oh so smart

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

-Elwood P. Dowd, Harvey

Christopher Nolan is very smart. With Inception, he makes a more complex, exciting and complicated thriller than Memento, which catapulted him onto the scene. And while I enjoyed this movie very much, I hope he goes back to simpler movies like his underrated first film Following. Now, being smart isn’t a bad thing. He was the perfect director for the adaptation of The Prestige, for example, and with Inception he keeps our brains tied in knots keeping track of levels upon levels of dreams twisting in upon themselves, distracting us like a master prestidigitator.

Some have mocked the movie, comparing it with the ’80s horror flick Dreamscape. I liked that film, and how it used the concept of invading your dreams as the ultimate violation. In Nolan’s take, you can’t “wake up dead” like you did if they scared you to death in Dreamscape. It’s much worse: they are hired to invade your dreams to learn your deepest secrets, for corporate espionage, blackmail, or worse. The movie begins in a dream, where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are seeking a Japanese energy magnate’s innermost secrets, and it can be debated that it ends in one. We quickly learn that Cobb has secrets of his own that keep him away from his family and force him to make a dangerous living plundering the dreams of the powerful, where failure leaves you as an undesirable witness who knows too much.
What makes the movie work is that at its heart it is a heist film, something Nolan loves. The stunning opener to The Dark Knight was his previous attempt, and someday he can direct one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Cobb gets offered “one last job” that will wipe away the sins that keep him from going home, and he assembles a team to do the impossible- to implant an idea, rather than steal one. He reaches out to his father-in-law Michael Caine, who lends us his classic theatrical upbringing to lend an air of believability to the fantastic world Nolan builds, and gets him in touch with Ariadne, a student even better than Cobb himself, who will craft them a labyrinthine dreamworld to entrap their victim’s subconscious. The fact that Ellen Page’s character is named after the mythical queen who helped Theseus defeat the minotaur in Minos’s maze should not be overlooked. The movie is perfectly enjoyable without delving deeper into the meaning of her name, Cobb’s totem which keeps him centered, and the movie’s last shot, but it can lead to many interesting conversations for those who like discussing the what-ifs.
Tom Hardy plays a grubby “forger” who specializes in impersonating people in dreams, and he nearly steals every scene. JGL gets to shine here, and after this movie he’s perfectly believable as a covert operative. He steals a kiss with panache that would make James Bond envious, and performs a zero-gravity grappling contest that would grant him a salute from Jason Bourne. According to IMDb, he performed all his own stunts for that scene. Impressive. Nolan perhaps keeps the movie too well grounded in reality, but we are in the dreams of businessmen, after all; we can’t expect too much creativity. This isn’t What Dreams May Come, with its amazing landscapes, but we do get a stunning shoreline that re-imagines the Cliffs of Moher (best recognized as the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride) built of crumbling skyscrapers, tumbling into the waves like melting glaciers. One stunning shot after another keeps us riveted to the screen, so we don’t tie our brains in knots trying to figure out the complex details of Nolan’s house of cards. We see M.C. Escher’s paintings of Penrose impossible objects brought to life; this is what special effects are made for.
I’m not the biggest fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, but here he does a great job. It’s the first time I wasn’t distracted by his boyish looks, seeing him as a little kid playing grown-up games. He does a great job, and I was quite impressed by the entire cast. Marion Cotillard has perhaps the most thankless role; Ken Watanabe and Tom Berenger lend grit and testosterone with the aged edifices of their visages, and both Cillian Murphy and Dileep Rao (the medium from Drag Me to Hell) are excellent in their roles.
Part of me felt that the movie was too clever for its own good. But then I thought about the last shot, and the music that plays, and I like what Nolan did there. So perhaps it’s me who’s being oh so smart, instead of oh so pleasant, trying to pick apart this story set in an Escher painting instead of trusting the fact that I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s a movie I will definitely watch again, because its secrets, like those in The Prestige, only draw you in further.

4.5 mobius strips out of 5

© 2010 Tommy Salami

Shutter Island trailer

This is Scorsese’s latest, set in the ’50s and based on Dennis Lehane’s novel. At a mental institution built on a rocky secluded island, a Federal marshal investigates the disappearance of an inmate, and gets involved with dark secrets that make him question his own sanity…

Beat the Reaper – or Crank, the novel

My mother lent me this book about a mobster who mows through scumbags like a combine harvester, throws people out of windows, kills them with glass coffee tables, and becomes a doctor in Witness Protection. It’s sort of like Scrubs, Bringing out the Dead, the Sopranos, and Crank all put together. It would make an awesome movie, for guys. Because it’s fuckin’ ridiculous. In a good way.

Dr. Brown is an intern at Manhattan Catholic, and we meet him at the beginning of a long shift at the horrible hospital, where he gets mugged in the parking lot. But because he used to be Pete “Bearclaw” Brnwa, a killer for the mob, he breaks the guy’s arm, knocks him out cold, takes the piece off him and heaves him over his shoulder to be deposited in the E.R. See, he don’t like killing people no more. Now he wants to save them. Go figure.

He’s had it good for a few years, but everything goes to shit when a goomba with cancer is admitted, someone he recognizes from the past. Does he whack him? This spirals the story through flashbacks, sending us back to the late ’80s from how a nice Polish Jewish boy ended up in the mafia, clashes with the Russian mob in Brighton Beach, hunting down not only his grandparent’s killers but even the Polish traitors who send them to the camps, back in Warsaw. It’ll lead us to slavery rings in the Jersey swamps, fights in shark tanks, and using human bones as makeshift shivs. It’s hilarious, and you barely have time to breathe between the over the top action scenes.

Sure, it’s ridiculous, but it’s funny and gripping. Peter Brnwa is a one of a kind character, and peppers his monologues with medical snippets and historical anecdotes. It’s a blazing fast read and one you won’t soon forget. Read it before Hollywood adapts it next year. Leonardo DiCaprio is set to produce and star- another horrible miscasting for pretty boy Leo. Bearclaw is a tattooed tough guy who’d beat you to death with his severed arm if you chopped it off. I can’t see Leo doing that, even after The Departed. There’s a little two-faced shit in the book he’d be perfect for.

Revolutionary Road

If you haven’t seen a Hollywood drama since the early ’60s, you might be under the impression that in suburbia, everything is sweetness and light, and the rows of identical houses full of ticky tacky are inhabited by the shiny happy people enjoying their Pleasant Valley Sundays. But if you’ve seen The Swimmer, or The Graduate, or American Beauty, you might have an inkling that they are just as miserable as everyone else.

I’m being needlessly harsh on Sam Mendes’s new film Revolutionary Road, based on a groundbreaking novel by Richard Yates, because 46 years later the story is still very powerful but sort of predictable and hackneyed, held up only by the performances of its leads. The opening is excellent- we go from the night they met at a bohemian party in Manhattan and found a spark of passion, to the middle of a marriage in discord; April (Kate Winslet) has just performed in a lackluster play, and her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is taking her home, and making it very clear just what he thought of it. Frank works for an IBM-clone, just a cog in the corporate machine; April raises their two children at home. Both have betrayed their dreams and moved to suburban Connecticut, because that’s what “you’re supposed to do” when you settle down and have kids.
They’re driving each other crazy, so April suggests that they sell the house, take their savings, and move to Paris, where she can support them doing secretarial work while Frank figures out what he wants to do- and isn’t trapped in a mind-numbing office job. They tell their neighbors, who think they’re being silly. The woman who sold them their house, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates, excellent as usual) finds it “whimsical” and is disappointed; she was trying to get them to befriend her troubled son, because they seemed so “grounded.” But of course they can’t break the shackles of conformity, no matter how hard they try, and shatter like rockets they just couldn’t reach escape velocity.

The acting was phenomenal, but for me it always felt like I was watching suburbanites in a clever diorama. At times it felt like a stage play, and other times like a camera in a zoo. One problem for me was that as a fan of the TV show “Mad Men,” I’ve seen this era portrayed in great detail, by excellent actors, with characters similarly bound by the rules of the times. This reminded me of Mendes’s American Beauty, which had hackneyed and pandering concepts uplifted by a few excellent performances. I can’t fault Yates, for he wrote a great story- it’s just not portrayed that well. Their children seem like furniture. Affairs are treated as expected, and we don’t see enough of the dream they lost to see what they’re missing.

I fully expect Kate Winslet to be nominated for the Oscar; not sure if she should win, I haven’t seen Rachel Getting Married yet. She’s fantastic, as she watches her dream die and makes great sacrifice to try to keep it alive. Leo does well, but I’m sorry, he was too boyish for this part. He looks like a mad little boy smashing furniture. Sure, they wanted to get the Titanic twins (and Kathy Bates) back together again, but I don’t think he was the best choice for this part. Dylan Baker (Happiness) is perfect as one of his fellow office drones, though.

It’s one of the better dramas, but flawed. It kept me engaged, and the performances will grip you, but you can see what’s coming. And you’ve seen these dreams crushed before. Rent Mad Men, and maybe read Yates’s book. Sam Mendes needs to stop filming suburbia in this cold manner, when it’s been done better by Todd Field, with the excellent film Little Children.

4 out of 5 petulant frenzies.