Inception | Agora
Cinema reviews for July 22: mind-bending masterpiece, religious epic
The Matrix meets Citizen Kane. Inception is a masterpiece, brilliant and complex, endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking and profound, a rare big-budget summer blockbuster that actually delivers something entirely original. It´s been so lauded elsewhere that it almost feels perfunctory to do so here; the biggest compliment I can give to the film is that I wanted to see it again immediately after it had ended, something this jaded moviegoer hasn´t felt since I was a different person watching Mulholland Dr. or Fight Club.
And Inception really does need to be seen more than once. It´s such a staggeringly dense and intricate film that it´s amazing it´s even coherent; as director, Christopher Nolan deserves no end of praise for pushing it all through at a breakneck speed and managing to deliver something that can still be massively entertaining even after we have given up hope of comprehending it all. The initial viewing is overwhelming: we don´t have enough time to take in the flavor - the characters, the dreamscapes, the subtleties - while trying to keep up with all the plot.
Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, an ‘extractor´ who specializes in breaking into people´s dreams and retrieving secretive - and highly valuable - information. At the start of the film, he´s inside the head of Saito (Ken Watanabe), unsuccessfully attempting to steal his secrets. But it´s a successful audition, and Saito makes Cobb an offer he can´t refuse: in exchange for the next job, Saito will make Cobb´s legal problems go away, and allow for a return to the US where he can return to his two children.
That next job is ‘inception´: Saito wants Cobb to implant an original idea inside of a corporate rival´s head, which would lead to the breakup of a competing corporation. Saito´s motives are initially vague, then don´t seem quite right; but hey, Cobb couldn´t get to the bottom of Saito when he was inside his head. The man still has his secrets.
Inception cannot be done, says Cobb´s right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but the benefits are too good to pass up. So they gather the perfect team to prepare for their entry into the mind of the corporate rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy): there´s forger Eames (Bronson´s Tom Hardy), who can impersonate others while inside dreams; chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who will provide the chemicals to keep the dreamers under; and architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), who will design the dream world, and also happens to stumble upon Cobb´s personal issues involving wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who shows up in the dream worlds as Cobb´s subconscious, antagonistic projection. Ariadne also serves as a convenient (and much-needed) excuse for exposition, as Cobb shows her the ropes.
The experience of watching Inception is hard to describe; at one point we´re watching dreams inside of dreams inside of dreams, following what happens in one dream and how it affects the others. It´s like a game of 3D Checkers. Nolan never takes the easy way out, which would be to keep the audience in the dark about what is and what isn´t a dream. Instead, he gives us all the necessary information and challenges us to keep up with it all. As a writer here, Nolan has delivered a beautifully structured script that operates at the same level as a Chinatown.
Detractors have criticized Inception for its icy tone, but at the heart of the film is a surprisingly resonant emotional core surrounding not just Cobb and Mal, but also Fischer (whose storyline brings the film part of its Citizen Kane feel). DiCaprio is good but Murphy and Cotillard are excellent, and help to balance out all the coolness. Supporting cast is superb right down the line, with each character paid specific attention to despite limited screen time.
Action set pieces, like the zero gravity hotel scene that features prominently in promotional material, are quite wonderfully pulled off but by no means front and center. Music by Hans Zimmer, a low rumbling, reverberating Phillip Glass nightmare, drives the 2.5 hour film - which feels much shorter - through its conclusion. One nitpick: that final shot is ambiguous perfection, but won´t Cobb find out the truth in a few minutes?
Nolan has yet to make a bad film, from his fascinating debut Following, through the independent smash Memento, up to increasingly larger-budgeted projects: the English-language Insomnia remake, The Prestige, and his two Batman movies. He´s working at high-budget level few directors before him have enjoyed (Spielberg, maybe), playing in a different sandbox than any other auteur, and, incredibly, achieving a consistent level of success. Inception is his best film, and one of my favorite movies in years.
Note: the sound mix in the film, while otherwies fine, appears to have a specific problem that has resulted in dialogue that is occasionally muffled and difficult to understand. I´d otherwise assume this to be an isolated problem at my screening hall, but reports of similar issues have been widespread.
Christians offend pagan ideals. Pagans slaughter Christians. Christians retaliate, overtake and eradicate pagan culture. Jews offend Christian ideals. Christians slaughter Jews. Jews retaliate. This is about the extent of Agora, from director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside), but you could easily extrapolate a couple thousand years, throw in some more religions, and get to the state of things in today´s world.
Agora is set in Alexandria at the end of the fourth century A.D., when Christianity overtook other religions to become the dominant force in the region. The film is a passionate epic that, perhaps, takes on a more ambitious worldview than Amenábar can accommodate for. But it is fascinating on a number of levels, including its portrayal of religious fundamentalism and the evolution of society. How did we come so far, the director seems to be saying, with religion oppressing us so violently? Or have we come far at all?
At the center of Agora is the philosopher, teacher, and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), who is currently struggling to understand the orbit of the Earth around the sun. Nevermind the fact that the Christians currently believe the sun orbits a flat earth. Her father is Theon (Michael Lonsdale), who orders retaliation against the rising Christian presence in Alexandria after street mobs offend religious ideals.
Even after her culture is decimated, Hypatia stays true to herself; an admitted atheist, she believes only in the religion of philosophy. What she doesn´t seem to realize is that whether she is right or wrong, despite the greater truths that science and philosophy can uncover, the path of mainstream society will always be dictated by the mob with power.
Three men play key roles in her life. There´s Synesius (Rupert Evans), a Christian student who admires Hypatia but remains devoted to his religion. Orestes (Oscar Isaac) declares his love for Hypatia and is rejected; he converts to Christianity for political gain but lacks true faith. And then there´s the slave Davus (Max Minghella), who converts for freedom but secretly desires Hypatia and cannot reconcile this with religion. All three actors are memorable here, especially Minghella, who rarely speaks but has incredible screen presence during his character´s plight.
If there´s one flaw in Agora, it´s the attempt to tell two distinctly separate and equally epic stories in a single narrative. At once we´re fed the intimate story of Hypatia, with grandiose diversions to the cosmos, alongside the political and religious struggle in ancient Alexandria, which can feel simultaneously more and less important. It´s an interesting concept, but the pacing of the film suffers as we shift from one viewpoint to the other.
The depiction of Christians in the film is none-too-subtle but startlingly effective; ragged and bearded, with dark skin, features, and clothing, they bear an explicit parallel to the depiction of Islamic Fundamentalists (the current go-to villains) in Hollywood. The pagans, in contrast, are clean-cut and dressed in traditional Roman (Gladiator-era) garb. Jews are barely glimpsed but fit the generic hook-nosed profile.
Unsurprisingly, the film has only received an extremely limited release in the US (exclusively in NY and LA). It´s bound to ruffle the feathers of not only Christians, but followers of any and all religions, which Amenábar and co-writer Mateo Gil have lumped together and branded as an ultimate evil. Dramatically, it´s not as effective a technique as what was used in Ridley Scott´s epic Kingdom of Heaven, which portrayed similar events without taking sides. But it´s sure to inspire some interesting discussions.
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