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The Great Inception, and the Movies that Made Us…

This week, the podcast I host, The 250, will be marking its one hundredth episode with a look at Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” I’m very much looking forward to it. It’ll be available on Saturday from 6pm UTC. I also have a book coming out on Christopher Nolan, titled “Christopher Nolan: A Critical Study of the Films.” This is a much more personal (and much less detailed) discussion of Inception than the one in the book. So, if you like this piece, it might be worth a look.

I’ve always been somewhat wary of Inception.

I mean, Inception is a fantastic movie. There is a reason that it is so beloved and so highly regarded. It is perhaps one of the four core Christopher Nolan films, along with Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. It is the rare big budget blockbuster with no longstanding association to established intellectual property, and one of the few to succeed on that sort of level. Indeed, the only other comparable examples on a similar scale are Interstellar and Dunkirk, both directed by Christopher Nolan.

More than that, Inception has permeated the popular consciousness. It is a film that has become part of the broader conversation. It seems that barely a few months can go by without another hot take on that closing scene, with news coverage of commencement speeches or interviews with actors. More than that, the film itself has become something of a critical and popular shorthand. It is a stock comparison for any movie or television show with a vaguely similar concept. Maniac is the most recent example, even inviting the comparison with an elaborate hallway action scene in its penultimate episode.

And yet, in spite of that, Inception is a movie of which I’ve had a somewhat strained relationship. I still adore it, as I adore most of Nolan’s filmography. I think its reputation is well-earned, and I think it excels by every measure that it sets itself. It delivers on just about every front, showcasing Nolan as a director with incredible command of both the form itself and the audiences watching these films. Inception is a big and broad crowdpleaser that is also a surprisingly intimate and personal film, which works as both a story and as a showcase. It is thrilling, it is engaging, it is compelling.

However, there’s something underneath the surface that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. A large part of this is simply down to the fact that it’s a movie that is fundamentally about movies. This is nothing new of itself. All of Nolan’s movies are about stories, whether personal or cultural. In fact, it could be argued that the central trilogy of Nolan’s work is actually The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Inception, a trilogy of films that seem to be about the challenges of constructing and maintaining spectacle, arriving at a point in the director’s career where Nolan was transitioning from smaller films to high-profile epics.

Inception is the most transparent of these films, exploring most directly the mechanics of how storytelling works within a cinematic framework. There are even scenes of characters discussing in relatively clinical terms the mechanics of catharsis and how best to emotional manipulate their target audience. Inception feels very much like Nolan is stopping and deconstructing his stopwatch storytelling for the benefit of the audience, revealing how the trick is done and how the pieces fit together. As with everything Nolan does, he does this with a great deal of skill and nuance. However, it can’t help but feel a little cynical.

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Non-Review Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

In 1987, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was arguably too subtle in its criticisms of the Wall Street mentality – the philosophy that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good” or that enough can never really enough. After all, the film apparently inspired a whole generation of stock brokers and investment managers, with quite a few aspiring to be their generation’s Gordon Gekko – when the movie’s central point was that Gekko was hardly an idol to worship.

This would seem to explain the rationale of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that makes Stone’s brutal evisceration of Wall Street excess seem positively mild-mannered. Indeed, the film all but directly acknowledges this fact in an early scene where a “hatchet job” of an article from Forbes (the same article that would lend Belfort his sobriquet “Wolfie!”) prompts a massive upsurge in job applications for Belfort’s Stratton Oakmont.

The money shot...

The money shot…

So, understanding the need to go a bit bigger and larger, The Wolf of Wall Street introduces us to its protagonist, Jordan Belfort, snorting cocaine out of the bodily orifices of a prostitute, and yet somehow descends deeper and deeper into acts of debauchery and excess. It’s an unrelenting and energetic film, that is exhausting and exhilarating. It’s less of a structured story and more a three-hour laundry-list of depravity.

While the last hour of the film (the inevitable “it all comes tumbling down… or does it?” act) can’t maintain the forward moment that make the first two so exhilarating, The Wolf of Wall Street remains proof that Scorsese is an incredible film maker with an almost impossible vigour and enthusiasm for the medium.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

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The X-Files – Squeeze (Review)

Squeeze is the first “monster of the week” episode of The X-Files, and also the first episode that wasn’t written by creator Chris Carter. Instead, Squeeze came from the word processors of James Wong and Glen Morgan. Wong and Morgan would become a hugely influential (if not always successful) writing duo during the nineties. They’d write some of the best scripts for The X-Files, but they’d also leave (briefly) to run their own short-lived science-fiction drama in Space: Above & Beyond.

After Fox cancelled that show, the pair would briefly return to The X-Files before taking over Chris Carter’s other Fox drama Millennium, for that show’s second season. I’d argue that Wong and Morgan’s Millennium was one of the most inventive and insane seasons of television produced by any network in the nineties, and it’s a shame that Carter would have to re-assume the reins for the show’s third and final season. After that, the pair found considerable success creating the Final Destination film series.

However, all of that was in the future, but you can clearly see their creative talent at work here. Squeeze isn’t just the first episode of The X-Files unrelated to the show’s alien mythology, it is also one of the most memorable episodes ever written, creating a monster so iconic that he would wind up bookending the first season when he returned in Tooms.

Eye see you...

Eye see you…

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Watch! New Wolf of Wall Street Trailer!

I’m really looking forward to Wolf of Wall Street. It helps that it’s a Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCarpio, but the first trailer just cements that enthusiasm, teaser a ride which looks completely and utterly insane. The trailer is a work of bizarre genius, a celebration of tasteless excess which seems to show an actor and director who aren’t worried about going over the top; in fact that’s the entire point.

Check it out below.

 

Non-Review Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby feels like candy floss for the soul. A little of it is tempting, even appetizing. It was a curious texture, a strange sense of lightness, but also curiously heavy. Appealing to look at, and fun to pick at, it’s not something to be digested in large portions. The opening fifteen minutes of The Great Gatsby pop and sizzle, as Luhrman blends stylish visuals with an inability to keep anything still. The cameras, the actors and even the scenery seem to be moving to a beat – one occasionally intruding on the sound track. Such energy and vibrance is hard to resist, but it’s also exhausting – as much for the film as the audience. Once the movie settles into its own style and routine, it winds up feeling a lot like its protagonist. You’re not quite sure it’s really there.

thegreatgatsby2

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Non-Review Review: Django Unchained

“They’ll call you the quickest gun in the South,” bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz remarks to the freed slave Django Freeman. The cliché would suggest that he meant to say “West”, but Django Unchained has its mind firmly on the Southern United States. Producing the film, writer-director Quentin Tarantino argued that he wanted to produce a “Southern” rather than a “Western”, and he has done an admirable job. However, what’s really remarkable about Django Unchained is the way that it balances Tarantino’s trademark grindhouse aesthetic with considerable mature nuance. Django Unchained is the story about two bounty hunters tracking down wanted men dead or alive, but it that doesn’t mean that it is afraid to tackle more substantive and challenging aspects of American history.

If you’d asked me whether I thought that Tarantino could produce a powerful and insightful exploration of slavery in the Deep South before I saw Inglourious Basterds, I would have hesitated before answering. Django Unchained is smart, sophisticated and thoughtful, but never pretentious, never pandering, never dull. In a rather unlikely way, it is the most mature film Tarantino has ever produced.

An ice cold killer...

An ice cold killer…

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Watch! New Django Unchained Trailer!

Okay, I’m still sore that Django Unchained isn’t opening here until next year, but a new trailer does a little bit to alleviate that. And, well, at least I’ll be getting my most anticipated movie of 2013 a little early, I suppose.

There’s not too much here we haven’t already seen, but everybody looks to having such a good time that I can’t help but feel a little more excited about the film. In particular, Leonardo DiCaprio looks like he’s having a whale of a time.