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INCEPTION

Grade: C+

“Memento” made it very clear that Christopher Nolan loves puzzle movies. So now that his massively successful reboot of the Batman franchise has given him carte blanche in Hollywood, he’s opted to make a puzzle movie to end all puzzle movies—the New York Times crossword puzzle movie of puzzle movies. But that’s not all: he’s also designed “Inception” to be a big action movie too, filled with spectacular set pieces and flamboyant special effects. The mixture will probably appeal to the crowd that likes to prove how smart it is by proclaiming something like “The Matrix” profound (and from a purely business standpoint it will entice many viewers back for multiple attempts to parse it all out), but actually it’s just a rather juvenile brain-teaser lacking an effective emotional core but bursting with cool visuals.

The basic premise of Nolan’s script is that it’s possible to enter people’s dreams to manipulate them in order to extract secrets the dreamers are keeping. The master of the technique of “extraction,” as the method is called, is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), whom we meet in the dream of a powerful Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe). With the help of a dream-architect (who constructs the “physical” setting), Cobb has positioned Saito within a dream in which the man has put his deepest secrets in a safe that Cobb can break into with the help of his long-time aide Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). But things go awry when Cobb is confronted by a mysterious woman (Marion Cotillard), who deliberately betrays him to the dreamer.

Nonetheless Saito, once woken, informs Cobb that the whole business was a test, and proposes that Cobb undertake a special—and far more difficult—mission for him: not an extraction but an inception, which involves using dream manipulation to implant an idea in a person’s mind rather than excavating one. The target is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the son of a dying mogul (Pete Postlethwaite) whose conglomerate, we’re told, is poised to control global energy. The goal: to construct a scenario that will persuade Fischer to break up his daddy’s mega-corporation after his death.

But the scheme requires the construction of a dream world so labyrinthine and multi-layered that it requires a team of the highest caliber. So Cobb goes to his brilliant father-in-law (Michael Caine), a professor of some sort, to recruit a new architect, young Ariadne (Ellen Page). And he adds to the inevitable Arthur two more colleagues. One is Eames (Tom Hardy), a “forger” who can shape-shift into other characters in the dream (like Fischer’s trusted uncle Browning, played by Tom Berenger), and the other Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemical genius who can concoct sedatives strong enough to put everybody sufficiently under for the plan to work.

What follows is the constructed dream, which curiously enough resembles a Hollywood action movie, complete with kidnapping, lots of fights and gun battles, and an assault on a seemingly impregnable fortress. But there are two unexpected wrinkles. One is the revelation that Fischer has undergone special training to resist dream-control. That takes the form of a big security detail that comes after the interlopers with automatic weapons blazing. (Of course, they all turn out to be the sort of lousy shots endemic to all action movies.) The other is the reappearance of that mysterious female saboteur, who turns out to be Cobb’s deceased wife Mal, who preys on his subconscious for reasons that are a major revelation late in the picture. Cobb knows that his preoccupation with her is a danger to his work, but decided to go ahead with the inception because Saito has promised to clear his record of something that prevents his reentering the US safely and reuniting with his beloved children, who are staying with their granddad.

There are some mighty impressive visuals in “Inception”—scenes of whole city blocks collapsing in on each other, a zero-gravity fight in a corridor (although an avalanche sequence doesn’t look that great). And there’s a certain pleasure, at least in the first hour or so, in trying to keep up with all the shifts between illusion and reality and the myriad rules of dream manipulation. But after a while it all comes to seem much ado about very little. That’s because what’s supposed to be the emotional center of the story—Cobb’s relationship with his children, and particularly his wife, never takes on any resonance. That’s largely explained by a performance by Cotillard that’s so chilly and stiff that it makes her character remote and unaffecting. Even the children are kept at arm’s length, their faces hidden. It becomes increasingly difficult to care about what happens to Cobb or, indeed, how the whole business turns out.

That’s despite a Herculean effort from DiCaprio, who throws himself into the physical demands and suffers prodigiously. But just as in “Shutter Island,” the effect feels forced. Gordon-Levitt and Hardy have fun with their roles, especially when they spar verbally with one another, and Page and Watanabe are fine if unexceptional. And one can always count on Caine, a Nolan regular now, to spruce up his scenes. And of course you have to admire Guy Hendrix Dyas’ production design, Brad Ricker’s art direction, editing by Lee Smith that successfully navigates among the threads of an unbelievably intricate plot, and the supple, elegant cinematography of Wally Pfister.

But in the end “Inception” is a disappointment. Its structural ingenuity is impressive, and the execution technically superlative. But in human terms it’s pretty anemic, and unlike the most powerful dreams it doesn’t stick with you.

AGORA

Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora” is in some ways a throwback to the Greco-Roman epics of the fifties and sixties. But there’s a major difference. In the old Hollywood films, the Christians were the persecuted victims. In this picture they’re the intolerant persecutors. Of course, Amenabar isn’t presenting a simple anti-Christian polemic (though the extent of anger with the Catholic Church in Spain in the post-Franco era would make that understandable as well as possible). Rather he’s using the blind dogmatism of the early Christians to attack modern religious intolerance, which usually comes nowadays from a different quarter. And the point is made even clearer by the addition of an affiliated message about the oppression of women, particularly in terms of the intellectual life. Of course, this being a movie, the script adds romantic subplots and plenty of violence, though overall the piece remains oddly stolid and talky throughout.

The story is set in early fifth-century Alexandria, about a hundred years after Constantine had converted and ended the persecutions. Over the intervening century Christians had become an important, even dominant group. (By the close of the fourth century, the emperors had made Christianity the state religion of Rome and outlawed official support of the old cult.) The bishop of the Alexandrian community was Cyril, an active and energetic proselytizer and writer—portrayed here by Sami Samir as a virtual cult leader with clear political motives, a characterization that’s not all that wide of the mark. His followers, according to the screenplay, were constantly doing battle with the city’s remaining pagans (and its Jewish contingent) in the forum that gives the film its title, with the bishop’s final goal being the forced baptism of them all. To that end he and street rabble-rouser Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) employ a bunch of fanatics, the parabolani, as hard-fisted enforcers.

Cyril’s political target is the Roman prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a prudential sort of fellow who pays lip service to Christianity while actually maintaining the rationalistic attitudes he learned as a student of Theon (Michael Lonsdale) at the Great Library, where he studied alongside Theon’s brilliant daughter Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), in whom he also took a personal interest, and whom he now continues to protect in her efforts to understand scientifically the workings of the solar system. Hypatia will become the focus of Cyril’s drive for dogmatic uniformity in the city, and Orestes will find himself pressured to choose his faith over her. A counterpoint of sorts to this thread is provided by another involving Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia’s erstwhile slave, whose advances she rejects, pushing him into the ranks of the Christian fanatics himself.

There’s a certain intrinsic interest in such an unusual tale, and it does have a historical foundation. (Hypatia was a noted Neoplatonic philosopher at Alexandria who was in fact killed by a Christian mob in 415, very likely with Cyril’s connivance.) But because of Amenabar’s pedantic, over-serious approach and his heavy-handed point-making, it’s a chore to sit through. And while Weisz shows some vitality as Hypatia, Isaac is stiffly uninteresting and Minghella, in a poorly-written part, even worse. Barhom and Samir make a stronger impression as the dictatorial true believers, and Rupert Evans is an intriguing, if opaque, presence as Synesius, the bishop of Cyrene who acts as go-between for Orestes with Cyril.

The physical production of “Agora” is impressive, with antique Alexandria recreated through a mixture of location shooting and CGI, and Xavi Gimenez’s wide-screen cinematography uses it well. But the style gets awfully arty at points—as in the sequence recounting the Christian vandalism of the Library, which ends in swirl of papyrus rolls tossed into the air—and the periodic employment of aerial shots, sometimes satellite-like views and sometimes closer-in images of the urban area, increases the detached feeling of the whole, taking as it were a God’s-eye perspective of the entire business.

Despite the open-air connotation of the title, there’s a curiously constructed, even suffocating quality to “Agora” that leaves it an interesting failure.