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I'm a longtime contributor to MTV, Billboard, Alternative Press and MovieWeb. I've worked as on-air reporter, host, writer and producer for MTV, MSNBC and E!. I have provided opinion and commentary to programs on VH1, IFC, G4, Fuse, Current and Oxygen. I have written for Huffington Post, Premiere, OC Weekly, SFGate.com, NextMovie.com, MTV's television and movie blogs and other publications. I am the founder of Superhero Productions, providing broadcast, online and aftermarket content for a number of clients including Lionsgate, Sony and Warner Bros. I personally handle artist management for a handful of bands. "Ryan Downey has established a history of breaking some good scoops in the last few years, and you could certainly do worse than bookmark [him] to check in on." -- Ain't It Cool

Monday, July 12, 2010

Movie Review: "Inception"

Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Michael Caine
Five Stars

Like much of the best art and design, "Inception" appears ingeniously simple on the surface but is supported by gorgeous complication beneath. This, my friends, is how you follow "The Dark Knight."

"Inception" isn't based on a novel, a comic book, a television series or a previously exhausted franchise. As inventive in concept as Christopher Nolan's breakthrough film, "Memento," this intellectual puzzle meets caper-fueled action adventure is further evidence of Nolan's genius.

The story centers on a team of individuals who journey into other people's dreams. The basic idea is similar to the obscure comic book Nightmask (part of Marvel's ill-fated New Universe imprint) except these guys aren't there to help. They are generally there to steal. They are after deep, dark secrets in a high-tech game of corporate espionage. With its scenes of people sitting in chairs and disappearing into a surreal world, comparisons to "The Matrix" will abound. But this movie is better.

Still with me? Doesn't matter. Because the ride is a blast, regardless, with brilliantly choreographed gun battles, snowy mountain top Bond villain style bases, slow motion hotel hallway floating, a ton of suspense, and a tragic romance buried at the center. It lacks the leather trench coats and overall conceit of "The Matrix" (which I still like, sequels be damned), opting instead to ground the otherwise supernatural situations in muted colors, necessary action and damn fine acting.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, an expert "extractor" on the lam from both the cops and law-bending folks alike. Saito (Ken Watanabe, whom I've loved since "The Last Samurai") is the guy who comes along offering to help Dom clear his name if he''ll, you know, get the team back together for one last job. That bit of stock plot device, and others like it, are welcome familiarities in a picture that is otherwise so high-concept. Cobb's team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy, who I expect we'll see more of after this), Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and newbie Ariadne (Ellen Page), who Dom's father-in-law (Michael Caine) helps him recruit.

While "extraction" is normally the name of the game, Saito is after something much trickier: "inception." He doesn't want anything taken from the mind of a corporate rival (Cillian Murphy), he wants something put there -- an idea, or at least the seed of an idea. It's tough business. A couple of wrong moves and you could end up stuck in a dream, where a few minutes can feel like fifty years. And Ariadne is the only one who figures out that Cobb's mental baggage, which has a bad habit of showing up in the dream world in all sorts of ways, puts them at even greater peril.

A movie like this one often gets hampered by exposition, where characters are constantly having to explain everything to the audience at every available turn. And while "Inception" is presented with this problem, it solves it with grace, feeding us enough tidbits through natural and believable conversations that drive the story along without either lecturing or losing us.

Gordon-Levitt expertly mined noir-land with "Brick" (Netflix that movie now if you haven't seen it) and "The Lookout" (also great) and Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as well, echoing the somewhat thematically similar "Shutter Island" he starred in earlier this year. Like Scorsese, Nolan is a master of atmosphere, but with his own specific take, like Stanley Kubrick with a "Mad Men" fetish. The atmosphere, the costumes, the colors, the lighting, the music. Production designer Guy Dyas (who I had occasion to meet while visiting the set of "X2: X-Men United," another brilliantly designed, smarter-than-average action picture) had the good sense to make use of retro looking tech, a la "Battlestar Galactica," which somehow makes the entire world more believable.

Add to that special effects that are neither cartoonish nor garish, operating with the benefit of happening within dreams (where we expect to see buildings contorting and reshaped) and the feeling that the actors are on real sound stages and city streets, not stuck in front of green screen.

I was able to re-watch Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" on the big screen a few weeks ago at the LA Times Hero Complex Film Fest and I was struck by the consistent style and tone that permeates all of his pictures, including the familiar faces in his ensembles (please, Mr. Nolan, cast Gordon-Levitt as The Riddler!). The dark, ponderous nature of his pictures is engaging and regularly balanced with thrilling action. "Inception" is no exception. I can't think of anyone doing neo-noir better.


Reid Crandall said...

I've been looking forward to this one, and your much respected opinion has made me more eager. Eager beaver, indeed.

Reid Crandall said...

I've been looking forward to this one, and your much respected opinion has made me more eager. Eager beaver, indeed.