INCEPTION, starring Leonardo DiCaprio

July 29, 2010

Before reading another word, check your movie listings. If you can get to the next showing of Inception without breaking the speed limit or leaving your children unsupervised, get there. This is the best movie I have seen in a long time.

(Note: do not bring your children. They will not understand it, nor will you, because you will have to spend all your time telling them to be quiet, and saying: “I’ll explain it later.” This movie requires attention all the way through. There are no superfluous scenes, or even lines.)

I arrived at the theater for the 3:15 showing, determined to hate this movie, because A) I had left my young children at home with their father and thus had Mommy Guilt, and B) I had read that Inception is a great-if-incomprehensible movie. Like staring at one of those splash-art paintings at the museum, where you stand there and say, “Excellent. Classic,” and then walk out shaking your head. Why, I asked myself, would I want to spend $15.50 (one ticket, popcorn, water) on this if I was not going to understand it? Hence, I was disgruntled before I walked in.

The reviewers are wrong. This movie is not like the splotchy, multi-colored pseudo-Spirograph art at the museum. You can follow it. Yes, you have to focus. No, you may not leave for a minute or you will lose track of the action. But if you give the movie the attention it deserves, you will, I believe, agree with me that here is a work of beautiful, original art.

This movie is a love story, an artfully-told love story (not one of those on-the-surface frothy things that leaves you staring at your husband saying, “And where are my roses, huh, Buster?”). It is full to the brim with loss, regret, sacrifice, and guilt. It is the story of a father’s love for his children, and his agonized regret over the loss of his wife with whom he lived a strange, yet fulfilling life for many years.

This story is about longing for deep, satisfying relationships.

Cobb, played by the amazing Leonardo DiCaprio, is an expert in “extractions,” inhabiting the dreams of his subject so that he can root around in the subject’s subconscious and pull out secrets. The science of extraction is an advanced technique in the world of Inception. Cobb is not the only adept–there are many others. Some of the experts work security detail in the shared dream: fighting off what I will call subconscious mental antibodies who want to kick the extractor out of the dream before he can cull the secrets he is after. Other experts–the “architects”–are in set design, constructing the dream world that the extractors and their subject will inhabit in the shared dream.

Given extraction as a relatively simple science, enter Saito (Ken Watanabe) with a business deal. He wants Cobb to perform something far more delicate, far more risky: an Inception. That is, instead of extracting a secret, Saito wants Cobb to insert an idea into the subject’s subconscious in such a way that the idea will root down, grow, flower. It’s a tricky problem, because you can’t just throw ideas at people, even in their dreams. The subject has to believe that the idea is his own idea. It has to grow out of his own felt experience.

The techniques to be used are dangerous to the subject and to the dream experts who will share the dream. Some might not be able to return from dreamland at all. Herein lies the tale, and it is constructed in a lovely, artful way. Three–then four–levels of dream are introduced, each more fragile, more dangerous than the last, but all necessary to arrive at the center of the subject’s subconscious where The Idea will be introduced in a powerful, poignant way.

The fascinating thing is that each dream level runs on a different time speed. That is, we have been taught that what seems like hours in a dream probably takes only a few minutes in real time. Here, Dream Level One is said to run at 20 times regular speed.

Thus the beauty of the plan. The team has 10 real-time hours (in the first-class compartment of a 747) to complete the project. Those on Dream Level One therefore have 200 hours, those on level 2 have 20 times more time, or 4000 hours, those on level 3 have 20 times more than that, so that while things move very quickly in level one time, there is more time to move around on level 2, and much more time–they could take years if needed–on level 3 where things seem to go very slowly indeed. This seems confusing, but really isn’t.

You have to watch the movie carefully and remember where you are–the action switches between dream levels–so that you don’t get lost, but the action can be followed. Pay attention. Don’t leave the theater.

We each approach our lives from our own vantage points, and I could not watch this without thinking how the love of a father for his children will compel a man to risk almost anything to be with them. That is Cobb’s motivation. He is asked, “Do you want to go home to your children, or become an old man and die alone?” The reason why Cobb is separated from his children unfolds through the movie. Your heart will hurt for him.

Saito’s motivation for wanting to place The Idea in the subject’s subconscious is equally enormous and believable. In fact, for the world at large, it is vitally important that the subject (Mr. Fischer, heir to half the world’s energy output) take hold of The Idea and allow it to define him.

The movie ends as it should. Compelling resolution with a whisper of uncertainty.

This is a lovely movie. You should see it on the big screen, rather than waiting for Netflix, because of the scenery, the intense foot-chase-through-crowded-streets scene, and the big explosions. And, if you can, see it as I did in a D-Box seat. The seat moves along with the action, so that when there are explosions, you get knocked around a little bit. I thought this would be distracting or that it might make me a little seasick, but it wasn’t and didn’t.

Stay for the credits to hear the wonderful Edith Piaf song at the end.

(Moral tone: there is no skin in this movie. The Lord’s name is taken in vain twice, but the situation is deeply intense, and a mere “darn it” would not have sufficed. No, I’m not condoning blasphemy, simply explaining the movie, blast it! There is no other language at all.)

Are you still reading this? You should be at the movies.

Salt, starring Angelina Jolie

July 28, 2010

I still can’t get out of my head the opening scene of the currently-showing Salt, starring Angelina Jolie. There our hero lays, at full-length in her undergarments, in a North Korean prison. We know she’s been there for a long time, because her boyfriend–a vacant sort of German spider-man: “I’m an arachnologist” (or whatever)–has had enough time to convince the CIA and the North Koreans that a trade must be made.

The odd thing about the fully-extended CIA operative is that her legs and underarms are completely hairless. Yes, I noticed this, and found it odd, almost comic, and actually laughed.

Yeah, yeah, I know, women wax and do other painful things that last longer than your ordinary shave, but still. It takes a long time to organize prisoner exchanges. The Russians are one thing. The North Koreans? That’s a different story.

Well, on to the story. A Russian, Orlov, comes into the CIA to defect and finger none other than Agent Salt, now married to the Spider Guy and fully recovered of the North Korean-inflicted torture. He says she’s going to kill the Russian President! She runs!

She can run faster than all the CIA agents! She runs faster than their cars! While barefoot. It’s really amazing, and should do a lot for the current barefoot running devotees. Then–this woman who recently produced three babies for Mr. Pitt–jumps from an overpass onto a semi-truck. The math required to drop at the right instant is certainly inspiring, but what mostly got me is that she didn’t seem to have any bladder issues here, which is a dead give-away that all the babies were C-sectioned, although you’d have to check the Inquirer or other respectable source for verification of that. Then again, a woman who doesn’t have body hair after months in torture cells can probably also control little things like her bladder.

We later learn that she loves Orlov, has always loved Orlov, and will follow him through a collapsing building, will do anything. Until he shoots Spider Guy (I can’t remember his name). Then, the game is up and Evelyn Salt (with quivering chin) becomes the Terminator and shoots everyone.

Oh, here’s a great part: she disguises herself by (wait for it) dyeing her hair black. The funny thing is, when I dye my hair, everyone still recognizes me! Even to the extent of saying, “Why did you do that?” But for Evelyn Salt (“Ev” to Mr. Schreiber, whose character is trying to kill her), it is an effective disguise.

She later disguises herself as a man, but — ha ha– is RECOGNIZED under a full face mask and short hair. She looks really good in the man get-up, does a lot of mayhem in the basement of the White House and at the very last minute…SAVES THE ENTIRE WORLD from being destroyed by angry Muslims. It seems that if the US blows up Mecca, the Muslims might get mad. You think?

Motivation Problems: one is left with nagging questions. For example, why would a kick-ass CIA/Russian double-agent fall for an almost mute, plain-looking, uncharming scientist? Fall for him to such a profound depth that his death would launch her into a full-blown killing machine against everyone she had passionately believed in all her days? That’s question 1.

Question 2: Why does the CIA not recognize Orlov when he comes in to defect? A long time passes before a photo of him standing next to Brezhnev (Andropov? Chernenko? I can’t remember who it was.) at some patriotic event. Now, we know from Sum of All Fears that those guys at CIA know their stuff! They would have recognized this guy–he uses his real name, for crying out loud.

Question 3: Why does Liev Schreiber’s character (I totally cannot remember it, which is no slam on Mr. Schreiber’s greatness, but perhaps on my age.) want her to die? He’s jealous of the spider guy! Huh? Calculating, cold double-agents who have lived their lives for the Fatherland/Motherland will kill and destroy because their flirtations were not noticed? Well, why not. It’s 2010.

Then there’s the constant feeling that you’ve seen this movie before. “Mr. President: You’ve got to decide to go to DEFCON 3…NOW!” reminiscent of every Cold War movie you’ve ever seen. And how about this one: “I’m the National Security Advisor!” which moment we saw (better done) in Air Force One. There’s more, of course. This whole thing has been done before. The addition of Angelina Jolie is neato, and she does a great job in the part, but it’s not enough to make a great movie.

I wish they had worked a little harder on the plot and script as these are great actors and it cost me $15.50 (2 for the matinee) plus popcorn and a $4 water.