most perfect moment possible.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010
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8 October 2009
Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) and Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page)
The fast-paced, full-contact, roller-skating sport known as roller derby has been steadily growing in popularity since it was reborn in 2000 in Austin, Texas USA. As the revived sport began to take off and various all-female leagues were developed, writer Shauna Cross became involved and fell in love with the combination of spectacle, athleticism and rebelliousness. Cross’s experiences form the basis of Whip It, the directorial début of actor Drew Barrymore who also appears in the film as a roller derby player who plays for a team called the Hurl Scouts. Juno herself, Ellen Page, plays Bliss Cavendar, a 17-year-old who is sick of her small town Texan life that mainly revolves around competing in beauty pageants at her mother’s request. When Bliss discovers the world of roller derby it is not too long before she lies about her age, adopts the moniker Babe Ruthless and joins the Hurl Scouts.
From a purely cultural standpoint there is much to admire about roller derby and Whip It has captured its punk, rockabilly edge. The various uniforms/costumes that the participants wear are grungy parodies of stereotypical feminine attire, giving the players an empowered and expressive gothic pin-up look. The women who compete come from a variety of backgrounds and age groups, and are a variety of body shapes and sizes. However, despite the apparent excitement and appeal at the heart of roller derby, Whip It lacks energy. Whip It follows a reasonably formulaic set of conventions but bland romantic sub-plot aside, all the elements required to make a great sports film are in Cross’s script. The film contains a tremendous spirit but for the most part Barrymore’s lacklustre direction stifles that spirit. The editing is not tight enough, there is no sense of speed when the girls are on the roller derby rink and while the film contains a lot of great music, it is used poorly.
Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis)
However, it is very difficult to dislike Whip It as it does eventually end strongly and it is so well intentioned. If nothing else it is wonderful to not only see a female sports film but a female buddy film. Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat performs well opposite Ellen Page as Bliss’s best friend Pash. Kristen Wiig (Adventureland, Ghost Town) gets to play a less overtly comedic role than usual as team-mate Maggie Mayhem and she’s wonderful. Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers) is absolutely perfect as rival skater Iron Maven but it is Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, Mystic River) as Bliss’s mother Brooke Cavendar who is the highlight of Whip It. Instead of allowing Brooke to simply be the overbearing mother cliché, Harden gives her an enormous amount of sympathy and it is also to Cross’s and Barrymore’s credit that Brooke is such a fleshed out character. The scenes between Bliss and Brooke are the strongest scenes in Whip It and significantly compensate for some of the film’s weaknesses in other areas.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2009
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