Archive for July, 2010

INCEPTION ****1/2

Christopher Nolan (Momento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Night) has written, directed and produced the riskiest, most intelligent and most independently-minded huge budget (US) holiday movie in as long as anyone can remember, with not only admirable but downright jaw-dropping results. Surrounded by sequels (literally, Inception, along with Knight and Day, is one of the very few big-budget studion flicks being released during the American summer that is not part of a larger brand), the incredibly original psychological thriller is being marketed almost entirely, not on it’s star Leonardo DiCaprio, but on Nolan, placing his in the stratosphere of very, very few directors whose identities are used to sell mainstream films. Unless he loses his marbles (which is possible given what his imagination is capable of!), hits the drink and drugs (not that that’s killed off many a great director) or has a flop, he is unlikely to ever come down off that pantheon, as Inception is something of an instant classic, and one that has already opened well enough in the US ($60 million opening weekend) to prove good the marketing gambit. Word of mouth will only propel this film to greater heights, because it is truly excellent in the ways original thrillers should be: it is suspenseful, keeps you guessing, has great levels of mystery, twists and turns, is scary, creepy, intense and strange. It boasts pitch-perfect performances from an astoundingly good ensemble cast: DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick), the brilliant and ever-more-beautiful Ellen Page (Juno), the next ‘Mad Max’, amazing British breakthrough Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger (surprisingly good) and the unbelievably stunning Marion Cotillard (yes, I have a crush on her) who gives a completely surprising – and very satisfying –turn. Even a couple of tiny, old-geezwer roles are played by Pete Postlethwaite and Michael Caine! No doubt all these thoroughbreds were attracted to working with Nolan, who, in bringing this massive film to the screen, its many mysteries and layers of meaning, deception and complexity intact, has pulled off one of the singularly largest works of art in years (think about it: Scorcese inevitably uses other screenwriters, as do Spielberg and Peter Jackson; all three mainly use or develop scripts based on popular novels. Nolan is the sole credited screenwriter on Inception – this vastly expensive and ambitious film is very much the singular work of his imagination). Essentially a story of corporate espionage by way of filching executives’ ideas through their dreams, the film delves into much darker areas of the powers of the mind, including boldly taking on manifestations of the brain’s subconscious, repressed memories, and id and ego. It is not giving away too much to say that much of the film takes place within dreams, but its interior logic is very sound, and placing his story in a dreamscape is not a cheap ploy to let anything happen – the structure is much sounder than that, the plot too tightly bound to its own boundaries. This is a dream movie that satisfies in an enormous way. It is long and certainly complex: you’ll want to be wide awake and alert to get into Nolan’s beautifully realised dreams.

THE RUNAWAYS ****

Floria Sigismondi’s rock-n-roll bandopic of brief but sensational mid-1970s teen band The Runaways, most famous for launching rocking guitarist Joan Jett onto the stage, is as admirable for its grit and dirt as for its adrenalin, exceptional scenic and costume design and the tremendously exciting and authentic feeling performances from Kristen Stewart as Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, The Runaways’ lead singer. Also adding to the thrills is the versatile and creepy Michael Shannon playing svengali-maestro-manager Kim Fowley, the sometimes tender, sometimes abusive genius who created the band, crafted their image and, with Jett, co-wrote their songs. Shannon’s portrayal is totally loopy, but you get the sense that so was Fowley. Revelling in the sheer rush of true (relative!) overnight success as well as the prime flush of radiant, talented, beautiful youth, The Runaways is a sterling and thoroughly entertaining addition to the rock ‘n roll film genre.

This week, two French films are both incredibly different in content but very similar in their measured, assured, and unhyberbolic styles; also, both use design subtly, but vitally… the first in recreating Cold War Moscow, the second in building an entire Parisian apartment complex on a soundstage.

FAREWELL ****

There is  a sublime moment in Farewell, the new film from French director Christian Carion, where idealistic Russian traitor Gregoriev (played with stoic, crumpled grandeur by Serbian director Emir Kusturica) passes a couple of film canisters to a Frenchman living in Moscow, Pierre (Guillaume Canet), with whom he has struck up an almost random, complicit relationship. Gregoriev is not happy with the state of the Soviet Union, and he’s passing secrets in the hope of bringing about a new revolution. He doesn’t want money (though he does ask for French champagne, poetry, and a Sony Walkman) and, more interestingly, he has no plans to defect – the point is that he loves his country: his intention is not to betray it but to improve it. Pierre, at first baffled, comes to understand that he has, against all natural odds, been thrust into the very centre of the future of the entire planet, and it is this disparity – the tale of two relatively ordinary blokes exchanging the future of the world – that is so beautifully reflected in the simple gesture of the passing of those film canisters. Those canisters contain information that will change the world, but, when shot at mid-range, they are simply two black objects in a small plastic bag disappearing into an ordinary man’s winter coat pocket.

THE HEDGEHOG *** 1/2

First-time feature director Mona Achache has delivered a calmly-paced, meticulous and beautifully acted film that is, according to the opening credits, “freely inspired” by popular French novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. The book’s title is actually more interesting than the film’s (which makes it sound like an animated movie for kids); “elegance” is actually one of its central themes, and one which makes it almost pathologically French. Indeed, the film almost could not be more French, set, as it is, in one of those gorgeous Parisian apartments where the elevator shaft, enclosed in glass, runs up the the centre of the stairwell, so that those who choose to walk up or down are constantly overtaking those who prefer to ride. Renée (the extremely talented Josiane Balasko), the “hedgehog” of the title (in an overstretched metaphor) is the concierge of said Parisian apartment building – a small affair completely inhabited by card-carrying members of the bourgousie. The subtitles here reflect the absolute Frenchness of the film: the translations “janitor” (for concierge) and “upper-class” (for bourgousie) just don’t seem to adequately suggest the intricate class-based resonances of both of those words – and the French class system, as reflected within the microcosm of this apartment building (which was constructed on a sound stage – Art Director Patrick Schmitt, Set Decorator Thierry Rouxel) is what this film is all about. The plot, such as it is (and it is very slight indeed) concerns eleven-year old Paloma (an amazing Garance Le Guillermic, who is in most of the scenes and is vital to the film’s success), who, disgusted with her bourgois family, decides to kill herself on her next birthday (don’t worry – the film is not her tragedy). On the way to this milestone, she observes the growing relationship between Renee the hedgehog and new tenant Kakuro (the truly elegant Togo Igawa) and learns a lot more about life. That’s it – the interest here is in the telling of the story, not the story itself, and it’s the delicacy of the acting, design and direction of this quiet film that rewards us. Unfortunately, the end result has the feeling of “Maybe this was actually better as a book” – but if you like all things French, this film has it for you in spades.

THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS ****1/2

Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith’s documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and his decision to leak a vast and damning Top Secret report into the United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam was nominated for the Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Oscars, and rightly so – it is beautifully made, enormously entertaining and highly informative. Even if you think you know the whole story of Ellsberg, the Pentagon, the Rand Corporation and the White House, you won’t have met Ellsberg as you meet him here – being extesively interviewed, and remaining as charismatic, smart, wry and determined as ever (he’s still getting arrested for causes he believes in). Also, the film features Oval Office recorded conversations between Nixon and Kissenger that are worth the ticket price alone: Nixon is further revealed as being caustic, callous, crude and cruel beyond belief. Because the events are relatively recent history, most of the participants are still around, are interviewed in the film, and are extremely candid – it’s fascinating to see how time and history panning out has made many of them reconsider what they thought was the right way to do things back in the mid-1970s. All round, a terrific film.