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Inception (2010)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 9 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!

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Christopher Nolan is one of the more visionary film directors working in the industry today as evidenced by the audacity and realism of his Dark Knight trilogy and the scope of Interstellar. Inception is no exception, and it proves to be perhaps his most personal film to date – he wrote and fine-tuned the script over a period of nearly a decade before having the chance to actually make it, and his hard work definitely paid off.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the world’s best dream extractor; he enters people’s dreams to steal secrets from their subconscious. He’s good at what he does, but he lives an unfulfilling life, separated from his children due to charges against him for a crime he didn’t commit. To clear the charges and see his kids again, Cobb makes a deal with Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), who promises to use his influence to clear Cobb’s name in exchange for inception – the placing of an idea into someone’s head via their dreams. Assembling a team to assist him, Cobb puts everything at risk in order to see his kids again, with failure meaning that he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life.

Nolan’s creativity is incredible here, with him taking things that are familiar to us, like a “kick” – the falling feeling you get while in bed that instantly wakes you up – being used in new ways, in this case as a means of waking up from a dream before the time runs out on their special dream-sharing machine. He also introduces the idea of “projections”, which are physical (within the dream itself) manifestations of our subconscious that can be spoken to in order to gain information or to learn more about the person creating the projections. I find the “mechanics” of Nolan’s dream world endlessly fascinating as I learn more about these as well as things like how Nolan envisions the effects of outside stimuli such as slaps or needing to use the restroom within the dream.

The story itself is in the style of a heist film, but the setting doesn’t allow it to be anything even remotely close to generic. For starters, Cobb and team aren’t stealing anything but are instead putting something there – an idea. There are elements of science fiction and blockbuster action, but at the same time the narrative carries a surprisingly emotion weight with it as we witness Cobb struggling with the loss of his wife and his guilt at having caused it, as well as the strained father/son relationship between Robert and Maurice Fischer (Cillian Murphy and Pete Postlethwaite, respectively). There are multiple scenes that can leave you in tears, but there are also moments of comedy (Tom Hardy’s Eames has a few notable one-liners) and incredible action sequences, with my favorite being Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fight in a rotating hallway.

Each member of the cast shines, so I won’t talk about them all, but I do feel the need to highlight a couple of them. Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb brings another all-star performance to the screen here, alternately treating us with scenes of anger, anguish, personal torment, guilt, and compassion. Marion Cotillard appears as his wife Mal, and we see her in various states of maliciousness and sadness. As the story between these two characters unfolds, we learn of the true tragedy that ended their marriage, made even more heartbreaking by the beautiful performances of both DiCaprio and Cotillard. Tom Hardy’s Eames shows off not only his comedic chops, but also his ability to be both intellectual and ready for action…watching his performance in this movie, you could make a pretty convincing argument for Hardy as the next (or eventual) James Bond. And the last character I’ll talk about here is Ellen Page as Ariadne, the young architect who joins to team in order to design the dream levels that the group will be diving in to. She acts as the sort of communication liaison for the audience; as someone new to the group, she’s a vehicle for exposition allowing characters to tell her (and therefore the audience) about the dream sharing process as well as a way for us to get a glimpse into Cobb’s difficulty with restraining his dangerous projection of Mal that jeopardizes their mission. Page is calm and intelligent and is therefore a comforting presence amidst all of the chaos they face on their mission. Additional shoutouts to great performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur (and his amazing rotating hallway/anti-gravity action scenes) and Cillian Murphy’s Robert Fischer.

I also won’t talk about Hans Zimmer’s wonderful score here, mostly because I’ve already written a review on it. However, I will say that this score marked a turning point in my opinion of Zimmer’s work. For most of the first decade of the millenium, I thought that he copied himself too often, but his music here innovated and showed him at his experimental best, and the majority of his work since then has been taken in a similar direction. Nolan/Zimmer is as inspired a pairing as Spielberg/Williams or Zemeckis/Silvestri because the two of them understand each other and have similar visions of scope and artistic expression.

This review was surprisingly difficult to write because there’s so much good to be said that I couldn’t narrow down very well. The bottom line is this: Inception is Christopher Nolan at his absolute best. The story and dream world are incredibly engaging and fun, and the performances from each of the actors as well as from Hans Zimmer are top notch throughout. I have nothing but praise for what has become one of my all-time favorite movies.

-Chad

RECOMMEND!

MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of violence and action throughout

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Now You See Me (2013)

NOTE: Review originally written for and posted at MovieByte.com. To see this post and check out the guys over at MovieByte, click here!

 

NOW YOU SEE ME

Magic is fun. Movies are fun. Combining the two to make a movie about a group of magicians who rob a bank? Even more fun! With a premise like that, Now You See Me, sets itself up from the start to be one heck of a ride – and quite an entertaining one at that!

Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco star as four magicians of varying abilities who work alone. As we are introduced to each magician performing his/her solo act, we notice a hooded figure  in attendance at each performer’s show. Soon, the four are brought together, each having received a card from this unknown person telling them to show up at an apartment, where the performers are given blueprints and instructions to a grand master plan that involves bank robbery through the art of deception. They form a group and call themselves the Four Horsemen, and, through the sponsorship of insurance businessman Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), they give a performance a year later in Las Vegas where they seemingly rob a bank in Paris using their talents. The FBI gets involved, with Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) on the case, as well as French Interpol agent Alma Vargas (Mélanie Laurent). They ask for help from Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), an ex-magician who exposes magicians’ secrets for a living, leading to several intriguing explanations behind some of the magic tricks performed.

While all of that is a lot to comprehend on paper, it doesn’t feel convoluted in the context of the film. Each of the lead actors does a fine job, though Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson both seem to be channeling previous roles at times (Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network and Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games, respectively). None of that detracts from the film, however, because, believe it or not, the focus isn’t much on the magicians; the focus is on Rhodes and Vargas, the FBI and Interpol agents who are frantically trying to get ahead of these apparent criminals.

The entire film is a boatload of fun; I’ve had a fascination with magic tricks since a very early age, so I was constantly on the edge of my seat trying to figure out how things were being done. The performance sets were huge, and the constant camera movement (not shaky-cam) helped add to the notion that what you were seeing was an illusion…nothing was held still for very long, so the film had a dynamic feeling of movement throughout that worked quite well, pushing the story forward in a great way. The music, composed by Brian Tyler, was a huge asset to this film, sounding appropriately like a Vegas stage show, background music for an inspirational speaker, and like an action film, all simultaneously, again adding to the notion that everything that the Four Horsemen did, on stage or not, was a performance.

Like all films, though, this one has its problems, with this one being its ending. I won’t reveal the twist to you, but I’ll tell you that someone gets arrested, and it happens in a way that seems entirely illegal. The character who gets arrested is the object of another character’s longtime plan for revenge, and he gets locked away simply out of spite, which is definitely not okay. Had he done something actually illegal, I would have been completely fine with it. Additionally, Michael Caine’s character, Arthur Tressler, disappears for the entire final act of the film with no payoff. Unfortunately, even if his character had come back with a proper payoff, Caine’s performance seemed pretty weak to me, something that I fear can be attributed to his age – at 80 years old, the range of Caine’s acting ability is growing thinner, and I think that this role, however small in the overall context of the film, is outside of that range. I didn’t dislike him, but he certainly could have been better.

Aside from those couple of issues, I really enjoyed this movie. Something that I noticed was what I took to be a hidden commentary on Christianity and belief in God. FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes has a firm disbelief in magic. At one point in the film, a comment is made about believing in something you can’t see to make yourself feel better, and, though I initially thought it was a slam against those who believe in God, I later decided that the film was in support of the idea of having faith in something like magic or God or whatever it may be. I may be completely wrong in that assumption, but it was a bit of commentary that I picked up on and that I really appreciated, being a Christian myself.

Overall, this movie is (mostly) everything I hoped that it would be. A strong central cast takes an intriguing premise and takes us on an exciting journey into the world of magic where its all too easy to get sucked into the fun of the illusions, and, although I was skeptical of the twist ending at first, I’ve come to really appreciate it as I look into how it fits back into the earlier parts of the film. Now You See Me isn’t the kind of film that calls for extra scrutiny or criticism at a superficial level as other films might; just sit back, get your popcorn, and enjoy the ride!

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for language, some action and sexual content


Top Ten Films of 2012

2012 was a good year for movies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see everything – films like Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, Argo, Les Misérables, Django Unchained, etc. are all films released in 2012 that I haven’t seen yet – but I DID manage to see quite a few. Here is my personal list of the best films of 2012 (click on the titles to view my full review):

 

10. Wreck-It Ralph

This was another film that I had been looking forward to for months on end. I’m not as into video games as some other people, but watching this film was still like revisiting my childhood. The heart of this movie is in the right place, with the main message being “accept who you are because you’re a wonderful person just as you are.” A talented voice cast, a sweet story, candy puns out the wazoo, and a fun score by Henry Jackman make this film everything I wanted it to be…and the animated short shown before the film, Paperman, was just as fantastic.

 

9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I was late to the whole “Lord of the Rings/J. R. R. Tolkien” party, having only seen Peter Jackson’s film trilogy in the past two years, but I was keen to read The Hobbit and see the movie as soon as I possibly could. While I was disappointed on my first viewing, mainly due to the cartoony special effects that resulted from the higher frame rate (48fps HFR), this film was a faithful adaptation to Tolkien’s original novel, and the return of familiar faces such as Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Andy Serkis as Gollum is refreshing. The real highlight of the film, though, aside from Howard Shore’s beautiful score, is Martin Freeman, who plays the perfect Bilbo Baggins. While some may find the run time to feel a little stretched, I found it to be justified by the attention to detail to the original novel.

 

8. The Hunger Games

I read Suzanne Collins’ acclaimed Hunger Games trilogy just a few weeks before I saw the film, and I was hooked from the get-go. The film did a wonderful job of adapting the novel, perfectly capturing the dystopian society introduced in Collins’ literary world. Jennifer Lawrence did a particularly outstanding job as Katniss, and the scenes added by the filmmakers to show the control that the Capitol has over the people of Panem and over the Hunger Games do nothing but add to the story in a great way.

 

7. Flight

Robert Zemeckis, director of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, released his first live action film in more than a decade this year. Flight was something I had anticipated for months, and it quite lived up to what I had in mind for it. Denzel Washington gives a powerful performance as a pilot struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, and the film explores topics such as love, recovery, lies, and responsibility. Zemeckis proves that he still has what it takes to direct a top-notch film that focuses on character and story just as much as it does on visual effects.

 

6. Life of Pi

This is a film that I sort of went to see just on a whim, and I’m glad I did. With gorgeous visuals that looked fantastic in 3D (something I don’t say often), Life of Pi excels the most in its storytelling. While the ambiguity of the ending may not appeal to some people, I found the film to be a thoughtful exploration of faith and of religion in general, leading me to look at my own relationship with God. It sort of melds the biblical Book of Job with Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 film Cast Away, and it definitely sparked my interest in reading the book it was based on.

 

5. Skyfall

In anticipation of this film, I first watched Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, which was entertaining in its more muted kind of way, and Quantum of Solace, which was pretty disappointing. I still had high hopes for Skyfall, though, and it exceeded every expectation I had set for it. The action was fun, Javier Bardem as the villain sent chills up my spine (and also brought a couple of laughs), and Daniel Craig and Judi Dench both gave outstanding performances in their respective roles. The length wasn’t an issue to me because I was too caught up in the entertainment of the film to care.

 

4. Lincoln

Does Spielberg make bad films? I’d answer that with a “no” (I have an argument in favor of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). With 2011’s War Horse and his newest film, Lincoln, he has taken a step back from the typical sci-fi/action/fantasy films he is known for and has focused more on period dramas – both of which were fantastic. If Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor, I won’t know what to think. Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones also deliver standout performances in a film that is just as engrossing and fascinating in its exploration of politics as a good action film is in its exploration of shooting and blowing things up. Spielberg is a true master.

 

3. The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan set the bar high with 2008’s The Dark Knight, and this conclusion to the acclaimed trilogy did not disappoint. Tom Hardy as Bane was sinister and terrifying, Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were both welcome new presences, and the return of the familiar faces – i.e. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman – was satisfying and well-done. The Dark Knight Rises perfectly concluded Nolan’s trilogy.

 

2. The Avengers

There are so many ways that this film could have gone wrong. I mean, think about it – they took four characters from four separate films and brought them together into one super-film. In the hands of a less-capable director, it could have easily been one of the worst movies of the year, but with Joss Whedon at the helm, it ended up being one of the best. Smart dialogue with exciting action and a great story, The Avengers proved that an ensemble cast like this could work just as well in a film as it does on television.

 

1. Looper

Well-choreographed action sequences meet a smart script in this film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. As a time travel movie, it explores the consequences of our actions and the true cause of evil, and it spends just as much time in contemplation as it does making you sit on the edge of your seat.

 

Well, there you have it. My top ten films of 2012. What were your favorites of 2012?