“INCEPTION” (2010) Review

“INCEPTION” (2010) Review

It still amazes me at how director/writer Christopher Nolan’s films manage to generate a great deal of emotion from filmgoers and critics. This has certainly been the case for his latest work, the science-fiction drama called ”INCEPTION”.

Inspired by the experiences of lucid dreaming and dream incubation”INCEPTION”told the story of Dom Cobb, a dream “extractor” who enters the dreams of others in order to obtain information that is otherwise inaccessible. After failing to extract corporate secrets from a Japanese businessman named Saito, Cobb is hired by the latter to perform the act of ”inception” – the secret implant of an idea into a target’s mind – on the son of Saito’s terminally ill corporate rival, one Robert Fischer. Saito’s object is to convince Fischer to break up his father’s corporate empire in order to prevent it from becoming a monopoly and threatening the businessman’s own corporation. If Cobb manages to succeed, Saito promises to use his influence to clear the younger man of murdering his wife, so that he can reunite with his children.

Cobb assembles a team to achieve Saito’s objectives. They are:

*Arthur, the Point Man – who is also Cobb’s partner, and responsible for researching the team’s target

*Ariadne, the Architect – a graduate student who is recruited to construct worlds in which dreams take place

*Eames, the Forger – has the ability to take the form of others in order to manipulate the dreamer

*Yusuf, the Chemist – who formulates the drugs needed to sustain the team members’ dream states

*Saito, the Client/Observer – who decides to become part of the team

Despite assembling a skillful crew, Cobb encounters a few difficulties. One, Arthur had failed to discover that their mark, Fischer, had been trained in lucid dreaming and creating mental defenses. His mind manages to manifest armed personnel, which attacks the team in downtown Los Angeles, after they kidnap him in Yusuf’s dream. This leads to disaster for Saito, who is wounded during a gun battle. Due to Saito’s wounds, the rest of the team discovers that Cobb had failed to inform them that they could end up in limbo if they die in a dream state, due to the drugs given to them by Yusuf. Worst of all, Cobb has to deal with the manifestation of his dead wife, Mal (the Shade), whose presence in the dreams could end up threatening the assignment.

There had been a good deal of hype surrounding ”INCEPTION” before it hit the theaters in mid July. Surprisingly, I had been unaware of it. I merely wanted to see it due to Nolan’s role as director and writer, and from what I had seen in the movie trailer. I had no idea on how I would react to the film, considering my reactions to 2006’s ”THE PRESTIGE” and 2008’s ”THE DARK KNIGHT”. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed both movies very much. But it took me a while to understand the plot to ”THE PRESTIGE”and I have never liked the last 30 minutes of ”THE DARK KNIGHT”.

In the end, I not only understood ”INCEPTION”, I enjoyed it. Hell, I more than enjoyed it. I loved it. It is one of the most original movies I have seen in years. I found it very rare to see a movie that used unusual visuals to convey a main character’s emotional story. Through the use of dreams, the team manages to allow Robert Fischer to face his demons regarding his father and to finally put them aside, so that he can learn to be his own man. But more importantly, the Fischer assignment finally allows Cobb to face his own demons and guilt over his wife’s suicide.

The concepts of lucid dreaming and dream incubation are nothing new in movies or television. Both topics have been used in movies like ”THE MATRIX” and television series like “BABYLON FIVE””BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” and ”STAR TREK VOYAGER”. With the amazing special effects supervised by Chris Corbould and Wally Pfister’s beautiful photography, Nolan managed to take these concepts to another level. And he did it without resorting to 3-D photography (thank you God!) or slow motion action (with the exception of one scene). The special effects were especially put to good use in scenes that featured a fight scene between Arthur and an unnamed man inside a high-priced hotel corridor, Cobb and Ariadne’s dream experiences on Parisian streets; and the Limbo world first created by Cobb and Mal.

Nolan had gathered an impressive group of actors and actresses for his cast. Veteran actors Michael Caine, Postlethwaite and Tom Berenger portrayed father figures (literally or otherwise) for at least two of the major characters and gave solid performances – especially Berenger, who portrayed Robert Fischer’s godfather and business associate. Dileep Rao, last seen in the 2009 blockbuster ”AVATAR”, had the good fortune to be cast in a larger role as Yusef, the Chemist. His character provided sedatives for the team to use in order to easily go into dream state. And I must say that I enjoyed Rao’s sly, yet humorous performance very much.

I have been aware of Tom Hardy since his two-episode appearance in the HBO miniseries, ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. But his portrayal of Eames the Forger is probably the first role in which he truly impressed me. Like Rao, he projected a sly sense of humor, mingled with a sharp wit and a hint of arrogance. And dear God! That man has a voice to die for. Cillian Murphy’s role as the Mark, Robert Fischer, seemed like a far cry from his villainous Dr. Jonathan Crane aka the Scarecrow in Nolan’s two BATMAN movies. Yet, the actor did an excellent job in his subtle portrayal of a man disappointed by what he deemed as his father’s lack of love toward him and his own insecurities that he may be unable to live up to his father’s shadow or expectations of him. Marion Cotillard proved to be quite an enigma in her portrayal of Mal, Cobb’s late wife. In some scenes, she projected a quiet, self-assurance as her character tried to manipulate her husband into accepting his dreams of her as reality. In others, she projected the melancholy of a woman teetering on the edge of suicide. And there were moments when Cotilllard conveyed a sense of subtle menace, whenever someone threatened Cobb’s memories of her. It was a very effective performance.

Another complex performance came from Ken Watanabe, who portrayed Cobb’s client, Saito. Judging from Watanabe’s portrayal of Saito, one would have felt certain that he would end up as the movie’s villain. Yet, thanks to Nolan’s script and Watanabe’s performance, Saito proved to be a complex individual that developed an interesting relationship with Cobb. The latter formed another interesting relationship with the team’s Architect, a college graduate named Ariadne. And Ellen Page did an excellent job in portraying Ariadne’s sense of wonder at her introduction of the world of lucid dreaming. More importantly, Page was effective in portraying what I believe was the movie’s emotional center – the one person who was able to help Cobb deal with his demons regarding Mal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s role as Arthur, Cobb’s main partner, should finally set him on the road to stardom. He gave a wonderful performance as the team’s pragmatic Point Man, whose job was to provide background information on Fischer. He was cool, sardonic, dashing and surprisingly a pretty solid action man. His fight in the dream state hotel corridor might prove to be the talk of moviegoers and critics for months to come.

But the one man who held this movie together, other than Nolan, turned out to be leading man Leonardo DiCaprio. I could, in many words, praise his performance as Dom Cobb, the team’s leader and extractor/inceptor.  I could describe the emotional complexity of his portrayal of a man who remained torn by his wife’s death and his longing to reunite with his children and his efforts to keep his demons in check and prevent them from affecting his jobs. I could also praise DiCaprio for handling the movie’s action sequences like a born-again Bruce Willis. But why bother? All one has to do is watch the actor upon the movie screen. Personally, I believe that he may have given one of the better performances of his career, so far. In short, DiCaprio was phenomenal.   It seemed a crime that he did not earn an Academy Award for his work.

I tried to think of something to complain about ”INCEPTION” and only ended up with one. It seemed to me that two-thirds into the movie, its pacing began to drag. Which seemed odd, considering while the movie focused upon scenes featuring Eames’ dream – the snow fortress – I found myself squirming in my seat in an attempt to stay awake. Some of the action sequences seemed to go on a little too long by this point. Fortunately, the movie moved on to its final scenes, starting in the Limbo City dream sequence and my attention became revived.

There have been many discussions and debates over the movie’s final scene – namely Cobb’s reunion with his children and the last shot featuring the spinning top. Many claim the last shot was an indicator that the entire movie had been a dream and that Cobb remained stuck in a dream state. Others believe the spinning top – Mal’s totem – was nothing more than a red herring. As far as they were concerned, Cobb had genuinely reunited with his kids. Personally, I have no idea if the entire movie was a dream or not. A part of me feels it should not matter. What mattered to me was that Cobb finally learned to let go of Mal . . . and put his guilt over her death behind him. And by turning his back on Mal’s spinning top, I believe he had finally achieved this.

As far as movies go, the summer of 2010 had not been a memorable one for me. But it was not been a complete bust. I have seen a good number of entertaining movies. Yet, only a handful has truly impressed me. As far as I am concerned, the one movie that seemed to rise ahead of the others is Christopher Nolan’s latest opus – ”INCEPTION”.  Which was the best movie of 2010, as far as I am concerned.

A Few Problems Regarding “AVATAR” (2009)

A Few Problems Regarding “AVATAR” (2009)

I am going to put my cards on the table. I have a problem with James Cameron’s new movie, ”AVATAR”. In fact, I have several problems with it. I was willing to remain silent about these problems, but after the movie’s recent big win at the Golden Globe Awards, I realized that I could not keep silent about them.

One would think I was just another fan expressing her dislike of ”AVATAR”. On the contrary, I happened to like ”AVATAR” very much. I saw the movie three times. And it became one of my top ten favorite movies of 2009. So, why post a rant against the movie? Because I fear that the movie has become a front runner for the Best Picture Academy Awards. And as much as I had enjoyed ”AVATAR”, I do not believe that it will not deserve all of its accolades. Even worse, I have a bone to pick about the movie’s distribution.

Award Season

Two nights ago, ”AVATAR” scored big at the Golden Globes Award show. It managed to collect at least two major awards – Best Director for James Cameron and Best Picture. In a documentary about 20th Century Fox called ”20TH CENTURY FOX: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS” (1997), a former executive had pointed out that legendary producer and studio boss Darryl Zanuck believed that the backbone of any good movie was the story. Not the special effects, the casting or even the score; but the story.

Now, I am not claiming that ”AVATAR” has a weak story. Actually, I believe that it has a solid, good story with a relevant theme. However, many critics and moviegoers – including myself – believe that the story has mediocre dialogue. Even worse, it also seems very unoriginal. In fact, I would go as far to say that it is close to being a blatant rip-off of the 1990 Academy Award winner, ”DANCES WITH WOLVES”. Frankly, I cannot see how a movie that is unoriginal to the point that it seems to blatantly plagiarize another film deserves to win a Golden Globe Best Drama Picture award, let alone the Academy Award for Best Picture. I simply cannot.

3-D Special Effects and Movie Tickets

What has really ticked me off about ”AVATAR” is the fact that director James Cameron had decided to film the damn thing in 3-D. Well, he also provided regular prints of the movie. And the movie theaters have allowed filmgoers the choice to view the 3-D showings or regular showings. Unfortunately, all of the movie theaters that I usually attend, offer more showings of the film in 3-D. Worse, not only are the regular viewings scheduled late at night, filmgoers have to pay higher ticket prices for the 3-D showings. This really pisses me off. I find the 3-D glasses very uncomfortable. And the special effects struck me as being less impressive than those featured in the Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time show at Universal Studios Hollywood. The higher ticket prices for the 3-D effects are simply not worth the effort. At least not to me. And I feel that Cameron, 20th Century Fox and the movie theaters are ripping off moviegoers in the process.

Will ”AVATAR” win the Best Picture Oscar? I suspect that it will. And frankly, I consider this a travesty. I am not saying that the movie is terrible. It is not. But Cameron has already managed to win a slew of Oscars for a movie with impressive visual effects and a mediocre script that turned out to be a blatant rip-off of 1937’s ”MAYTIME”. I am talking about 1997’s ”TITANIC”. And I fear that history will repeat itself when he wins a slew of awards for ”AVATAR” – a movie with the same virtues and flaws.

“AVATAR” (2009) Review

Here is my review of “AVATAR”, James Cameron’s long awaited new film: 

”AVATAR” (2009) Review

Has it really been twelve (12) years since director/producer James Cameron had released his last movie? Twelve years? And yet, it is true. Twelve years have passed since the releases of the Academy Award winning movie, ”TITANIC” and Cameron’s latest epic, ”AVATAR”. And I must say that it was worth the wait.

Set in the year 2154, ”AVATAR” told the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former U.S. Marine, who arrived on the planet of Pandora to replace his murdered twin brother in a program that have created human-Na’vi hybrids called avatars, which are controlled by genetically matched human operators, due to humans’ inability to breathe the moon’s atmosphere. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the head of the Avatar Program, considered him an inadequate replacement for his brother, relegating him to a bodyguard role. Pandora, a lush, Earth-like moon of the planet Polyphemus, in the Alpha Centauri system, has been targeted by an Earth corporation administered by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) called RDA. It wants to mine Pandora for a valuable mineral called unobtanium. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a former Marine and leader of the Humans’ security forces, promised Jake his “real legs” back in exchange for intelligence about the natives and what it will take to make them abandon Hometree, which rests above a large deposit of unobtanium.

When Jake escorted Augustine and biologist Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) on an exploratory mission in their avatar forms, the group is attacked by a large predator, and Jake became separated and lost. Attempting to survive the night in Pandora’s dangerous jungles, he is rescued by Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), a female Na’vi. Neytiri brings Jake back to Hometree, which is inhabited by Neytiri’s clan, the Omaticaya. Mo’at, (C. C. H. Pounder), the Na’vi shaman and Neytiri’s mother, instructed her to teach him their ways. Within three months or so, Jake fell in love with Neytiri. Unfortunately, he found himself conflicted between his feelings for the female Na’vi and her clan, and his deal with Colonel Quaritch.

Judging by the reactions of many critics and filmgoers, James Cameron seemed to have created a very unique film. I would certainly agree with this opinion – especially in regard to the physical and visual world of Pandora. Quite frankly, I found it lush and strangely beautiful. I also have to commend Cameron for not only creating Pandora’s strange world, but also for guiding crew members like production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; the art direction team led by Todd Cherniawsky, Kevin Ishioka, and Kim Sinclair; cinematographer Mauro Fiore; the special effects team led by Dave Booth; and the visual effects team. Cameron took his work even further by hiring Dr. Paul Frommer of USC to create a Na’vi language and culture. Actors like Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña and C.C.H. Pounder had to learn the new language.

I did not have any real problems with the movie’s plot. Cameron did a solid job in writing a story that dealt with environmental issues, along with imperialism and biodiversity by consolidating them into a conflict between the nature-based (or primitive in certain circles) Na’vi and the Humans’ military-industrial complex represented by the RDA Corporation and its military force. Sounds familiar? It should. Cameron claimed that he was inspired from such movies as ”AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD” and ”THE EMERALD FOREST”, which feature clashes between cultures and civilizations. He also acknowledged his film’s connection to the 1990 Academy Award winning film, ”DANCES WITH WOLVES” in the storyline featuring Jake’s connection to the Na’vi. Personally, I found myself wondering if ”AVATAR” was simply ”DANCES WITH WOLVES” on another planet. Honestly. The two movies struck me as being that similar.

Some fans might accuse me of hinting that Cameron’s story lacked any originality. Well, they would be right. I am hinting exactly that. After all, this would not be the first time for the Canadian-born director. At least three of his most famous films, ”AVATAR” included, bore strong similarities to other fictional works. In an ARTICLE I had posted on my blog, I had pointed out the strong similarities between ”TITANIC” to the 1937 Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy film, ”MAYTIME”. And after his 1984 film, ”THE TERMINATOR” hit the theaters, a well-known science-fiction writer named Harlan Ellison pointed out that the movie bore a strong resemblance to two television episodes he had written. The writer ended up receiving ”acknowledgement to the works of” credit on video and cable releases of the movie, as well as a cash settlement of an undisclosed amount. And if the love story between Jake and Neytiri bore a strong resemblance with the one featured in the 1990 film (in that story, the female lead was a white woman raised by the Lakota), the movie’s score written by James Horner seemed to seal the deal for me. It bore a very strong resemblance to Native American music.

Another aspect of Cameron’s script that struck a similar note with me was its dialogue. Let me be frank. I found it just as cheesy and unoriginal as the dialogue found in ”TITANIC”. A good example could be found in Colonel Quaritch’s speech to the human newcomers to Pandora. When he uttered the phrase, ”You’re not in Kansas anymore”, I practically winced. The Wachowski Brothers used that phrase with a more memorable and original twist in their 1999 movie, ”THE MATRIX”. However, I must admit that ”AVATAR” did have one quote that I found particularly memorable. During one of his narratives about the Na’vi, Jake Scully said the following:

” Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.”

Okay, it does not really seem like much in written form. But Sam Worthington’s interpretation of the line made it memorable for me.

One complaint lobbied against the movie was that it pandered to the cliché of the ”white man savior of the noble savage”. Frankly, I believe that the only grounds for this accusation centered around Jake rallying the Na’vi to fight against the Human assault against the Hometree. I figured that since he was responsible for giving Quaritch the means to launch the assault, I could let the scene slide. However, I failed to spot any further evidence to support this argument. After all, it was Neytiri’s father Eytucan, who allowed Jake to remain with the Na’vi. Neytiri’s mother Mo’at ordered Neytiri to introduce him to Na’vi culture. Mo’at was also responsible for giving Jake a chance to redeem himself for his earlier betrayal. Another female – namely Trudy – was responsible for rescuing Jake, Grace and Norm from the RDA cell. And it certainly was NOT Jake who defeated the movie’s main villain, Colonel Quaritch, in the end. No one could ever mistake this film for the 1953 movie, ”HIS MAJESTY’S O’KEEFE”.

Speaking of Sam Worthington, he led the cast as the a paraplegic former U.S. Marine Jake Scully, who found himself drawn to Pandora and the Na’vi culture. Although I would not consider Jake to be one of his more complicated or complex characters, I thought that Worthington did an excellent job in conveying Jake’s conflict between the Humans’ agenda and his love for Neytiri and the Na’vi. He also managed to effectively project Jake’s array of emotions following the character’s arrival on Pandora, whether in Human form or connected to his Na’vi-Human form. And he also did a top-notch job as the film’s narrator. Believe or not, not every actor or actress has a talent for verbal narration.

Zoë Saldaña was cast as Neytiri, the Na’vi huntress with whom Jake fell in love. Saldaña did not simply provide Neytiri’s voice. She also provided the character’s body language and facial expression via a process called motion/performance capture. This process has already been used in movies such as two of the latest ”STAR WARS” movies, the ”MUMMY” films, ”KING KONG” and the last two ”LORD OF THE RINGS” movies. I must admit that Saldaña did an excellent job in guiding Neytiri’s character from being slightly resentful and contemptuous toward Jake, to being a female in love and finally to the fierce and determined Na’vi warrior determined to protect her home. Frankly, she was my favorite character in the movie.

Sigourney Weaver found herself being directed by Cameron for the second time as Dr. Grace Augustine, a scientist and creator of the Avatar Program. Her Grace is a no-nonsense woman with a dislike toward Selfridge, Quaritch and the RDA Corporation. Her bluntness was tempered by a genuine desire to study the Na’vi and Pandora. Weaver did a solid job in portraying these aspects of Grace’s character. Stephen Lang could have easily portray Colonel Quaritch as a one-dimensional villain. In fact, he nearly drifted into such a portrayal on one or two occasions. But in the end, Lang managed to control himself and give a first-rate performance. He even infused a touch of homme fatale into his performance in scenes that featured Colonel Quaritch’s attempts to “seduce” Jake into providing information about the Na’vi and their Hometree. I found that aspect an interesting twist.

Many critics have dismissed Michelle Rodriguez’s performance as Marine pilot Trudy Chacon as another one of her many tough chick roles. From a superficial viewpoint, they might be right. But if I must be honest, I found that Neytiri seemed to fit that role a lot better than Trudy. There was something about Rodriguez’s role that struck me as different from her previous ones. Her Trudy seemed like a laid back type with a warm and cheeky sense of humor – completely different from the roles that the actress had portrayed on ”LOST” and ”THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS”. I consider this a good thing, for it told me that Rodriguez was quite capable of portraying more than one type of role. If I must be frank, I would not consider Parker Selfridge to be one of Giovanni Ribisi’s best roles. Mind you, the actor managed to keep himself from drifting into a purely hammy performance. But I found his portrayal of the RDA Corporation’s administrator as a walking cliché of corporate greed and rather unoriginal. The only other movies I have ever seen Laz Alonso in were ”JARHEAD” and last year’s ”THE MIRACLE OF ST. ANNA”. I found his role as Neyriti’s fiancé, Tsu’Tey, to be a different kettle of fish. His Tsu’Tey was an aggressive and slightly arrogant warrior with a deep distrust of Jake and the other Humans. Like Lang, Alonso could have easily allowed his character to drift into a one-dimensional performance. I have to give kudos to the actor for making Tsu’Tey somewhat sympathetic in the end. I suspect that deep down, the character truly loved and respected Neytiri, despite the political and cultural nature of their betrothal. I also enjoyed the way Alonso used the motion capture suit and body language to convey his character’s aggressive nature.

I have already commented upon the special and visual effects in ”AVATAR” that managed to blow everyone’s minds, including mine. However, I could have done without viewing the movie with 3-D glasses. I simply did not see how filming the movie with a 3-D camera was worth the effort. I found the 3-D effects found in the TERMINATOR 2: 3-D show at Universal Studios Hollywood more impressive. And since I already wear glasses, wearing an extra pair of 3-D glasses proved to be very annoying for me. And while we are on the subject of quibbles, I found Horner’s score and the theme song performed by Leona Lewis called ”I See You” not that impressive, either. In fact, I am surprised that the song managed to earn a Golden Globe Award nomination.

After reading most of this article, one might end up with the belief that I have mixed feelings about ”AVATAR”. Let me assure you that my views are not mixed. Yes, I have some quibbles with the story’s lack of originality and sometimes pedestrian dialogue. And I found the 3-D photography not worth the effort. But I still enjoyed the movie’s plot very much. It was a solid tale that centered on a theme I wholeheartedly support. The cast, led by Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldaña did an excellent job. As Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet did twelve years ago, Worthington and Saldaña managed to create a great screen team that proved to be the heart and soul of the film through their performances. And from a visual point-of-view, Cameron outdid himself in his creation of the world of Pandora.