Friday, 28 February 2020

Inception (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio caught between dreams and reality in Inception

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Dom Cobb), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Arthur), Marion Cotillard (Mal Cobb), Ellen Page (Ariadne), Tom Hardy (Eames), Ken Watanabe (Saito), Dileep Rao (Yusof), Cillian Murphy (Robert Fischer), Tom Berenger (Peter Browning), Pete Postlethwaite (Maurice Fischer), Michael Caine (Professor Stephen Miles), Lukas Haas (Nash), Tallulah Riley (Disguise woman)

What is reality? It’s a question that for many of us never comes up. But in the artificial and exciting world of film, it’s a legitimate question. These worlds we watch unspooling before us on the cinema screen, so large, so real, so exciting. Could we get lost in them? And how much do the films we love echo the dreams that fill our nights, the movies we create in our mind to keep our brain active during those hours of complete physical inactivity? And what happens when the world of imagination and possibility becomes more compelling, more comfortable – and perhaps more real – to us than the actual flesh-and-blood world around us? These are ideas tackled in Inception: the blockbuster with a brain. 

Set in some unspecified point in the not-too-distant future, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are “extractors”, shady corporate espionage experts who use experimental military technology to enter shared dream states with their targets. While in their dreams, they have complete access to their subconscious mind, where secrets can be extracted. A wanted man in the States, Cobb is forced to ply his trade despite his yearning to return home to his children. After a job goes wrong, their would-be target Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires the pair to take on a far more challenging role: rather than extract an idea he wants them to plant one – a technique called “inception” – into the mind of a business rival (Cillian Murphy) to get him to dismantle his father’s empire. To do the job, Cobb needs a new team, including dream “architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), dream identity forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and dream compound chemist Yusof (Dileep Rao) – and needs to try and control his own dangerous subconscious version of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who is determined to destroy his missions.

Just a plot summary should give an idea of the twisty-turny world of imagination and ideas that Christopher Nolan mixes in with big budget thrills and excitements, in the most original sci-fi/philosophy film marriage since The Matrix. Of course it helps when you have the clout of having directed a hugely successful comic book series, but Nolan was brave enough to trust that an audience for this sort of action-adventure caper wanted to have their brains stretched as far as their nerves. So he creates a dizzying and challenging piece of escapism that plays around with the audience’s perceptions and understanding of the nature of dreams. 

In the world of dreams, the film is a fabulous tight-rope-walk of dazzling concepts. Here everything is possible, with Nolan throwing at us worlds from film fantasy: intricate Samurai houses, brawling third-world streets, luxurious hotels, Bond-style winter bases and entire cities that literally fold, bend and reinvent themselves around the film’s dreamers, worlds that defy conventional rules of physics and time. This world is presented with genuine visual panache at every point, Nolan’s mastery of the language of film leading to a sensational series of slight-of-hand tricks and compelling set-pieces, all the while making you question which events are real and which are dreams or even dreams within dreams. In these worlds, the characters have the ability to literally shape a world to meet their needs, and the dangerous attraction of these worlds – even if they are not real – is the dark temptation that hangs over every frame. 

Because it’s those ideas beneath the action that give the film depth as well as excitement, that ability to ask questions and openly invite the audience to begin theorising themselves to fill in any blanks. Within the world of Inception, characters can create dream states within dreams, to share one person’s dream while simultaneously all being inside the dream of someone else. These multiple levels are cleverly established as being as much of a risk for the characters in getting confused as they are for the audience, with the characters carrying personal “totems” to help them judge if what they are seeing is reality or not. This is made all the more difficult by the establishment that your subconscious will manifest people to populate the dream worlds – and these will turn on invaders they detect in the dream.

All of this tunnels down into the deep limbo of our subconscious – and also introduces as a concept Nolan’s fascination with time. In dreams, time moves at a different pace, and this differential becomes all the greater as you descend down levels in dreams within dreams. A few minutes can become an hour in a dream and become almost a day in the dream within it – and years within the dreams beyond that. This is brilliantly demonstrated by Nolan in the film’s dazzling central sequence as the film intercuts between three timelines in three different dreams – each impacting the other.

It’s another masterful touch – the impact of actions on dreamers’ bodies in the level above can be felt in their world. A slap to the face in the real world can send someone in the dream flying across a room. A bucketful of water turns into a tidal wave in the dream. The dreamer falling in the world above removes gravity in their dream (giving Joseph Gordon-Levitt a cult fight scene in a gravity free world that sees him gracefully leaping from floor to ceiling to wall). The visuals are extraordinary, but the intriguing logic of the inter-relation between reality and the dreams – and the way dreams struggle to explain external effects – lend all the more credence to the mixing of reality.

But then, as Nolan suggests, isn’t that film after all? In dreams we move from location to location and struggle to remember the journey in between. We find ourselves doing tasks and not knowing how we started. Chases, faulty logic, sudden reversals and changes – these are the rules of film, it’s editing slicing out the boring bits and focusing on the reality. We are dropped into the middle of Cobb’s story and only slowly find the backstory, a gun filled chase through an African city is almost indistinguishable from similar sequences in the dreams. The final sequence of the film is a purposefully cut series of images that are very true to the rules of film, but feel alarmingly close to the rules of dream (unsettling us about whether what we see at the end is truth or dream, a debate that continues today). It makes for fascinating stuff, as well as a commentary on film itself.

Nolan’s film is gloriously entertaining, even if in its haste at points it does fail to explain how certain events and concepts truly work – but doesn’t really matter so compelling is the journey. The cast, enjoying the chance to mix action hijinks with genuine characters and dialogue are very strong, with DiCaprio anchoring the film wonderfully as the conflicted, lonely, defensive and daring Cobb. Hardy made a name for himself in a cheekily flirtatious performance, which sparks wonderfully with Gordon-Levitt’s more po-faced Arthur. Page creates a character both naïve and at times almost gratingly intrusive. Cotillard makes a difficult balance look easy playing a character part real and part dream figure. Watanabe is archly dry as the investor. There isn’t a weak link in there.

It may at times move too fast and not always make itself completely clear. It might be a bit too long in places and take a little too long to make its point – but it’s ambitious, challenging, intriguing film-making that rewards repeated viewing. Not least with its cryptic ending in which we are forced to ask how much of what we have seen is real and whether - like Cobb perhaps? - we should even care at all if the end result is so positive. With the fascinating world of dreams – and the rules there that we encounter – it gives us a firm grounding for the its meditation of the dark attraction of fantasy, embodied by the genial wish fulfilment of the movies where adventure lies around each corner and the heroes triumph.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins carry out a strange dance in the compelling The Silence of the Lambs

Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (Dr Hannibal Lecter), Scott Glenn (Jack Crawford), Ted Levine (James “Buffalo Bill” Gumb), Anthony Heald (Dr Frederick Chilton), Brooke Smith (Catherine Martin), Diane Baker (Senator Ruth Martin), Kasi Lemmons (Ardelia Mapp), Frankie Faison (Barney Matthews)

Is there a more unlikely Oscar winner than The Silence of the Lambs? In fact, double down on that: is there a more unlikely film to have won all five of the Big Ones – Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay – only the third film in history to have achieved that (It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest being the others)? Re-watching the film, it’s actually a triumphant vindication for Hollywood to have chosen a thriller for the ages, a complex and intriguing puzzle wrapped in an unsettling outer layer of thrills and horror, as if the academy was (late in the day) finally tipping an award-lined hat to the film’s spiritual grandfather, Hitchcock himself.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is a trainee FBI agent, in the final weeks before her graduation. Out of the blue she is plucked from Quantico by the head of the Behavioural Science Unit, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), to interview notorious psychiatrist-turned-cannibalistic-serial-killer Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), now interned in a psychiatric prison-cum-dungeon in Baltimore. Crawford hopes the Lecter might be able to shed light on the motives of “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), a serial killer kidnapping and skinning young women across a number of states. Lecter can shed some light – but the price is an opportunity to investigate further into the psyche of the determined and ambitious Starling. A three-way game of cat-and-mouse between Bill, Clarice and Lecter soon starts to emerge.

Demme’s film is a sublimely made entertainment that brilliantly pulls together the trappings of multiple genres (there are splashes of horror, thriller, police procedural, romance and black comedy to name but a few) into an unsettlingly tense and engrossing whole. It’s truly a film Hitchcock would have been proud of, a masterfully assembled thrill ride where every shot serves a purpose, and each scene is carefully constructed to establish a clear story and push the audience’s buttons. It has two of the best tense “prolonged misdirects” in film history (wittily signposted in advance by an early car chase that is revealed in a pull-away to be a training exercise in Quantico – don’t trust your eyes!) and it brilliantly immerses you in the world and emotions of Clarice Starling.

Demme’s aim was to get us to empathise above all with Clarice, as she descends into the dark underbelly of this terrifying world. Demme uses a carefully selected combination of POV shots and straight-to-camera addresses to deliberately put us into the position of actually “being” Clarice Starling. From following her perspective through rooms and corridors, to seeing the characters she is talking to address the camera directly as if talking to us, through to carefully placed close-up shots that allow us to study the thoughts and feelings travelling across Clarice’s face, it brilliantly allows us to invest overwhelmingly in her without us even really noticing we are doing it.

And of course that is put together with Jodie Foster’s extraordinarily brilliant performance in the role. One of the film’s many strengths is exploring the nature of being a determined, brave and ambitious – but still slight and feminine – woman in the alpha-male world of crime investigation. Clarice fends off in virtually every scene not just discrimination and instant judgement, but a parade of half-spoken advances and flirtations from male colleagues. Foster’s brilliance is to make a character who is determined but humane, slightly vulnerable while never weak. She’s the key driver of the story, but also both an insider and outsider in her world, partly motivated by a desire to prove herself, partly by an attempt to vanquish haunting childhood memories of weakness and loss.

It’s these feelings under the surface that attract the interest of Hannibal Lecter, and the strange dance between them is the heart of the film’s appeal and it’s magic. Why does Lecter want to know about the facts of Starling’s life (that quid pro quo he archly asks for)? Does he want to analyse her? Does he want to help? Does he want to amuse himself with her terrible memories? Or is he just bored? He hardly seems to be certain himself, but the intimacy shared revelations provide is neatly played with by Demme in sequences between the two (they barely share the frame by the way more than twice) that hum with a tension of danger, but also a thrill of illicit romance, mixed with incestuous interest (Starling the orphan, Lecter the father-like man of wisdom helping her catch the killer). And it works with us as well – we are so invested in Starling that, just like her, we end up liking Lecter (even though we know we shouldn’t).

Of course it helps that Hannibal Lecter is portrayed in a performance of magnetic, career-defining brilliance by Hopkins. Hopkins modestly claimed playing Lecter was easy once you mastered the voice and the physicality – but that’s to downplay the extraordinary skill mastering those aspects concern, and the bravura brilliance with which Hopkins plays to the camera but never tips into absurdism. It’s an arch, knowing, winking performance that also carries with it an intense, psychotic menace, a delirious capacity for violence (as we find out). Demme introduces the character sublimely – after the build-up, his ram-rod stillness, polite manner and refined behaviour are somehow even more unsettling. Sure Brian Cox in Manhunter may be more conventionally chilling, but Hopkins is like an elemental demon playing with our childhood bogeyman fears, a guy who seems even more dangerous as he playfully chats one minute, then beats you to death with a truncheon the next.

The scenes between these two characters dominate the film (even if they take up no more than ten minutes of its runtime), and their relationship (beautifully shot as a game of one cagey upmanship that turns into semi-flirting, that turns into something in between) defines the movie and its legacy. Lecter’s magnetism was such that in later movies he would increasingly become an anti-hero of sorts, a lord of misrule rather than a brutal and indiscriminate killer, but here he’s terrifying and satanic, just as Starling is courageous and noble as the lady on a quest.

And that quest targets Buffalo Bill – a deeply unsettling performance of psychological unease and self-loathing by Ted Levine. The film was controversial at the time for its killer being both a transsexual and gay (although the film makes clear it’s a desire to be anyone apart from who he is that drives all these feelings), especially as at the time these groups were barely represented positively in the movies. But it also makes for singularly unsettling character, living in a subterranean cave-like basement, surrounded by moths, his voice slurred childishly while carrying no sense of shame or regret for his actions.

The hunt for Bill is the film’s story, and Demme uses the devices of cinema to make this as tense and unsettling an experience as needed. The camera prowls terrifyingly around Bill’s domains. Howard Shore’s score makes a deeply unnerving use of mournful refrains. Frequently scenes – such as the post-mortem inspection of a victim’s body – are often silently scored, making the mechanical noises of the investigator’s trade (such as the loudly clicking and whirring camera) deeply jarring. The film is grim, but relies more on reaction rather than bathing us in horrors, and implication brings the greatest terror. Every sequence of the film is perfectly assembled to leave us struggling to breathe – not least as events place Starling in more and more peril.

With its playful sense of black comedy, mixed with genuine terror and thrills, The Silence of the Lambs genuinely feels like the film Hitchcock was born to make. Everything in the film is perfectly assembled to serve the film’s aims – there is not a foot wrong in its assembly, and it’s sad that Demme never hit these sort of heights again. But the film is like a twisted companion piece to Psycho (only better), and in Hopkins and Foster produced two landmark performances. While the film engrosses us in Starling’s struggles in a man’s world, it also overwhelms us with Hopkins’ devilish magnetism and dark mystery. And what to make of the relationship between Starling and Lecter? It’s a mystery so enigmatic that it continues to grip today and it’s the secret behind the success of this compelling masterpiece.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Quai des Brumes (1938)

Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan are star-crossed lovers in Quai des Brumes

Director: Marcel Carné
Cast: Jean Gabin (Jean), Michel Simon (Zabel), Michèle Morgan (Nelly), Pierre Brasseur (Lucien), Édouard Delmont (Panama), Raymond Aimos (Quart Vittel), Robert Le Vigan (Le peintre), René Génin (Le docteur), Marcel Pérès (Le chauffeur), Léo Malet (Le soldat), Jenny Burnay (L'amie de Lucien)

It translates as “Port of Shadows” and it’s the shadows you are likely to remember in this noirish tinged classic of French cinema. A major success story when it was released in France, it also stands as some sort of milestone as being one of the few films condemned by both the pre-Vichy French government and Nazi Germany. More pleasingly, it’s also a firm testament to the brilliance and vibrancy of pre-War French cinema and the creative imagination of Marcel Carné.

Jean (Jean Gabin) is a soldier on the run, deserting his regiment to lead his own life in South America. Arriving in the port of Le Havre, he ends up in a run-down bar on the edge of the town where he meets the beautiful young Nelly (Michèle Morgan) a woman on the run herself from two unpleasant men. The first is local gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) a braggart with whom Jean has already had a few run-ins. The other, even more dangerous, is Zabel (Michel Simon) Nelly’s godfather, a ruthless man under a genial façade who is obsessed with Nelly. Jean and Nelly fall in love, but how far will Jean go to put his own hopes for the future in doubt to protect Nelly?

Shadows dominate Carné’s beautifully atmospheric film. Jean emerges as if from nowhere on the road to Le Havre – nearly run over by the truck driver who picks him up. The bar is buried in the mists of the town. Shadows loom from every building and throw most of the city into a mysterious half-light. The action largely takes place in backrooms and cellars. Every frame tells you from the start things will not turn out well, with every decision carrying an underplayed air of foreboding. You can just tell every moment is putting another nail in the coffin of Jean’s chances of escape to that new life. The film is a brilliant slice of noir, expertly assembled with an artist’s eye by Carné, one of the most overlooked genius directors of his era. 

This darkened, gloomy style of the picture echoes the intentions of Carné and his regular collaborator, scriptwriter Jacques Prévert. The focus on the picture is the individual – in this case Jean and Nelly –trying to escape the control of both the state (the army) and also the domineering bullies that hold the local power (Lucien and Zabel). It’s no coincidence that Jean is an army deserter, and there is no sense of guilt on his part or even a fraction of recrimination is aimed towards him from anyone he encounters. Jean himself talks despairingly of the grim reality of killing and his wish to make his own choices. Carné was originally to make the film in Germany, but Goebbels was not having any film made in Berlin where the hero was an army deserter. 

So instead the film was shifted – wisely – back to France, not the French government was that happy either. With Carné and Prévert’s vision of a listless, tired, corrupted France where people like Jean simply refuse (it seems) to do what they are told, and where the few representatives of local government we meet are trivial non-entities, it’s not a surprise that the film was soon being blamed for sapping French spirit. As a sop to the French criticism of the script (and many of the films backers were desperate for its downbeat nihilism to be replaced by a more conventional upbeat, romantic ending) Jean does at least show respect for his army uniform – despite everything it’s never dirty, and when he takes it off its neatly folded. Today it seems even more like an impressionistic touch.

It’s the nihilism that runs through the film. We know Jean is good guy – he encounters a dog on the road to Le Havre that follows him with a singular devotion, unable to bear being parted from him – but the film itself has a shadowy feeling of despair and destruction throughout. Jean feels like a doomed hero from the start, a passive figure despite his bravado, who impulsively drifts from event to event – it’s when he chooses to become engaged that he dooms himself. Nelly is seemingly at first a femme fatale – and her reveal is a masterstroke of cinema – but really she’s as much a victim as Jean, someone very vulnerable, lonely and scared who wants a way out but can’t see how to even begin to find one. But then even the nemesis that runs through the film is low-key and trivial – Lucien is a joke, while Zabel for all his creepiness is also little more than a novelty gift shop owner.

The power of the film comes from seeing these two trapped figures surrounded by a world of darkness, listless depression and emptiness. And of course from the performances. The film is a reminder again that at this time Jean Gabin may well have been the greatest actor in the world. With a cigarette dangling, raffish cool under a surly salt-of-the-earth taciturnity, he turns Jean into the sort of enigmatic noir-hero years before the term was evented. Dripping with charisma in every frame, he’s both a Bogartish cynic and a De Niroish slice of muscle, a working class martyr. Nearly as good is Michèle Morgan, vulnerable and yearning into a surface of sexy cool. The two make a winningly attractive pair, not just sexy but with a growing romantic feeling.

It’s no wonder Jean throws himself into threatening and roughing up the pathetically weasily Lucien (Pierre Brasseur very good as a weak-willed bully who can lash out with the viciousness of a child) and squaring up to domineering Zabel. Michel Simon is terrific as the grandfatherly shop owner whose own dark obsessions and possible perversions become harder and harder to ignore. These two very different threats stand at opposite ends of the film and both contribute to its bleak ending.

Because of course Jean isn’t going to make that boat. The act of violence the film finally unleashes – after all that foreboding warning that it’s coming – is suitably shocking in a 1930s way, while the eventual fall of Jean is both fitting and also tragic in its low-key abruptness (it was later echoed by Brian de Palma in Carlito’s Way). With its gloomy atmosphere, its grim foreboding but also passionate love story at its heart, Quai des Brumes is a classic of French poetic realism.