Inception: overhyped film remains in dream limbo

Christopher Nolan, “Inception” (2010)

I found this film disappointing despite the ingenious combination of
science fiction with the conventions of an action heist film, based on
the notion that one day it might be possible for strangers to invade
one’s dreams and muck around in there stealing secrets and planting
ideas and impulses that end up defining who you are and your life’s
work. I don’t expect a great deal from Christopher Nolan as a director:
the ideas he has for his movies may be good but their eventual execution
falls far from brilliant even when you allow for conformity with
Hollywood and mainstream audience expectations. I’m sure David Lynch,
Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg among other Hollywood directors would
have made something far more interesting and much wackier with the idea
of a dream-thief and his team implanting a notion into the head of an
heir to a corporate energy empire to force him to break it up. The
result might be messy and confusing for the audience to follow, with
sub-plots that might break off suddenly and remain unresolved in the way
of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Various snide asides and jokes at the
corporate world and about mind surgery would be dropped along key points
in the plot to relieve tension, lighten the mood and enable some
character development. With the idea in Nolan’s hands, everything
becomes part of a cool, glossy, sterile corporate-world veneer of glass
skyscrapers, picturesque historical architecture, marble floors and
people in expensive suits. Scenes of fighting and mayhem shot in a
Kenyan locale look well-ordered and clean with one narrow passage
between buildings strangely free of rubbish, pools of smelly water and
scavenging dogs. Even cities in the First World aren’t that
dental-flossingly clean! An unseen inflexible logic lurks in this world,
allowing nothing to disturb it and pursuing and getting rid of anyone or
anything that does.

In order to properly plant the idea into the victim’s head, the
dream-thief Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo di Caprio) and his companions –
an apt description as one of these people, Ariadne (Ellen Page), is a
novice at dream invasions and needs must have the parameters and
pitfalls of the inception explained to her (so the audience understands
what’s involved) in the way Doctor Who explains his actions to yet
another befuddled female Earthling he’s taken a shine to – find they
have to descend to four levels of dreamscapes, each one dreamt by a
different team member who must stay on that level in order to bring back
his fellows from a deeper level by a device or series of devices they
call the “kicker”. I happen to find it easier to view each dream as
being on a “lower” or “inner” level from the next as though they are
parts of a progressive vertical hierarchy. Each dreamscape runs at a
different pace of time so that the main action bar the kicker on one
level can finish before the team can enter a lower level. Hence we have
constant flipovers during the last hour of “Inception” to a van falling
in slow motion from a bridge to a river below. It’s very curious that
activity on the higher dreamscape level can affect levels lower down but
the effects of activity on the lower levels cannot filter up. Equally
curious is that Cobb’s guilt feelings about his dead wife Mal (Marion
Cotillard) intrude into the various dreamscapes while any subconscious
feelings Ariadne and the other team members might have resolutely stay
away from the dreamscapes.

Along the way, one of Cobb’s companions and instigator cum corporate
sponsor of the heist, Saito (Ken Watanabe), suffers serious injury on
one level which causes him to die on a lower level. This in turn sends
him to dream limbo and risks putting him in a permanent coma in real
life so Cobb diverts into a sub-plot – and another dream loop – to save
Saito. They end up recreating in mirror form a scene from the film’s
opening frames in which an aged Saito faces Cobb over a polished black
table. In these frames Saito asks Cobb if he wants to die old and alone
with regrets – in order to induce him into the inception caper – in the
recreation, it’s Cobb who asks the question of Saito to get him out of
dream limbo and back to reality. This is the climactic scene of the
movie: both Cobb and Saito are faced with a choice to continue dreaming
(and cut themselves off their loved ones in real life) or to return to
reality (and cut themselves off their memories of their loved ones, dead
or alive). I half-expect at this point they realise they’re in “Blade
Runner” so they pull out a Voight-Kampff polygraph test from under the
table to determine their human / replicant status and then exchange
origami unicorns. Instead, the extended denouement that follows becomes
a kind of limbo between the dream world and reality in which all loose
plot ends are apparently tied and the viewers must decide if they’re
watching Cobb in dream limbo or reality.

What impresses me is the conservatism and narrowness of Nolan’s vision:
the dream-thieves are contracted for a job to break up a corporate
monopoly in the long term. This is done mostly for the benefit of Saito
who altruistically includes his fellow corporate competitors as
beneficiaries. Nothing is said about any possible benefits or
disadvantages of this con-job to the planet and its inhabitants. Dom
Cobb has his reasons for accepting the job but the motives of his fellow
dream-travellers (apart from Saito) remain unknown and these people
remain one-dimensional for that. Ariadne initially is repelled but
decides to go to keep an eye on Cobb’s subconscious. The dream-worlds
they enter are banal even by our own Hollywood movie dream standards: an
urban highway chase scene in one dream, an attack on a fortress (which
turns out to be a hospital) in snowy country in another, a swish 5-star
hotel in a third. We may share the same culture so our dreams will often
be very similar in background scenery and symbols, no matter how kitschy
and trite they are, but the links and inter-actions among those symbols
and their meaning or significance have creative potential for something
original, something subversive, and become very personal. In the dreams
that feature in this movie, Nolan doesn’t attempt even in a small way to
play around with film genres like action film, science fiction film,
film noir or spy films that might extend their creative potential or
comment on the nature of making movies. (The aforementioned scenes
involving Cobb and Saito may themselves comment on linear plot
narrative.) For whichever genre appears in “Inception”, its conventions
are studiously obeyed. Irony and playfulness are replaced by explosions,
constant flipping among dream narratives and go-go-go action which
demands more energy than skill from the actors involved.

The result renders “Inception” as a smooth and efficient film with
little zest and soul. The film slots into a category along with James
Cameron’s “Avatar”, Cronenberg’s “eXisteNZ”, Gabriele Salvatores’s
“Nirvana” and possibly even Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (which
I’ve not seen) among others. In these films, characters take on other
identities and go into other “worlds” to interact with inhabitants of
those places: there is often a hidden agenda behind the purported
reasons for doing so. It may be cavalier or depressing to some that I
should treat the world of dreams as no different from virtual reality
worlds or brain / technology interfacing but other reviews of
“Inception” have noted the similarities between the dreamscape world and
computer games. This may have been part of Nolan’s intention when he
conceived the idea for the movie. In its drive to attract teenage and
young adult audiences, at home with the idea of blurred identities and
multiple fractured narratives that have an inner logic, Hollywood
undoubtedly will invest more money in directors and writers who can
deliver a similar style of film as “Inception” and its kind. If these
films can give us memorable characters and something challenging and
subversive about the way we see the world, that would be a bonus but
such bonuses are very rare in the rapacious and amoral corporate world
“Inception” seems to aspire to.

Contact: Official “Inception” movie website,
http://inceptionmovie.warnerbros.com/

The Runaways: Cherie Bomb turns out to be a fizzler

This homage to the 1970s all-female hard rock band The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways, Apparition / Sony Pictures Entertainment 2010) had a lot of advance publicity due in part to the casting of US child stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as two of the band’s members, lead singer Cherie Currie and rhythm guitarist Joan Jett respectively. Internet and print reviews of the movie ranged from high praise to extreme dismissiveness so I was curious to see what the fuss was about. My interest isn’t entirely academic as I had heard of The Runaways in my childhood way back when thirty years ago and later on was glad to hear that Joan Jett and another former member, lead guitarist Lita Ford, had carved out their own successful solo careers in different music genres.

Anyway as it turns out, some of the praise and some of the criticism are justified: the acting from the two female leads Fanning and Stewart and from Michael Shannon who plays the sleazebucket manager Kim Fowley is good with Stewart all but disappearing in Jett with Jett’s swagger, mannerisms and way of speaking; but the narrative and concept of the movie are very confused and don’t seem to be well thought or worked out at all. Liberties must have been taken with the movie’s narrative as though to force it into the Hollywood rock’n’roll plot stereotype of an innocent stumbling into becoming a rock star and being seduced by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, suffering its consequences, crashing out and finding rebirth and redemption in something very different. (The plot of the movie Rockstar which starred Mark Wahlberg as a fictional pretender who becomes the lead singer of the heavy metal band he idolises is of this type.) I can understand the film’s focus on Currie and Jett to the extent that the other band members become mere walking wallpaper as it is mostly based on Currie’s autobiography Neon Angels: A Memoir of a Runaway and the film-makers didn’t get full permission from other former Runaways members to include their accounts – the bass player in the movie is a fictional construct of several bassists who played for the band – but I’d have thought that The Runaways’ history, short as it was, would have had enough drama and tragedy for a movie that could have said something significant about the period when music moved from glam rock to punk and new wave, and about how the music industry and the media at the time exploited bands and musicians for celebrity and scandal, sometimes damaging the artists along the way, and whether much has changed in the commercial music industry since that time.

If you know nothing about The Runaways’ history, you’d do better reading Currie’s autobiography or seeing Edgeplay: A Film about The Runaways, the documentary by Victory Tischler-Blue who was one of many bassists the band chewed through during its existence, than to rely on the movie: it’s a little slow on getting Jett and drummer Sandy West together, then the history lesson picks up whiz-bang speed after Currie joins and all of a sudden the band is touring Japan. Somewhere in between Currie’s audition and the girls’ adventures in Japan, they had to squeeze in a tour of the United States, a tour of the UK and recording two albums and all this must have flashed by me in the time my eyes blinked. After Currie quits the band during recording sessions for the third album, all further mention of The Runaways disappears and it’s now just Currie and Jett without her band going their separate ways. Jett cleans up her life and finds her niche in music while Currie ends up a bored shop assistant waiting for an acting break. Some redemption.

Perhaps if the movie had focussed more on Jett as the primary character than on Currie, we might have had a stronger and more complete story of The Runaways’ rise and fall. As it is, the movie tells us nothing about Jett’s  background and her motivations and reasons for forming an all-girl band; we only know from Stewart’s portrayal that she hungers for acceptance but on her own terms and that she is driven by forces she may not understand. The role could easily have been one-dimensional with Jett nothing more than a tough-talking wannabe rocker so it’s to Stewart’s credit that she makes Jett at least look as if she has thoughts and feelings she has trouble expressing. As Jett in real life stayed with The Runaways to the end, having Jett as its main focus would push the movie through the band’s dumping of manager Fowley and the disputes over musical direction that eventually led to The Runaways’ break-up; but I guess all these incidents wouldn’t have made for “compelling” viewing. At least though we would have had a “happy” ending with Jett getting the acceptance she craves in the way she wants and can control. Fanning as Currie emphasises the singer’s fragility but not much of the sassy sex-kitten insolence Currie must have had to wear the corset and suspenders that became her trademark stage costume long before Madonna and her ilk had the idea of wearing their underwear as overwear.

Mention should be made of the minor actors Scout Taylor Compton who does a competent job as Lita Ford in her few scenes – what she does hardly flatters Ford but she makes her presence felt as a guitarist and a forceful personality – and first-time actress Riley Keough who as Cherie Currie’s sister must cope with their parents’ break-up and divorce, their father’s alcoholic depression and the tedium of working in a fast-food joint while envying Cherie’s seemingly good fortune. Keough underplays her role and holds up well in scenes that are heavy in sibling jealousy and emotional tension and turmoil; she has good
potential as an actress if she chooses her roles wisely and I wish her better luck in this regard than what her grandfather Elvis Presley had as an actor.

As for the music, there’s not much of The Runaways’ original material featured here with only ‘Cherry Bomb’ performed in full by the actors during the Japanese episode and snippets of ‘Queens of Noise’ and ‘I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are’ appearing elsewhere. Other musicians of the period (Suzy Quatro, Gary Glitter, Iggy Pop among others) can be heard which strikes me as a little strange: why do so many biopics about bands feature everybody else’s music but not much music of the band that is the subject of the biopic?

The Runaways might not have been a very good band or as influential on later generations of female musicians and performers as the hype surrounding the movie makes them out to be but they deserve a better movie treatment than what director and screenplay writer Floria Sigismondi has given them here. Admittedly this is Sigismondi’s first effort as a movie director and writer after having directed music videos so I presume she’s learning a lot in leaps and bounds the hard way: making mistakes, overlooking things and being told so endlessly by critics. The visual aspect is good with the choice of a grainy film that makes bright colours slightly acid and dark colours murky and through these effects you get some idea of the surreal world Fowley plunges the girls into. These days it seems that there are so many people moving from making music videos into directing movies that such a career move is becoming the standard way of getting into the movie-making business. Unfortunately a lot of the filming techniques and methods that work in music videos don’t always work quite so well in movies, especially in movies made for mass  entertainment: these still need a strong narrative and memorable characters.

Don’t say you weren’t warned: It might get loud

it-might-get-loud-poster
Here’s the recipe: take three rock guitarists, each representative of his generation of rock musicians, put them together in a huge warehouse space with their instruments and, after they’ve talked a bit and become friendly, get them to play three pieces of music (each piece having been composed by each musician) together. Around this backbone, conduct and film separate interviews with the guys about their backgrounds, their influences, why and how they decided on their careers as guitarists, and what their creative processes are; put in archival footage of their concerts and some animations; revisit some significant sites (for the musicians) with them; and make a film (It Might Get Loud, Sony Pictures Classics) out of all this. The result is sometimes rich in music history, particularly when the guitarists under the spotlight happen to be Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs), but unfortunately also very jumpy, going from one musician to another just when the first guy finishes talking about a particular career impasse or crisis and is about to say how he resolved it if he did; and seems a bit superficial, not giving viewers unfamiliar with any of these guys much more than a sketchy idea of the long and winding roads each man took to be what he is now. Perhaps the format chosen is inadequate: might the whole thing have worked better if each guitarist had a half-hour episode devoted to his career and musical development and then in the fourth episode they got together to talk, compare and swap ideas and play one another’s songs? Well, perhaps not, because when these guys do meet, they end up being too nice to each other, too respectful and deferential, the Edge in particular grim-faced with self-consciousness about how his skills as a songwriter and musician stack up against those of Page and White who readily bond together, at least when they are playing each other’s songs, and the viewer gets no sense of friendships being made or future possible collaborations mooted.

As you’d expect, interesting moments abound: most interesting for me is seeing Jack White build a guitar from a slab of wood, a glass bottle, a wire and an electric pick-up, then plug the whole thing into an amplifier, get an awesome roar out of it and proclaim “Who needs an expensive guitar?” or words to that effect. Contrast this with scenes of The Edge worrying over his layers of technology that include a laptop and a battery of FX pedals to bolster his melodies and riffs, some of which turn out to be pretty insubstantial when he turns off all his equipment and strums his guitar. In one moment, The Edge demolishes a lot of the hype about U2’s music – not a good scene to watch if you’re a U2 fan. The Edge is revealed as a technology-obsessed control-freak geek who relies on his machines to compensate for what he perceives as inadequate songwriting and technical skills: he confesses that when he was much younger he wasn’t sure if he could write original material but the film-makers don’t press him on how he overcame his doubts. He reveals a lack of insight and reflection when he slags off the generation of rock musicians who came of age during the late 1960s / early ’70s for arrogant and self-indulgent behaviour but seems oblivious to U2’s own liking for massive and elaborate stage sets where Bono can run around and relish the audience’s adulation. Not to mention of course, Bono’s humanitarian posturing and U2’s moving their tax base to Netherlands after the Irish government reformed its tax laws to be more equitable and force high earners to pay more tax.

Jack White turns out to be the most interesting character in a way, rising from childhood poverty in south Detroit and a job in an upholstery shop to pursue a career in which he eschews technology and forces himself into challenging and sometimes hilarious and painful situations to keep his creativity and songwriting skills sharp. As a result along the way he creates an amplified harmonica gadget that happens to fit into his guitar almost by accident. Jimmy Page plays the affable cultured English gentleman who perhaps lives too much in the past – this may be due to the film-makers’ interview approach which concentrates on his past glories but not much on his current work – and who displays a maniacal glee when sorting through his alarmingly well-ordered and extremely neat record collection (I can already hear the jaws of The Wire readers hitting the ground and shattering) and doing slide air guitar while an old vinyl single plays on the gramophone. Free ticket to next year’s world championships in Finland to that man! He happily leads the film-makers around Headley Grange where Led Zeppelin recorded their famous third and fourth albums and explains how the massive drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks” was captured by placing microphones around stairwells, off bannisters and in areas surrounding the room where John Bonham was playing his drums. Apart from this, there’s really not a lot of information about the processes each guitarist goes through in writing songs – to be fair, White does compose an entire song for the film-makers but is wordless the whole time and Page seems to regard explaining such processes as a professional trade secret – and at the end of the film, we are still in the dark about how three individuals approach songwriting and composing riffs and melodies.

As a homage to three guitarists, the film is entertaining though the constant jumps from one musician to another can be annoying and we get little sense of purpose or progression in each musician’s career. The film-makers don’t appear to challenge their subjects much or pursue a line of enquiry: for example, Page talks about an early career crisis when he realises his work as a session musician hit a dead end but the film then cuts away to someone else. Later on Page is shown performing with the Yardbirds so we have to make our own assumptions about they presumably saved his career. Some reviews of the film I have seen describe it as boring and I can see that the fragmented nature of the filming can encourage boredom because any interesting narrative trails that develop are lost or not maintained.

Unintentionally perhaps the film makes the case that having loads of technology or impressive playing skills is no substitute for imagination and finding yourself in situations that either test your limits or present songwriting, playing and recording problems. Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether throwing the three musicians together in a staged set-up will yield any interesting team-ups in future though in the end credits they did have a good time mucking around with Page’s theremin. Something’s bound to come out of that – and I hope it will get loud!