This amounts to little more than rumor at this point, but it sure is a good rumor. Apparently a casting list for the next Batman film has been leaked, and The Riddler is listed as a character on the role sheet. In addition to that, it’s been reported that both director Christopher Nolan and Inception‘s Joseph Gordon Leavitt are interesting in the young actor stepping into the role. Gordon-Leavitt is said to be very interested in the part.
This is far from a decided thing and the film is still in the very early stages of development, with Nolan having just finished Inception. But the word about mutual interest between director and actor is a good sign, as Nolan is known for keeping the same actors in his casting bin for multiple films. And I for one would be very interested to see what Gordon-Leavitt could do with the part, which will surely be written on the edgier side (not another hammy Jim Carrey travesty). If there’s one thing Nolan and Co. have made abundantly clear, it’s to never doubt their casting. I made that mistake when I heard about Heath Ledger playing the Joker. I’ll never make it again.
What this does signal is that the Riddler is extremely likely to be a villain in the next film, no matter who plays him. Since Nolan’s Batman film tend to feature two bad guys, that leaves room for one more unknown antagonist. Just another reason to keep following the development of what will surely be another fantastic Batman entry.
Before I begin this review, I have a confession to make.
I am a Cinema Cheerleader.
By that, I do not mean that I gobble up every movie spewed into the marketplace. It means that when I think a film is great…I mean a truly great work of art…I will exhaust myself talking about it and praising it and harping on what makes it so good. It means that I enjoy hailing great films far more than I enjoy deriding bad ones. It’s common in film writing and criticism to take particular pleasure in tearing apart the work of others. This often comes from both a desire to assert one’s own intellectual superiority and, far too often, a need to massage a seething envy beneath the profession of many film writers, many of whom sought another role for themselves in the cinematic landscape before they “settled into” criticism. I love movies, and I love it when a film is great. If it’s not, I’ll note its shortcomings and recommend against it and move on. Simple enough.
There aren’t many great films. In a given year, when hundreds of titles are released in the United States, there might be 6 or 7 great films. Of that number, there may be one or two true masterpieces. My definition of a masterpiece is a film of consummate creative vision, one that could be created by no one else but one filmmaker. It’s a film that will endure the test of time, and most important of all, it’s a film that changes the way in which you perceive your world. These films are truly special, and they often require a degree of foresight to identify when they first come out. Again, in a given year, you may see only one.
That was a mighty long intro, so I’ll get right into it.
Inception is a masterpiece.
It’s a work of such focused, inspired vision and towering creative power that I believe it will quickly sear its place in the American cinematic canon, even if that exact place isn’t clear until years from now. In that regard, it may well hold a similar fate to Blade Runner, a film to which it bears some resemblances and whose meager box office returns Warner Bros. surely hopes to far outdo. But director Christopher Nolan even one-ups Ridley Scott, because as great as Blade Runner is, its greatness ultimately lies in the mind of author Phillip K Dick. Inception is the artistic property of Nolan. He imagined the idea and he developed the film’s universe with remarkable precision and care. He’s created something far too rare in this era of endless sequels and TV-show spinoffs. He’s created something original. Original and stunningly beautiful.
The plot, as you surely know, involved dreams. It revolves around an “extractor” named Cobb (DiCaprio), who along with his team uses a new technology that allows people to create and then inhabit the dreams of others, often with the hope of stealing important ideas from their subconscious without their knowing. But for reasons I won’t spoil here, Cobb must perform an even more daring feat. He must perform “inception,” the planting of an idea in the mind. Sounds simple, right? Far from it. For inception is planting the mental equivalent of a virus, a ravenous creation that can come to define a person’s entire sense of self. This dream-play isn’t just games in a fantasy land. This is an extremely high-stakes gambit, and those stakes become higher in ways both horrific in their implications and constantly surprising in their nature.
Nolan is interested in dreams not as a chance to show off his imagination or to circumvent reality, but as a means of exploring what the human mind is truly capable of when the filters are taken out. He’s probing the deep recesses of our mind because it is there that we find the deep recesses of ourselves, and while he opines that those two worlds exist in nearly equal existential space, perhaps it’s separating the two realms that allows us to keep ourselves, and our souls, intact. Our mind is a vastly powerful place, but also an incredibly dangerous one. When you search the depths for secrets, you will likely find things you don’t want to find, and if you search down too many roads, there’s a good chance you’ll get lost. This is science fiction in the greatest and most relevant sense. True science fiction explores the ways in which our technological steps impact our very humanity. In Inception, we have been given the ability to consciously explore the subconscious parts of ourselves that may, in many instances, be better off buried. It’s a decision for us to make, ideas for us to explore, but that can only be achieved through the narrative journey we undertake. This is explosive science fiction art, assured in its execution and maddeningly yet brilliantly open in its resolution, all in service of opening a gate that we must enter, at great risk not to our physical bodies, but to the infinite rabbit hole of our mind. This will survive among the great science fiction canon, a collection of masterpieces often overlooked or misunderstood by myopic critics and the melodramatic snobbery of the art establishment. It will survive the way 2001 and Blade Runner have survived. And it couldn’t do so if it explored its ideas at the expense of its humanity. How much more human can you get than at the center of the human mind? In discussing art and entertainment, people often separate the “heart” from the “mind,” and Nolan’s career masterstroke has been recognizing that they inhabit the same residence, interacting in the same sphere and constantly threatening each other with destruction.
In his films, Nolan walks a precarious tightrope when it comes to character. On the page, one could fairly call his human creations thinly drawn, and thus the casting of his roles is of paramount importance. And part of Nolan’s brilliance is painting his characters with just enough cracks so that great actors can fill them in and create something amazing, and Nolan is secure enough to give them plenty of room to do so. His scripts don’t give actors blustery monologues or screen-humping Oscar lines (with possible exception of the Joker, but how many people foresaw the killer clown walking off with an Oscar?). But what he does give them to say can be so much more understated and meaningful in the right hands. And finding the right hands is something Nolan and his casting people so incredibly well. They find confident, assured actors willing to embrace the complicated worlds in which they’re placed, and the actors take full advantage of the opportunity.
Thus it would seem a perfect opportunity for Leonardo DiCaprio, a remarkable talent and a mature thespian still exploring the true depths of his abilities. This might be his most challenging role yet, and he responds by turning in one of his greatest performances. It isn’t a performance that will immediately stand out to you. It isn’t marked by hysterical camera-hogging or the old Method flourishes. It’s an incredibly grounded portrayal, filled with simmering guilt and instability barely hidden beneath a very fragile strong-man veneer. DiCaprio specializes in this type of role, but this is different from similar turns in Shutter Island and The Departed. Here he isn’t allowed to merely crack at the seams and look tortured. He must maintain a believable yet precarious composure as he plunges through the depths of his own mind, his anxieties expressed through dazzling dream-world visual cues rather than ostentatious fits and melodramatic preening. He must keep this film grounded in a human reality, or the house of cards will fall. And his success is a real wonder of screen acting that won’t fully be appreciated until repeat viewings. He keeps us there. He keeps us believing, even as reality comes apart.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. The parts outside of DiCaprio’s Cobb aren’t given much meat on the bones and it’s a miracle that the respective players breathe so much life into them. We feel Ellen Page’s wonderment at the power of mental creation. We feel the pain of Cillian Murphy’s tormented billionaire with daddy issues, as hard as that is to make sympathetic. We’re emboldened by the stern professionalism of Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s Arthur, even as we’re unnerved by his thinly veiling fear. These are real people working in an unreal realm, and without them populating Nolan’s meticulously designed subconscious landscape, it wouldn’t mean a thing to us. Perhaps the best of the bunch is the stunning Marion Cotillard, who is fitted with a role so simple and yet so challenging that watching her haunt both our dreams and those of Cobb is a chilling and enthralling experience. These are great actors fitted perfectly to their roles, and Nolan’s team has pulled off another remarkable feat of casting.
There a few greater pleasures in cinema than watching Nolan’s dazzling yet obsessively disciplined visuals. He has such a firm, exact vision and uses only the tools he needs, creating incredibly assured set-pieces marked by a lack of overcooking and an emphasis on real stunt work over CGI. He will use computer visuals to fulfill his greater ambitions, but they are clearly a last resort. Here is a filmmaker in complete command of his effects, perhaps even more so than Steven Spielberg, and the result is a fascinating and thrilling cinematic universe that doesn’t lose us by dipping too far into creative masturbation (a la Tim Burton). Some have complained that Inception’s dreamscapes are too controlled, missing too many of the wild flourishes the mind is capable of when we’re asleep. But that’s exactly the point. These characters are artificially creating an artificially subconscious space in an attempt to blend the real world and the dream world. If they fail at that, then their objective is failed, and so is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement….the melding of worlds and the illustration of how thin the barrier really is between our perceived reality and the reality created through the wondrous powers of our mind. The two can crash into each other with devastating effect, and the consequences could be as severe as the entire loss of self. The visuals support this potent premise rather than overshadow it. Once again, as fantastic and enthralling as his films often are, it’s Nolan’s restrain that proves to be his best friend.
Just like The Dark Knight, the film is a technical marvel. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is astonishing, achieving a deft balance of harsh realism and the disturbingly fantastical. His career-long collaboration with Nolan has been a fruitful one, and cinema fans can sleep easy knowing they’ll likely be together for a long time to come. The editing of David Lee might end up the film’s most underappreciated accomplishment. In a film this complex, the editing has to be top-of-the-line, and what Lee pulls off, especially in the last hour, should be an Oscar front-runner and will be admired by those in the industry for decades. And filling the film, as well as our dreams long after we’ve seen the film, is Hans Zimmer’s spectacular score. Understated and wondrous at times and then horrific and haunting at others, it should also be tabbed as an Oscar front-runner. The decision to mark the deepest layer of the dream world with thunderous horns and martial percussions is a brilliant one, casting the surreal visuals of this forlorn netherworld with a note befitting the opening of the gates of Hell.
And that’s perfectly suited to Nolan’s wondrous search into the treacherous depths of the mind. For if the mind is the true lair of the human soul, then it is deep within that we find the keys to salvation, and the gates of oblivion. Inception takes us deep, and then deeper still. Cherish the ride.
What a mess. This may sound strange, but I believe there may be no director who has suffered more from the explosion in CGI effects over the past decade than Tim Burton. Burton is an artist of wondrous eccentricities and unique vision, but his earlier and greater films used gritty, tangible effects to keep his wild imagination grounded. Now that CGI and huge budgets have exponentially expanded his palette, he’s free to follow every single insane idea that pops into his wonderful brain. And that’s not a good thing. Sometimes, constriction and forced restraint are an artist’s best friends. A Tim Burton with complete visual freedom is likely to produce something like Alice in Wonderland, a gorgeous but criminally messy and overstuffed exercise in artistic self-indulgence.
As wacky and visually inventive as the film is, it doesn’t have that intimacy and personal touch that made works like Edward Scissorhands such irresistible classics. I wasn’t able to view the film in 3D (which I heard didn’t add much), and that took away some of the distraction and let the script come to the surface, revealing the story’s many flaws and the overall undisciplined approach of the project. Almost everyone involved seems to be swinging wildly with no concrete idea of where they’re going. And sadly, that includes Johnny Depp. There were cheers when his casting as the Mad Hatter was announced, and for good reason. But he abandons his often brilliant mix and fearlessness and restraint by delivering an over-the-top performance that is more grating than anything. It’s much the same as his work in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was an interesting failure in much the same manner as this film, for both star and director.
The big budget and fantastic effects have let Burton dream very big, and one can’t overlook the box office results (Alice made over $1 billion worldwide). But unlike, say, a Christopher Nolan, who has the discipline and concentrated force of vision to truly capitalize on outsized resources, Burton thrived in the lower budgets confines of his early career. It forced him to be more creative, to make decisions about what fits into his stories and what’s just the excess overflow of his imagination. Hopefully he decides to make something more personal next time. But given the money raked in by Alice in Wonderland, I sadly doubt it.
The first full-length trailer for David Fincher’s The Social Network has been released. It keeps looking more and more promising, and more than a little bit creepy. Creepy is an excellent angle from which to approach this material, and it seems Aaron Sorkin knew that from the work “go.”
It’s hard to believe that the first Predator film is 23 years old. Since its release in 1987, there’s been one bad sequel, hundreds of TBS “Movies For Guys Who Like Movies” Sunday afternoons, and a tie-in with the nasty creatures from the Alien films. That merger of franchises worked quite well in comic books and video games, but it made for a less than stellar film run, and after the last such failed project it seemed as though the Predator brand was finally dead. Not so, apparently, because 20th Century Fox and director Nimrod Antal have brought us yet another Predator film. And the results are surprisingly solid, if otherwise unspectacular.
Antal has shown himself to be a skilled craftsman of solid if unspectacular genre fare, having helmed the horror flick Vacancy and the heist thriller Armored, and he continues that trend here. We’re launched right into the action as a motley crew of human killers from all corners of the globe land on what turns out to be a strange planet, not to mention an alien hunting preserve. From there the film is almost entirely action. And that’s certainly no a complaint. Antal handles the set pieces with confidence and panache and shows off some interesting compositions that keep the viewer engaged as the cliched genre tropes fly by the screen. He knows exactly what he wants the film to be and executes his project toward that goal successfully. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t expand on some of the interesting ideas that he introduces in the process, which may have lifted his work above the merely solid.
The original Predator banked itself on testosterone-heavy action and stomach-churning violence, but there was always that inherent subtext that probed the disturbing nature of our existence as blood-thirsty hunters for sport. The predator in that film was doing the same thing we do to deer and fowl in our own forests, and in that manner the film forced at least a moment of self-reflection. Predators threatens to expand on that idea further, but it leaves its ideas hanging. It touches on a notion of people sharing the cinematic space with creatures who are monsters in much the same way as themselves. Some of the characters even express a disturbing comfort among these merciless creatures, so similar are their basic violent and predatory instincts. But again, these ideas aren’t explored to a meaningful extent. They’re just thrown out there and then swiftly supplanted by another stock genre action set piece.
I will say that there is one real surprise in a film that has few of them besides its overall nature as a solid and entertaining genre offering. Lawrence Fishburn actually does same great work here with limited screen time, playing against his Morpheus wise-man type as an unhinged and volatile survivor on the alien planet. His time onscreen is the most interesting part of the film, and the other actors can’t match him because they simply aren’t given a whole lot to work with. But they play their parts well and, for the most part, they die well and in style, and isn’t that pretty much what you’re looking for in a Predator movie?
Well, 2010 is now half over, so it’s a good time to take a look back at the best the year had had to offer so far. It hasn’t been a very impressive year on the whole, but there have been a group of fine films released over the last six months, and I’ve picked the 10 best. With Inception looming this month and a promising Fall season on the way, maybe this is just a foundation leading to a great 2010 close.
This surprising vampire noir managed to feel a little fresh in a massively overwrought genre. It created a fascinated world run by a vampire ruling class and managed to effectively explore issues like the pillage of natural resources and race war. A clever sci-fi tilt to the vampire canon.
9. Iron Man 2
While not benefiting from expectations and the out-of-the-blue surprise that helped the first film, this noisier sequel still managed to deliver quality action set pieces and the flair of Robert Downey Jr. that keeps the series feeling alive. Probably out of steam artistically as a franchise, but this entry was worth the return.
8. Get Him To The Greek
Russel Brand gave the audience exactly what they wanted by giving us lots of androgynous rock star Aldous Snow, and Jonah Hill does a more than respectable job as his would-be foil. Relentlessly funny, with a great comedic turn from Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs.
A fearless and fascinating sci-f horror fable that never crosses over into exploitation. Adrian Brody brings a necessary gravitas and intelligence that grounds the film even as events get more and more spectacular, and you’ll rarely see films so unafraid to go where their setups and themes say they should.
6. The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski can still direct the hell out of a thriller. He brings the methodical attention to detail and the quietly unsettling style that made Chinatown so great, and while this latest offering may not be on that level, it’s the work of an established master who knows how to use subtlety and grace to get under your skin.
5. Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The much-anticipated film adaptation of a world-famous Swedish literary trilogy, this twisty and surprising serial killer noir doesn’t all of its intended notes, but it’s a wickedly dark and extremely well-acted antidote to the bland modern serial killer procedural. After Let The Right One In, it seems the land of Bergmann may be on the verge of a second Golden Age.
4. Shutter Island
Martin Scorcese pulls out a dizzying array of filmmaking magic tricks to craft this magnificent psychological horror tale. The pulp constraints of the material prevent the film from joining the ranks of Scorcese’s greatest films, but the director has a ball with the genre, and DiCaprio provides further evidence that he is one of the greatest living actors.
3. How To Train Your Dragon
Dreamworks Animation needed to shot in the arm now that the Shrek franchise is ended, and they scored a big one with this visually beautiful and expertly written dragon fable. The story is both an old one and a refreshingly topical one, as bitter enemies learn that more connects them than separates them. Pixar isn’t the only house telling great stories with computers.
Comic Book cinema played to the very top of the hilt. It paradoxically embraces its hyperviolent content while viciously rubbing its audience’s nose in it, which creates an uncomfortable yet somehow exhilarating rush of a film that doesn’t once lose its momentum. Rising star Aaron Johnson provides the heart and soul, but Chloe Morentz steals the show as the pint-sized murderess Hit Girl.
1. Toy Story 3
There is no better team in cinema than Pixar, the greatest collection of storytellers currently on Earth. They manage to take the usually doomed “second sequel” and use it to expand and reinforce the themes as the previous films, creating a wondrous and occasionally dark fable for all ages that belongs up there with the best the company has to offer. The journey of Woody and Buzz may be over as far as the movies go, but our hearts are warmed knowing that their personal adventures are simply beginning anew. It’s rare that you see such life-affirming art that isn’t spoon-fed. Pure magic as only Pixar can deliver, and thus far the best film of 2010.
Further Midterm Notables
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Splice
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Robin Hood
WORST FILM THUS FAR: Sex and the City 2
BEST DIRECTOR: Martin Scorcese, Shutter Island
BEST ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
BEST ACTRESS: Naomi Rapace, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Note: I have not yet seen Winter’s Bone, which is topping many such midyear lists, but I plan on doing so as soon as it’s released where I live!