Christopher Nolan has always been something of a mad-scientist filmmaker mixing together seemingly incongruous elements from different genres to create dazzling concoctions like Memento The Prestige Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. He continues his genre-splicing tradition with his ambitious new opus Inception an engrossing head-trip that might be labeled an existential sci-fi heist flick. But that would be oversimplifying things.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb a professional thief who specializes in swiping not cars or diamonds or paintings but intellectual property. What sets Dom apart from the typical Chinese hacker and what makes his services so appealing to his powerful corporate clients is his expertise in “extraction ” a process whereby he utilizes a cutting-edge process known as “shared dreaming” to enter the mind of the mark while he or she is sleeping and steals information directly from their subconscious. (The nuts and bolts of “shared dreaming” technology aren’t ever explained and only obliquely referred to as an innovation of the U.S. military.)
Dom is a reluctant criminal a former academic forced underground after authorities unfairly pegged him for the murder of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). Weary of his itinerant fugitive lifestyle and longing to be reunited Stateside with his two young children he agrees to take on a dangerous new assignment — his One Last Job in heist film parlance — from an energy mogul named Saito (Ken Watanabe) who pledges to clear his name (in the movie world fugitive suspects can be exonerated with a simple phone call from a CEO) if he can convince the heir of a rival energy conglomerate Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to dissolve his ailing father’s empire after the old man passes on.
The danger of the new job lies in a key detail that distinguishes it from previous ones: Instead of extracting an idea from Fischer’s brain Dom will need to implant one — a significantly riskier and more complicated process dubbed ... wait for it ... “inception.” To pull it off Dom and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) assemble a crew consisting of the best and brightest in the shared dreaming field.
As you might have gathered Inception’s waking life/dreaming life construct is a complicated one and fraught with all sorts of weighty existential implications. To make it all work Nolan must devote the vast majority of the film’s dialogue to simply laying out the various rules and caveats: dreamers are given a cocktail of sedatives to maximize REM sleep; when they die in a dream they awake in real life; if they don’t die they can be awakened with a “kick ” which ranges in intensity from a classical music melody to a punch in the face; each dreamer carries a “totem ” a sort of personalized cogito ergo sum device to help them distinguish between reality and dream in times of doubt; and so on.
One of Nolan’s more admirable traits is that his films no matter how fantastical they might get are always anchored in a certain logic with a premium placed on scientific accuracy. If this were an Ocean's movie Soderbergh would have glossed over the above in a dizzyingly hip montage set to a swingin' Elvis dance remix. But for Nolan the details are essential. Which might make great fodder for fanboy forums but it leaves precious little room for other important narrative tasks such as developing the supporting characters who unlike Inception’s subject matter are uncomplicated and thinly drawn. (In perhaps a cheeky nod to this fact Ellen Page’s character the crew's rookie member chooses a chess pawn as her totem.)
Inception’s avalanche of information (at one point juxtaposed with an actual avalanche for irony’s sake) becomes so intense you almost expect the film to simply seize up a giant spinning hourglass appearing on the frozen screen as Nolan’s relentless download finally overwhelms our ability to process it all in real-time. Tasked with pondering both the dramatic and philosophical ramifications of every action our grasp of the plot grows ever tenuous making it increasingly difficult to distinguish between events occurring in the past or present between characters real and imagined between heroes and villains.
If there are any villains. Saito and Fischer the scheming corporate titans whose rivalry catalyzes Inception’s storyline both gradually emerge as sympathetic characters. A simulacrum of Dom’s deceased wife pops up at inconvenient moments to sabotage his efforts as do a phalanx of anonymous goons spawned by one character’s subconscious but neither feel like genuine antagonists. As such the film’s blistering climax loses much of its impact. The explosions and gun battles and zero-gravity fist-fights are all amazing truly but it’s unclear what the point is to all of them. Inception though always riveting isn't always comprehensible.
I say "creepy" because Untraceable’s theory could actually be a reality. The possibility of a tech-savvy psycho setting up a Web site that displays graphic murders could happen with the fate of each of the tormented captives left in the hands of the public: The more hits the site gets the faster the victims die--and in the case of Untraceable die in very gruesome ways. Of course Untraceable also gives us a peek at the good guys--the FBI division that is dedicated to investigating and prosecuting cybercriminals. Special Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is one such Internet expert who along with her co-worker (Colin Hanks) is stymied by KillWithMe.com’s untraceablity. But soon the movie turns predictable as the cat-and-mouse game gets personal and Marsh must race against the clock to stop the madman. Lane has certainly looked better in her past movies. For obvious effect they’ve made Agent Marsh rather worn-down with dark circles under her eyes and very little makeup as she sits in front of the computer hunting the bad guys all night on the late shift. The fact that she’s also a widow having lost her cop husband to the job and caregiver to her young daughter doesn’t help the woman get anymore rest. Then when the crap starts hitting the fan and people close to Marsh get hurt the actress really shows the pain on her already haggard face. Marsh even admits “I do a lot of things well but I don’t lose people well.” It’s a standard tough-FBI-agent role and Lane is very capable at it. Supporting her is Hanks (Orange County) as the resident comic relief (what little of it there is) as well as Billy Burke (Fracture) the local cop trying to help Marsh catch the psycho Internet killer. As for the killer himself the actor who portrays him (and I won’t give it away) is very effective in the role. There are a couple of other things Untraceable has going for it besides the chilling premise: director Gregory Hoblit who knows his way around a crime thriller having directed gems such as Primal Fear and Fracture and the dank Portland Oregon locale. Hoblit creates just the right amount of tension and dread as the clock ticks down and the race nears its end but something about an overcast rainy environ just lends itself to more doom and gloom doesn’t it? Of course there are also the torture scenes which add a certain level of Hostel-like horror. What Untraceable lacks is a compelling narrative. The bevy of writers involved (never the best of signs) tend to throw in too many conventional thriller plot points--like the red herrings on who the killer is before he’s revealed and explaining why the killer is doing what he’s doing. All these things dilute the film’s initial potential. Still let’s just hope this doesn’t spawn real-life copycats.
As a legendary Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) was all heart and no regret. But it all comes undone in the span of one night when he goes out to the menacing seas with his crew to make a rescue and he is the sole survivor. Following that fateful night he’s ordered to teach at “A” School--a demotion for a man of his stature and seniority--an elite training program that helps turn the best recruits into the best Rescue Swimmers. Randall teaches the cocky students the only way he knows how and his tough tough love is initially met with skepticism by his fellow trainers who think of him as a has-been. But one student in particular Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) catches his eye and draws his ire. Fischer is cocky hotheaded and highly skilled--just the right pedigree to make a great Rescue Swimmer and a lot like Randall was at his age. Randall rides him extra-hard while Fischer only hopes to one day be in the same boat as his mentor. Be careful what you wish for Jake! Costner's always been an acquired taste--sometimes a downright noxious one on first bite--but there's no denying he slides right in here. Roles that feature him as the aging provider of wisdom are now his true calling and the sooner he accepts it the better. And even still Costner gets to flex his action muscle a bit. As for Kutcher the only thing he shares in common with Costner is the last two letters of his last name--as actors these guys are each other’s antitheses! And in a weird way they strike a nice chemistry because of it one that is borderline exciting to watch. As a standalone actor in The Guardian Kutcher is a bit misplaced and seems to know it. He nails the physicality of the role but while the character's attitude and brashness befit Kutcher the peak dramatic scenes with Costner leave something to be desired. A pleasantly surprising turn from relative unknown Melissa Sagemiller (The Clearing) as Kutcher's girl toy and reliable supporting performances from Sela Ward and Neal McDonough round out the cast. Director Andrew Davis' proximity to his career peak The Fugitive cannot be measured in time: He's a lot further away from the mega-hit than a mere 13 years. But in Hollywood if you have a Fugitive under your belt you'll never run out of chances to replicate it. That's the current juncture for Davis--one last shot at Fugitive glory...till his next last shot. It's hard to say what The Guardian will do at the box office but Davis' stodgy direction doesn't necessarily help its chances. The movie can be boiled down to awful pacing: the first and last 15 minutes are high-octane action and everything in between is low-octane Top Gun (the non-action scenes!). That blame belongs to Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff. But only Davis can shoulder the other flaws such as a single scene of dubious camerawork--filmed to look like handheld-montage style completely deviating from the movie's context--and the special effects during the somewhat cheesy action sequences which may remind you of a theme-park tour during which you learn how they filmed a boat scene...in the '80s!
September 16, 2005 5:05am EST
The socially inept Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon) is a workaholic doctor who never leaves the hospital. Her married sister Abby (Dina Waters) tries in vain to set up with a good man to no avail. But fate is about to intervene. On her way home from a long shift Elizabeth gets into a head-on collision with a semi-truck and suddenly the lines between life and death are blurred. Jumping forward we meet David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) a guy wallowing in self-pity from the death of his wife two years earlier who to find some solitude moves into a fabulous furnished apartment. What he doesn't know is the previous tenant hasn't left not really. That's right it was Elizabeth's apartment and for whatever reason (seriously they don't entirely explain it) Elizabeth--or her spirit I guess--hasn't grasped the idea that she is in well limbo. Only David can see her of course as she yells at him for leaving sweat rings on the coffee table but Elizabeth eventually grows on him. She elicits his help in finding out what happened to her and with a little help from the eccentric Darryl (Jon Heder) a bookstore employee who has the gift for sensing spirits David and Elizabeth find that heaven and earth are not really that far apart.
As our romantic pair Witherspoon and Ruffalo do an adequate job adhering to the staid romantic comedy formula. Witherspoon is one of the more consistent comedic actresses these days and has the sweet but controlling ingénue routine down to a science. But it may be time for her to take a break from the standard fare and head back to the indies getting down and dirty like she did in Election. Ruffalo does a pretty impressive job for his second time as the romantic lead. As he did with 13 Going on 30 Ruffalo at least tries to add some quirky twists to a boring character. Still he should also probably stick to showcasing his dramatic acting talent in cool indies much like he did in You Can Count on Me. It's Heaven's side characters who have all the fun. Waters (The Haunted Mansion) does a nice turn as the caring sister who's own hectic life as a mother of two rambunctious kids always seems to interfere with what she's doing. Donal Logue (TV's Grounded For Life) as David's therapist best friend too has a fun time yuking it up. But the real standout in an otherwise dull universe is Napoleon Dynamite himself Jon Heder in his second feature film. He's still a geek but at least this time he's a mystical one who knows a thing or two about wandering spirits. Of course he also gets the best lines: "I'm 99.9 percent parched here. I need a cola." I'm going to use that one from now on.
As the director of the satirical Mean Girls and the cutesy Freaky Friday Mark Waters may be out of his element with an out and out romantic comedy. The initial idea about a women whose stuck in the spirit world until she finds the true love she never sought after in life is somewhat intriguing. But rather than play with that the film just ends up your standard romantic comedy while also stealing from other films such as Ghost and The Sixth Sense. Just Like Heaven also has some serious logistical flaws. For example seeing how Elizabeth is supposed to be a ghost--that she can't touch anything tangible and can walk through walls tables and just about anything else--she is later seen laying on top of a table. It doesn't make sense as to how she can walk through it at one moment and be on it the next. And the fact you are paying attention to these inconsistencies means you just aren't caring that much about the rest of the film.