Inception * * * *

Genre: Science Fiction / Thriller

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cilian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine

Running Length: 148 minutes

Synopsis: The less one knows about the plot of Inception, the better – so I will be brief. Set in a world when humans are able to enter the dreams of others, information that has been hidden away in the mind is no longer safe from prying hands. These thieves of dreams are known as “extractors”, and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is one of the best in the field. However, when corporate magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe) contacts Cobb and partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he is not looking for extraction but “inception” – the planting of an idea in one’s head. Cobb is convinced to take on the job, and has to assemble a motley crew, each fulfilling a specific purpose, to try to successfully attempt inception.

Review: Can Christopher Nolan do no wrong? First noticed for the exceptional mind bender that was Memento, Nolan has moved on to create two of the best superhero movies of all time (namely Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), and now Inception – his 10-year old project – has finally made it to the big screens. I’m happy to say that Inception continues Nolan’s winning streak, and it’s very simply the best live-action film I’ve seen this year.

Inception has an amazingly detailed story, working on multiple levels at one go, augmented by exceptional action sequences, good performances from its leads, some stunning camerawork and stuntwork, a great score and has been edited faultlessly. Seems like a lot of superlatives in one sentence, but Inception really manages to tick off almost every check box – to say that it’s an instant classic isn’t an overstatement.

Inception is a film that demands your undivided attention – it’s a long movie (almost two and a half hours), and the storyline is so complex that even a quick toilet break may mean a gap in comprehension. Make no mistake, this is a film that stands up to repeat viewings, and practically demands it. The concept may not be very new – there are shades of The Matrix, Dark City, Minority Report and more in Inception, but much like the best of these films, Inception presents it in a new light. The multi-layered narrative structure – at one point in the movie, four narrative layers were unfolding at the same time – could have been extremely confusing, but Nolan manages to weave the narratives together seamlessly, augmented by some excellent editing, and surrounds it with a watertight internal logic that helps with audience immersion.

Intellectual stimulation aside, Inception is also very accomplished as an action movie. A number of action set pieces are very thrilling and high-octane, rivaling any big budget actioner out there for adrenaline kicks. Visual effects do not overpower the raw action, and it’s very encouraging to note that Nolan had used physical sets in a fair number of scenes instead of relying solely on green screen wizadry. One particularly impressive scene involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt careening through a hotel corridor with varying levels of gravity, and it’s an extremely well-choreographed action sequence that truly excites the mind. This level of accomplishment comes as no surprise, since Nolan has managed to put together equally impressive action set pieces in the Batman movies. This is, to use a clichéd but apt phrase, truly a thinking man’s action movie. 

This is Leonardo DiCaprio’s second outing in a psychological thriller this year, the first being Scorsese’s Shutter Island. His performance here is more subdued and not quite so over the top (read: less “crazy eyes”) than in Shutter Island, which makes Cobb a fair bit more believable as a character and serves as a good emotional anchor in the film. Ellen Page is saddled with the unenviable task of delivering almost all the expository lines in the film, but still manages to do a pretty decent job as Cobb’s muse (of sorts). Amongst the rest of the strong supporting cast, Marion Cotillard’s performance is the standout – although she appears in a mere handful of scenes, they are impactful and memorable, and Mal easily becomes a central character despite having the least screen time.  

Inception bucks the trend of remakes, retreads, sequels and mindless action films that have overwhelmingly populated cinemas in recent years, and is a fresh, new piece of cinema that excites the senses and the mind. With the commercial success of the Batman movies, Nolan could have churned out cookie-cutter action films with guaranteed box office returns, but with Inception it’s clear he was willing to make a gamble for a project that’s close to his heart. Inception succeeds on many levels and is testament to Nolan’s talent, and is the first live-action film this year that I can recommend to any moviegoer without any reservation.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)


Despicable Me * * *

Genre: Animation

Directors: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin

Writers: Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio based on a story by Sergio Pablos

Voice Cast: Steve Carrell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: Gru (Steve Carrell) has prided himself on being a supervillain, but when someone else steals the Great Pyramid of Giza, Gru knows it's time to step it up a notch. His new plan – to steal the moon and hold it ransom – can only be accomplished with a Shrink Ray, but getting his hands on one can be very tough when he's pitting himself against Vector (Jason Segel), the new villain on the block. Gru chances upon an unconventional solution of adopting three orphan girls – Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) – who will then become his "in" to infiltrating Vector's fortress. What Gru didn't count on, of course, was that his paternal instinct would be brought to the forefront when he is with the three girls. Superbad? Or Superdad?

Review:  Despicable Me bears more than a passing resemblance to the Shrek franchise – both movies establish an anti-hero as a central character, and both make copious use of humour and a bevy of interesting (and some will say scene-stealing) supporting characters to augment the leads. In fact, Despicable Me seems to have borrowed a fair bit off a number of other movies, but thankfully despite this the film still manages to be quite an entertaining film for young and old.

The best thing about Despicable Me is its humour, which is presented both visually and in its smart script. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the directors wisely decided to give the minions (strange yellow gnomes spouting gibberish) a lot of exposure, with much of the sight gags coming from these creatures (and some great Spy vs Spy moments between Gru and Vector). It is great fun to watch, and even though it’s a little too piecemeal for my liking, there’s no denying that Despicable Me would be a true crowd pleaser across most audience demographics.

The voice cast is a mixed lot – Steve Carrell’s accent seems a little inconsistent, and Julie Andrews is criminally underused as Gru’s mum (although her non-committal “eehhhhh”s to Gru was one of the highlights of the film to me), but generally the cast turn in decent vocal performances, especially the directors themselves who voiced most of the gibberish spouted by the minions.

And now, the million dollar question for films released this year – to 3D or not to 3D? Despicable Me takes a slightly different route in its 3D implementation and intentionally creates scenes where the “3D effect” is very obvious, including a very tongue-in-cheek end credits sequence where the minions try to outdo each other in being “more 3D”. Yes – it’s completely a gimmick, but one that would probably be appreciated by younger audiences. I remain unimpressed, and in my opinion the film is not one that needs to be watched in 3D.

It seems that 2010 is the year of animated films, and although Despicable Me does not come close to the bar set by Pixar’s Toy Story 3, especially in terms of its story, it still manages to roundly beat almost every single live-action summer blockbuster I’ve watched this year. Even if one remains unmoved by the rather simplistic plot, only the dourest audiences would leave the cinema without at least a smile on their faces.

Rating:  * * * (out of four stars)