Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It May Only Be a Dream, but Hollywood Gets It Right

Movie Review

Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Wantanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine

Sheer originality is in strikingly--yet in large part intentionally--short supply among major Hollywood motion pictures, particularly those expressly made & marketed to clog megaplexes and rake in megabucks (primarily as summertime releases).

As this article does a fairly good job of explaining, the reason that most "blockbusters" are either sequels, franchises, movies based on existing properties (superheroes, comics, bestselling books, video games, toys, old TV shows, etc.) or blatantly derivative of other hit films is that pre-branded movies are surer box office bets. Given the relative short attention span of teenagers (the prime moviegoing audience, especially for summer films), the fact that reporting of weekly box office receipts has become a form of sport, the sparsity of movie stars who can be counted on to "open" movies to big box office returns and the $100+ million that many major movies now take to make and market, it is understandable why studios would rather invest in works with sizable built-in audiences than develop new, daring and possibly more worthwhile pictures aimed at mainstream success.

While Hollywood deserves to be taken to task for often recycling the same old tripe and largely forgetting that people besides teenagers like movies and will see & spread the word about good ones, as has been often said, it is called "show business" and Broadway producers, museum curators and other arts promoters have taken Tinseltown's cue by preferring to serve up the tried & true. Though disheartening to those who value artistic merit--for which originality can be a major ingredient--this kind of thinking seems to make fiscal sense.

Which serves to make a movie like Inception--and Warner Bros. investing $160 million in it--worth celebrating, even before you get to whether it is good or not. Sure, WB wants to stay tight with Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight and the next Batman installment, and thinks he can become a name-brand, movie-opening director such as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson or M. Night Shyamalan (whose The Last Airbender is up to $115 in box office take despite some of the worst critical and composite fan reviews in recent memory). But the studio is to be commended for putting summer blockbuster support behind Inception, a wholly original script that Nolan supposedly worked on over 10 years, going back to when he was finishing Memento.

It's also nice to note that Inception had a $60 million opening weekend. While this is less than Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3 or Twilight: Eclipse, it was "better than estimated" and extremely strong for a film not based on a known property. Inception did benefit from particularly strong reviews, advance word-of-mouth and Nolan's impressive track record, but its complex storyline didn't lend itself to particularly accessible trailers.

The plot--which in a nutshell involves a guy (DiCaprio) with the ability to invade people's dreams to extract private information for duplicitous gains now being hired (along with a heist-caper-like team) to plant information--probably will require DVD viewings with Director's Commentary to really understand all that is going on. Maybe then I will up my rating to @@@@@ as upon a first viewing there were parts where I was getting lost and the 2-1/2-hour movie began to feel a bit long.

It wasn't flawless or even quite the best new movie I've seen this year (that would be the Argentinean Foreign Language Oscar winner, A Secret in Their Eyes), but I highly recommend it. Nolan, whose low-budget Memento was my second favorite movie of the '00s and who made what is possibly the best superhero movie ever in The Dark Knight (though I might argue Spider-Man 2), is to be applauded for the audacity of his vision and the ability to bring it to many screens at a theater near you.

In the realm of live-action, blockbuster-type Hollywood movies--and therefore excluding the many imaginative Pixar films, Avatar and indie/small-budget/foreign films--Inception is the most satisfyingly original movie since The Matrix (from 1999, the year that also brought the similarly novel The Sixth Sense).

Again, it might be too good to fully appreciate on a first viewing (or it may well become more flawed the deeper one looks), and while I have no problem with well-done popcorn movie franchises--last year's Star Trek re-imagining was quite stellar and Watchmen had some nice visual verve--not only was Inception a great movie to watch, it is a great movie to know can still get made.

However infrequently and if seemingly only in a dream.

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