Saturday, July 17, 2010

Movie Review: Inception (2010)

Written and Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard

British director Christopher Nolan is on a hot streak. With his 2000 indie cult hit Memento still gaining new fans each year, he's had a string of monstrous hits, from The Prestige to The Dark Knight.

Nolan can now boast to having rebooted a once-tired comic book franchise and having one of the best films of 2010.

Domenic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is gifted in the art of extraction. The technology exists where a man may enter a person's subconscious while they are in a dream state to uncover deeply buried secrets. Cobb and his team are hired out by rich businessmen or international associates for a high fee. However, after the recent death of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb is ready to retire and lead a quiet life with his two young children. Before he gets the chance to leave for good, Cobb is drawn back into one last challenge; the complex process of inception. A Japanese businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb and his team to implant an idea into the head of his young business rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), whose father is on his deathbed and will likely pass his entire fortune onto his son. Saito's plan: to convince Fischer, while in his subconscious, to dissolve his father's empire. Cobb's challenge is to make sure the inception of the idea is convincing enough that when Fischer wakes, the dissolution of his father's company will feel like a natural thought to him.

Visually, the film is stunning. Everything has a blue, washed out feel while the CGI never feels overdone. One scene, in particular, is a standout. Watch for a hallway battle between Joseph Gordon Levitt-s character, Arthur, and one of the "military men" that represent the hostile subconscious of Cillian Murphy's character, Robert Fischer. The slanted, air-bourne battle is visually overwhelming.

That being said, Nolan never relies too heavily on the technological aspect, preferring instead to create a deeply complex film with great characters and twisted revelations. Unlike most action thriller's that depend on CGI explosions to earn them money at the box office, Nolan has no such qualms about making the visuals secondary to the plot development, which is a rare treat and something that any film fan will openly welcome. Whether you see this in IMAX or on a regular movie screen, this film needs to be viewed in theatres. The visual spectacle of it all, combined with Hans Zimmer's ominous score, can only really be fully appreciated on a giant screen in surround sound.

Nolan, as usual, makes excellent casting choices. Like Quentin Tarantino, he tends to turn to the familiar faces and prefers great actors, in general.

As Dom Cobb, Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his finest performances. I usually find him to be a wildly uneven actor. When he's good, he's great (see What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, Romeo + Juliet and The Aviator) and when he's bad, he's pretty lousy (see The Man in the Iron Mask, Titanic and anything that requires him to have an accent of any sort). The role of Cobb seems tailor-made for his talent. DiCaprio instills Cobb with a hardened exterior that masks the heartbroken torment of the man inside. DiCaprio's Cobb can be both a violent man prone to random bouts of irrational anger and a softer, more sensitive man who is mourning the loss of his beloved wife.

Nolan surrounds DiCaprio with a fantastic supporting cast. The always wonderful Ken Watanabe, as Saito, is a standout. Despite his evil scheme of implanting the idea in Fischer's head, he's a highly sympathetic character. This is both a combination of Nolan's excellent script and Watanabe and the rest of the casts performances: all the characters are flawed human beings, yet all remain likeable and real, which is a testament to all the talent involved. As Cobb's young cohort, Arthur, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is solid in his role as the aspiring leader of the group once Cobb retires. Although still learning the ropes, he is the calm, cool and collected counterpart to DiCaprio's often-irrational and emotionally fragile Cobb.

Cillian Murphy is his usual solidly reliable self as young businessman, Robert Fischer. He manages to make Fischer into more than just some spoiled rich boy who hopes to inherit daddy's money one day. He's confused as to what his future may hold and is, almost heartbreakingly, trusting and naive when within his own subconscious (even though, as a wealthy businessman, he was trained for the possibility of extraction or inception being done on his mind). He's got daddy issues galore, which give his character a sense of vulnerability not usually found in stock characters of his type. As British shapeshifter, Eames, Tom Hardy is a welcome newcomer (at least to Hollywood). His character is both a violent tactician and a master of disguise, effortlessly weaving in an out of Fischer's subconscious with both a cocky arrogance that comes from experience and a sense of humour. As Cobb's deceased wife, Mal, Marion Cotillard is beautiful, unstable and emotionally fragile. She exists now only as Cobb's fragmented memories, yet Cotillard plays the part perfectly.

Finally, we come to Ellen Page. Initially, at the start of the film, I thought she was miscast. She felt dozens of years younger than the rest of her co-stars. Her diminutive size and youthful appearance made it seem as though DiCaprio were working alongside a twelve year old. Although she's only a few years younger than Gordon-Levitt and Murphy, it felt like there was a larger age gap between them. That being said, she does an excellent job with her role as the new "architect", Ariadne. Thanks to her talent as an actress she makes Ariadne a strong-willed and wise character who acts as both Cobb's conscious and the audience's voice (she asks Cobb all the questions we, as an audience, want answered).

Inception is one of those rare summer treats that come along every once and awhile: a film that is too good and too clever to get caught up in the summer blockbusters. It's also a film that will not be to everyone's taste and will likely require repeated viewings in order to fully grasp all of its complexities  and philosophical ponderings. However, for anyone who appreciates a flawless script, stunning visuals and a great cast will, no doubt, love every wonderfully overwhelming minute of Nolan's new masterpiece.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Classic Film Review: Cabaret (1972)

CABARET (1972)
Directed By: Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem and Joel Grey

I've been a fan of big, bold musicals since I was first introduced, as a young child, to Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I (1956) with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Since then, I've loved musicals with vibrant colour, powerful voices and a side order of melodrama and sentimentality. That being said, Cabaret is no Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. 

American cabaret star, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), is living in Berlin in 1931, right in the middle of the growing prominence and popularity of the Nazi Party. Completely oblivious of the social and political ramifications of the rise of Nazism, Sally engages in romances with two men, Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York) and German millionaire Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem). 

There are no hills that come alive, no flight from Nazis in the cover of darkness, nor any singing nuns to portray the social upheavals of Nazism. Cabaret is a much darker musical than The Sound of Music: although both are set during the Weimar Republic era, that is where the similarities end. The former film never lets you forget the dire situation of mankind under Nazism while the latter has the tendency to move away from issues when they get too heavy, instead focusing on a governess and her large brood of children.

Right from the start, we are introduced to the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey, who deservedly won Best Supporting Actor for his performance). The opening number, "Willkomen", is dark and grimy, with a Lynchian nightmare quality to it (a la Blue Velvet and the famous "In Dreams" musical interlude). The diminutive Master of Ceremonies sets up the tone and overall atmosphere of Bob Fosse's film; introducing the zombie-like cabaret girls individually and prancing around the stage like a madman. His message? Inside, life is a cabaret.

This was my first Fosse film. I'd heard the name, however, I never really associated it with anything in particular. His vision for Cabaret is appropriately bleak, with a strange circus-like quality that parallels the dark, frantic upward mobility of Nazism. The choreography is amongst some of the best I've seen in a musical adaptation. Adding to the excellence of the dance routines and musical numbers is the camera-work. It gets right in the middle of it all, as though a part of the dance sequences. Great choices are made in terms of interspersing the songs being performed at the Kit Kat cabaret with scenes of violence on the streets of Berlin. 

Society is in a state of flux. Inappropriate behaviour is found in political, social and sexual spheres, all of which is appealing to young Sally and her desire for fame and the breaking down of sexual barriers. Her instant attraction to Brian is doomed from the start, despite many valiant attempts on her part, as Brian prefers the company of men. In a twisted effort to make Brian jealous, while satisfying her own sexual cravings and desire for fame, Sally brings in Maximilian. Both Sally and Brian are drawn to the German millionaire, and he to both of them in turn, resulting in an inevitably doomed love triangle. Consumed by her own selfish desire for success, Sally will do what she has to do in order to ensure her wealth and fame. 

As all this drama surrounding Sally plays out, it is all mirrored in the performances at the Kit Kat cabaret, led by the Master of Ceremonies: the love triangle is reflected in the song, "Two Ladies" and the romance between two secondary Jewish characters, Natalia and Fritz, is portrayed in the medley, "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes", among others. 

Liza Minnelli is a powerhouse of a performer and it's hard to imagine anyone else filling her  (Oscar-winning) shoes. She contrasts Sally's naivety with confident and sensual cabaret performances. My personal favourite was "Maybe This Time ", an anthem for that feeling of excitement when someone new enters your life. Minnelli owns the stage with both her presence and her vocal work. Minnelli manages to make what could have been an otherwise selfish heroine into a flawed, but likeable, human being.

Michael York (who was impossibly beautiful in his younger days) makes Brian a vulnerable man the audience can root for, whether you feel sympathy over his guilt for not doing his part in stopping the rise of Nazism or his confusion over his sexual orientation. 

However, both Minnelli and York are in danger of being completely overshadowed by the incomparable Joel Grey, who pretty much steals the film right out from under the two main stars. His Master of Ceremonies (pictured above) is hilarious, creepy and playful, all at once. He even manages to inject pathos into his characterization, which is a testament to the talent of Grey. The man can sing, dance and doesn't look all that bad dressed in drag. The man is naturally gifted performer.

The themes of decadence and unrealized dreams are at the core of Cabaret. The misunderstood threat of Nazism at the time is well-portrayed, illustrating what can ultimately happen when good man stand by and do nothing when something evil is on the rise. The tension and changing attitudes of the time is perfectly captured. 

Cabaret is unique and dark film. It deserves its place on the list of classic Hollywood musicals.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 5

The Princess Bride (1987)
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Starring: Robin Wright-Penn, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant and Chris Sarandon

Based on the novel by William Goldman, it chronicles the love story between Princess Buttercup (Robing Wright-Penn) and her "farm boy", Wesley (Cary Elwes). Set in a fantasy world that is narrated by Grandpa (Peter Falk), who is trying to distract his sick grandson by reading him The Princess Bride, Buttercup and Wesley must overcome "three poor circus freaks", a vile prince, a six-fingered man and the R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size).

I didn't even have to stop and think about what film couple would make the cut. I could have chosen something more dramatic or obvious, but none of them compared to this ultimate fantasy couple. This is one of those films from my childhood that gets better with age. I was only 6-years-old when my parents first introduced me to this comic fantasy and I've seen it so many times since that I could probably recite it word for word.

Despite its tone, the love story between Buttercup and Wesley is something I think we all yearn to experience ourselves at some point in our lives, even the most cynical of us.

Their love is flawless, unconditional and, sadly, complete fantasy. However, despite its satirical tones and laugh-out-loud moments, neither Goldman's book nor Reiner's film can disguise the fact that, in both mediums, they've created one of the most ridiculously perfect relationships in literature and film.

The movie is excellent for so many different reasons, yet, despite being nearly overshadowed by larger-than-life secondary characters (like Andre the Giant as Fezzik or the wonderful Mandy Patinkin as one of my favourite film heroes, Inigo Montoya), Robin Wright-Penn and Cary Elwes always manage to turn the audience's attention back to their central love story.

As Mark Knopfler sings in the closing credits, it's a "Storybook Love."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Movie Review: Joyeux Noel (2005)

Written and Directed By: Christian Carion
Starring: Guillaume Canet, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Benno Furmann and Gary Lewis

I purchased this film on a whim last year and only just got around to watching it. Originally, I planned to watch it during its limited theatrical release but it passed me by.

For those of you who know me, you are aware that I'm an absolute sap for Christmas and the winter holidays, in general. I literally melt into a puddle of sentimental goop around Christmas. I figured this film, combined with the fact that it's based on an actual historical event, seemed tailor-made for my tastes.

The film chronicles the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day ceasefire between the Germans, French and Scottish on the Western Front during the early days of the First World War in 1914, when soldiers still thought they would be home by the following year at the latest. It came to be known as The Christmas Truce and is still celebrated today as an example of human decency and kindness, in the face of violence and death. These three groups of men, from three different countries and speaking three different languages, overcame all barriers and spent the holidays together in their trenches, sharing meals and stories about their homes and families. They become fast friends, causing a scandal within their higher ranks who were far away from the fighting. When word gets out that the three nations have stopped shooting at one another, against orders, all the men involved are punished by their respective nations.

Carion and his casting directors made some wonderful choices in the acting department. There's nothing better, when watching a film, than coming across an actor you've never seen before and are pleasantly surprised by how great they are. I'd never seen Guillaume Canet in anything before but this wonderful French actor is pretty much the centrepiece of the film as French commander, Audebert (pictured above). He's a young man in charge of a vast troop and his kindness towards his men, his nervousness in agreeing to the truce and his blossoming friendship with the timid and awkward Ponchel (Dany Boon) holds the film together. You almost wish the cast wasn't such a huge ensemble because his character deserves his own film.

The rest of the cast is just as stellar. As the lone female in the film, Diane Kruger (who I always find to be a much stronger actress when speaking in her native German), plays Dutch opera singer, Anna Sorensen, who is brought to the troops on Christmas Eve to sing to them with her boyfriend, German soprano Nikolaus Sprink (played by Benno Furmann, also great in his role). Rounding out the cast is Gary Lewis as Scottish piper, Palmer (most will recognize him as the father from Billy Elliot), who is such an excellent actor and is really fantastic in the scene where he plays the bagpipes to accompany the German soprano, Sprink. Without any dialogue, he conveys all the emotions of a man exhausted with war and seeking a moment of peace and relief. Daniel Bruhl (another great actor that most will recognize from Inglourious Basterds but was also excellent in the German films Love in Thoughts, Goodbye Lenin! and The Edukators) plays German commander, Horstmayer, a Jewish man who admits Christmas means next to nothing to him but, after some initial reluctance, readily embraces the truce.

This film is by no means perfect. The pacing is a little off. For a war film with a focus on peace, love and understanding between three nations at war, its slow to start. I suspect it was a struggle for the writers and director to balance such a large cast and the struggle to find a main voice. Most films benefit from the focus on one or two main protagonists, however, that would have been impossible to do in a film/historical event that has so many different sides. Initially, the main character appears to be Anna, which is odd considering the film is based on an actual historical truce. The fact that it doesn't begin with an emphasis on that point gets the film off on the wrong foot. However, after the "Silent Night" scene that bonds all three troops, the film evens out and hits its stride, focusing on the men and their shared excitement of being able to put down there guns and be young men again, if only for a little while. I still wish more emphasis had been placed on the men and less time spent with the opera singers. However, the powerful message that war is senseless and that even our enemies are just like us, is still relevant to this day. Moments like the real Christmas Truce deserve to be captured on film, if only to remind us of that fact.


On a final note, here's the scene where German soprano, Sprink, sings "Silent Night" when he is joined by Scottish bagpiper, Palmer.