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Tuesday, April 16

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Column Fri Jul 16 2010

Inception, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Wild Grass & The Living Wake


When I ran an Ain't It Cool contest for tickets to the Chicago Inception screening last week, I asked those who entered to tell me what they thought the film was about when they saw the first trailer. Now having seen it twice, I can say with complete confidence that nobody, including me, came even close to capturing just what this miraculous effort accomplishes. The first thing you have to realize is that Inception isn't simply a movie; it's a symphony of images, ideas, performances and, yes, music that is meant to continue on living and breathing in your head long, long after you've taken it all in. And it is absolutely crucial that you see Inception twice before you really form your opinion about it. The work is not confusing, but it is dense and layered and complicated and is a powerful exercise in using your brain. Don't let any of that scare you. Seeing it the second time wasn't as much about clearing things up as it was making a select few fuzzy moments become crystal clear and tightly focused in my mind.

Another thing you must realize about Inception (and this may be something you've figured out long ago) is that writer-director Christopher Nolan's brain works differently than the rest of us humans. His eyes see the world as something that needs deconstructing and rearranging. This is evident going all the way back to his first feature, Following, but it really became clear with 2000's Memento, a mystery that was only a mystery because the story was told in reverse through the eyes of a man with no short-term memory. Perhaps the only truly disappointing thing about Nolan's work on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is that he doesn't quite have the free to tinker with reality. But that doesn't mean he isn't playing up the psychological elements of the plot. Sure, The Joker is the villain, but he's a villain in whom we see fractured pieces of ourselves. He's the sum total of a broken society and the ugliest parts of human behavior.

But Inception shatters all expectations that Nolan has demanded we have of him. Much of what we think we know up to this point about the film is a lie. The trailers have been somewhat misleading. Many of the money shots we've seen up to this point (such as the awe-inspiring image of an entire city folding over on itself) are not especially important to the overall story. Even the plot synopsis that have been released (with the exception of the final press notes) have been guiding audiences to think this movie is about a man who is hired by corporate giants to protect their executives from a technology that allows people to go into your dreams and steal your secrets. This is, in fact, what the character Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) does for a living, but that's not really what he does in this movie.

When I ran my contest, I also had a lot of people draw comparisons between Inception and films like The Matrix or Dark City or Dreamscape or a half-dozen other landmark sci-fi films. But no, Inception is entirely its own movie. Actually, the one movie it did kind of remind me of was, of all things, The Sting, for the simple reason that Nolan's story is about the "long con," and I didn't notice this connection until the second time I viewed it. When Cobb is asked by an exec played by Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Batman Begins) to implant an idea into someone's subconscious so deep that the target (Cillian Murphy, playing the son of a dying energy-company head) thinks the idea came from his own thought process, he takes the job because he's offered the chance restore his life with his children after years in exile, whose faces he's unable to conjure in his memory.

The element that takes Inception from great to fucking brilliant is the layer of tension that is added to the mix by Cobb's psychological instability. He's the man in charge, he's partially responsible for training and concocting the scheme that will fulfill the contract, and he's got issues of the mind that would keep a psychiatrist's kids in Ivy League schools from kindergarten on up. There are very few actors of DiCaprio's caliber and age who could pull off a role this complicated. Actually, there might not be anyone. He thrives when he's loaded with angst. Cobb is not that different than the character he played in Shutter Island. At times, they are uncomfortably similar — both dealing with dead wife issues, often never sure what is real and what isn't. But Cobb is aware of his weaknesses; he just refuses to actually deal with them, even if it compromises the safety and lives of his team.

Like any expansive long con, the man in charge needs a team, each member of which has a specialty. Cobb's regular partner is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a guy who basically is a back-up Cobb. He micromanages the job while Cobb provides the big picture. Levitt gets a dialogue-free, anti-gravity sequence that serves as a portion of the film's climax and seals his status as one of the coolest actors on the planet.

Bronson's Tom Hardy is the cocksure Eames, who seems to be the expert in deceiving the mind. He can plant the idea that someone in your dream is a person you know (even if he's played by a member of Cobb's team), and then you have no choice but to see exactly what he wants you to see. He also knows how to blow shit up and shoot with remarkable accuracy. But he also has great insight into the best way to get this idea so deep into the mark's mind that it seems like an original thought. Dileep Rao (Avatar) is a chemist, who designs sedatives to knock the subjects out in very specific ways. And in a wonderful sequence set in Paris, Cobb recruits a new "architect" named Ariadne (Juno's Ellen Page), an actual architecture student who must design each level of dream in such a way that the mark doesn't realize he's dreaming.

To say too much more about the plot would be criminal, because the truest joy of watching Inception is watching the plan come together and then fall apart, all while the team is adjusting and recalculating. Not surprisingly, in order for them to plant this choice thought deep enough in Murphy's head, the team must go several levels of dream deep. I think at one point, there are five levels of existence happening at the same time (if you include consciousnes, which has very little screen time here), and all are meticulously timed to converge at the same time. That's pretty tough considering the deeper you go, the slower time seems to pass (five minutes in the real world equals one hour in the first level of dreamland).

As much as Inception might sound like the worst physics or chemistry final you ever took, it's not a purely intellectual experience. Cobb's twisted tale concerning his wife's death is carefully parceled out during the course of the film, and it's truly heart crushing stuff. I suppose we are always meant to assume that the possibility exists that the entire movie is a dream, but in the end, I don't think that really matters. I think more likely, we are meant to understand that Cobb is a man who feels more at home (if not at peace) in his dream world which he has unwisely populated with guilt-born memories (both happy and sad) of his life with wife Mal (Marion Cotillard of Public Enemies and La vie en rose) and their children. A part of him knows that this is not really his beloved, but seeing her look so lovely is better than not seeing her at all. I hear you, buddy. I'll say it again: DiCaprio is at his best when he is drowning in angst.

For a film that seems ripe for intellectual analysis, Inception also has some tremendous action sequences, a great deal of humor (much of it from Hardy), and a real sense of mischief — after all, these are criminals, technically. And then there's that must-buy Hans Zimmer score that has already won an Oscar in my head. I particularly liked the bizarrely (yet perfectly) timed horn blasts that almost sounds like a Tuvan throat singing concert performed at the gates of hell. Forgetting the sweeping disappointment I've felt for a large percentage of the summer's releases, Inception clears the decks of shit and sets the bar higher than it has been in quite some time (maybe since Shutter Island; one day the two films will make a double-feature that will melt your brain). So get a good night's sleep before you see it, have a healthy breakfast, eat whatever you eat to increase brain power, leave your electronics in the car, and scream at anyone around you who distracts you from enjoying this film fully. Every once in a while, expectations are exceeded. Welcome to that day.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

I wouldn't go so far as to say I had high expectations for this latest pairing of director Jon Turtletaub and actor Nicolas Cage (they made two National Treasure movies, both of which I loathed), but I was intrigued by the idea of bringing the animated Fantasia segment to life on some level and having Cage play a slightly unbalanced sorcerer who is driven by prophecy to train a young man (Tropic Thunder's Jay Baruchel) to become enough of a sorcerer to destroy a force that would destroy everything. While The Sorcerer's Apprentice has a few inspired moments peppered throughout its paint-by-numbers plot, most of the film is eye-gougingly average, with select moments that are just plain awful.

The biggest disappointment is Cage himself, as Balthazar, who, at times, is relegated to playing straight man to Baruchel's Dave, a student of science having a near-impossible time accepting that he has been preordained to be the wizard who brings down a series of evildoers leading to the queen of evil, Morgana (Alice Krige). Not surprisingly, Cage doesn't exist well playing second fiddle, even to someone who has been known to be funny in such films as Knocked Up and "Undeclared." This film makes it clear that Baruchel is only as funny as the material he's given, even when he's improvising. In The Sorcerer's Apprentice, he's a stuttering, stammering guy with no confidence that he can either get Becky (Teresa Palmer), the girl he's been pining for since he was a kid, or learn to be a proper conjurer. In other words, he's playing almost the identical guy he played in She's Out of My League, plus magic.

Here's the key to deciphering this movie. When the story focuses on the struggling romance between Baruchel and Palmer, it comes to a grinding, screeching halt — the kind that makes railcars jump the tracks and kills hundreds. When it focuses on sorcerer training and evil doing, it's better, but not by much. The Sorcerer's Apprentice's fatal flaw is the disproportionate time it spends on this time-suck of a love story. I'm not blaming Palmer, but if Becky had been cut out of the movie entirely, I wouldn't have missed her in the slightest. Sure, she's cute and charming, but I wanted more Alfred Molina as Morgana's lackey and former partner of Cage, Maxim Horvath.

The one character I thought had the most potential is Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell, who I recognized from RockNRolla and Prince of Persia), a Chris Angel-type of magician who is recruited by Maxim to capture Dave. Kebbell plays Drake like a watered-down Russell Brand, but at least there's a little spark in his performance. The still-lovely Monica Bellucci rounds out the list of famous faces as Veronica, Balthazar's fellow sorcerer and lady love trapped in a doll's body along with Morgana. She's barely in the film — a little in the beginning, a little more at the end — and is never truly given a chance to do much more than look exotic and riddled with anxiety.

I've never really liked Turtletaub as a director (3 Ninjas, Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping, Phenomenon, The Kid). He doesn't have anything resembling a visual style beyond "pleasant," and the emotions in his movies run about as deep as a melted ice cube. What this film needed to do was let Cage cut loose, the way Johnny Depp was allowed to with the Pirates of the Caribbean films. But in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Cage seems sedated, and even long hair and funky clothes can't make the character any more engaging or fun.

But the film's biggest eye-rolling moment occurs when Turtletaub attempts to recreate Fantasia's dancing-mop-and-bucket sequence using Paul Dukas' original 1897 score. It's a clever idea, especially when Baruchel also enlists the help of brooms, dust busters, and other cleaning implements. But the sequence only made me remember how much this film pales in comparison to Disney's 1940 offering. In the end, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a completely uninspired story (I still can't believe it took three people to write this nonsense) inspired by and tagged onto a legendary film moment that will now peripherally carry the stink of this movie upon it. "Lame" is the first and best word that popped into my head when I saw it. Thankfully, there's an infinitely better movie coming out later this week to salvage your faith in the summer movie season.

Wild Grass

I may have mentioned this before, but I'm a huge fan of French cinema. In particular, their dramas and suspense works from just about any and every decade. The new film Wild Grass is a bit of both, as it starts out about an older woman (and oral surgeon) named Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) with flaming red hair, who is mugged on the street and her purse is stolen. More than you might suspect, this incident leaves her rattled to the point where she feels she must recover from the invasion (she isn't hurt) before she can go to the police. Her wallet is found by an elderly gentleman named Georges (André Dussollier), and all seems normal and fine. But two unexpected and entwined things occur, we discover that Georges is a bit of a psychopathic stalker who insists on meeting the unsuspecting Marguerite, who is admittedly intrigued by Georges aggressive behavior. The pair seems attracted and repelled by each other simultaneously. Did I say I love French cinema?

An impossible movie to categorize or properly explain, Wild Grass loops around from humor to danger to tension to absurdity thanks to a versatile cast that also includes Mathieu Amalric as a police officer who oversees the wallet's transition and is called in to investigate Georges stalking, Emmanuelle Devos as Marguerite's surgery partner, and Anne Consigny as Georges' wife, who seems weirdly unaffected by his behavior, especially once she meets the other women in Georges' life. To say the film is odd would be overly simplistic, but it's the first step in a direction that borders on the unexplainable. Motivations are rarely explained in a satisfying manner, behavior that would be considered bad in other films is given a pass here, and everyone acts just so damn French. I love it. I would absolutely suggest to sample Wild Grass, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre, but don't be too jolted when the film ends and you're left with more questions and confusion than you can handle. That's part of the twisted fun.

The Living Wake

Here's the thing: I'm something of a fan of comedian Mike O'Connell. His delivery is like that of a carnival barker crossed with a raving lunatic, and his mind functions much the same way. That being said, I loathed The Living Wake, which was written by and stars O'Connell as K. Roth Binew, a misunderstood artist (or so he claims) who embarks on a bicycle road trip leading to a gathering that will serve as his final performance honoring his life in front of an audience of those who know him best (and largely hate him). The strange thing is, there is an exceptional film called Get Low coming out in a few weeks, starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, that covers some of the same ground with a level of sophistication and humor that The Living Wake can't even touch. Save your money for that movie.

On his bike journey, Binew travels with his mild-mannered sidekick Mills Joquin (Adventureland and Zombieland star Jesse Eisenberg). I say mild-mannered because Mills rarely gets to speak, since Binew never shuts the hell up with his series of declarations about his greatness and misunderstood nature. His family doesn't see his genius; the general public isn't clued in either. In fact, it would appear that no one but Binew gets what Binew is all about. The trip is structured as an Odyssey-like exercise in self-discovery, and I found the entire thing an endurance test that I'm afraid I failed. By the time we get to the final stage performance, I was about ready to throw bricks at the screen to make it stop. And I felt bad for Eisenberg, who has a real flair for delivering lines, and is reduced to a mumbling sycophant in this film. I felt sorry for the guy. Directed by Sol Tyron, The Living Wake has been sitting on the shelf for a couple years, and I'm not sure why it's final getting this micro-release now — perhaps because of Eisenberg's rising popularity. Whatever the reason, the two or three of you who might be considering checking this out should just stop.

For those in Chicago, the The Living Wake opens for a weeklong engagement at Facets Cinemateque. Filmmaker Sol Tyron, actor/co-screenwriter Mike O'Connell, producer/actress Ami Ankin, producer/co-screenwriter Peter Kline and producer Chadwick Clough will be at Facets for shows this weekend. Go to for the list of who is appearing at which showtime. Good luck.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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