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Film Club: ‘Inception’

Christopher Nolan Enters Dreamland

Joseph Gordon Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio operate in a dream world in

Credit: Warner Brothers

Above: Joseph Gordon Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio operate in a dream world in "Inception"


Host Maureen Cavanaugh discusses "Inception" with critics Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, and Anders Wright on the KPBS Film Club.


Christopher Nolan began his career on the indie circuit but then found mega-mainstream success with a pair of Batman films. Now he returns to more personal themes but holds on to a big studio budget with "Inception" (opening July 16 throughout San Diego). Listen to our KPBS Film Club of the Air discussion.

I have to confess that I went into "Inception" with high hopes and expectations. So that can be unfair to a film. I left "Inception" a bit disappointed (mostly by the excessive plot exposition by all the characters and the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio) but still happy I had taken in Nolan's latest experiment. And it is an experiment. Nolan loves playing with narrative structure. In "The Following," a writer thinks he's following a subject but later discovers he's the one being followed. Then in "Memento," a man's loss of short term memory creates a fragmented narrative as his story is told in reverse. In the case of "Inception," the narrative is tweaked because the characters are able to enter a man's dreams and manipulate his thoughts.

The basic premise of entering someone's dream world was superbly handled in the Japanese anime "Paprika," which served up a bizarre and surreal world with less explicit plot exposition. But both films use the dream worlds to create tense thrillers. In "Paprika," the main character was like a detective who entered a person's dream to try and resolve emotional traumas. In "Inception," it's something of a crime thriller as the character enter a man's dreams to plant an idea that will alter his business strategy.

Like the Paris streets that fold over onto each other, "Inception" is an intricate Chinese box with stories layered on top of each other. Cobb (the same name, by the way, of the thief in Nolan's "The Following") maybe involved in corporate espionage but he's also involved in an intricate love story with his dead wife who turns up in dreams to wreak havoc for him. Then there's the father-son relationship of the man who's dream world they enter. And on top of all that, Nolan comments on the very nature of dreams and perhaps the role a filmmaker like himself has in creating cinematic dreams.

"Inception" (rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout) definitely has things on its mind and it's readily watchable. But it does feel overlong because we spend so much time being told what's going on versus being shown. The effects are often impressive -- the folding Paris street I mentioned is good as is a kind of zero gravity fight -- and we get caught up in the multiple plot strands.

Here's our Film Club discussion.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Placing your characters in a dream world opens up all sorts of possibilities in "Inception"

MAUREEN CAVANUAGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days in San Diego. At least one of the movies we're talking about on today's KPBS Film Club of the Air is destined to be hanging around your Cineplex for the next several weeks. But, it's possible you'll have to act a bit faster to see the other films. One is a documentary filmed during patrols and firefights in Afghanistan. The other is a brand new film by one of the original French New Wave directors, and then a family comedy about a different kind of family with some of the same old problems. Joining us for the KPBS Film Club of the Air are my guests. Beth Accomando is KPBS film critic, author of the blog Cinema Junkie. Hi, Beth.

BETH ACCOMANDO (KPBS Film Critic): Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Scott Marks, author of the film blog Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT MARKS (Film Critic): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Anders Wright is film critic for San Diego CityBeat. Anders, hi.

ANDERS WRIGHT (Film Critic, San Diego CityBeat): Good to see you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Good to see you all, and let’s start right in with that film that will probably be in theaters for a while.

WRIGHT: The big ‘un.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. It’s “Inception,” the big summer movie with a lot of special effects and some big names attached to it. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and is directed by Christopher Nolan, who also directed “Memento” and “The Dark Knight.” DiCaprio plays a thief named Cobb, who specializes in the ultimate inside job. He and his team have the ability to enter dreams and even alter them, and it seems that Cobb’s new dream job could also lead to his personal redemption. In this scene, Cobb introduces a new team member, Ariadne, played by Ellen Page, to see how the dreammaking works.

(audio clip from the film “Inception”)

CAVANAUGH: That’s a clip from the film “Inception” and dream Paris kind of collapses at the end of that scene. Anders, this is a very ambitious movie, isn’t it?

WRIGHT: It certainly is. I mean, first of all, it’s very expensive. It cost, I don’t know, $150, $160 million and unlike so many of the summer movies, it’s complex and well thought out and it has a lot of sort of big ideas you have to wrap your head around and follow. And it is – You know, so many of the big summer movies these days are either dumb or dumbed down or both, and this requires a lot of attention from the audience. And Christopher Nolan has a lot of things he’s trying to do here and he pretty much goes out and does all of them.

CAVANAUGH: And does this – Beth, does this film, you think, play to the strengths of Christopher Nolan as a director?

ACCOMANDO: Oh, well, it definitely taps into things that he’s played with before. I mean, one of the things I’ve always liked about him is the way he likes to play with narrative structure, and what I like is that he, in films like “Memento” and “The Following,” he plays with narrative structure in a way that’s both on the surface a gimmick and also that plays very well thematically into what he’s trying to say. So I think this works on that level.

CAVANAUGH: Scott, what did you think of “Inception?”

MARKS: I don’t think it’s a bad film, I just think that – I have the same problem with this film that I have with all of Christopher Nolan’s films. After a while, there are so many ideas that it just has to come to a standstill and you get like ten minutes of wall-to-wall exposition where they just have to sit and explain everything. I like what the film has to say about dreams, you know, the fact that five minutes into a dream is equal to one hour in real life and then if you – the only way to wake up from a dream is if you die. I mean, all that stuff, I was going on. But I think after a while this thing bites off more than it can chew and there are scenes that are – I assume, that are supposed to be in dreams that aren’t dreamlike at all. As soon as they put Cillian Murphy on the airplane, just hunker down for like ten minutes worth of nonstop talk. They don’t shut up. And then it becomes somewhat fantastic again.

CAVANAUGH: And a lot of critics have mentioned the fact that there is this exposition, in fact, that there’s – Ellen Page’s character, an architect, brought new into the team that we heard in that clip is basically – serves as a tool for this exposition.

ACCOMANDO: Well, it’s not just her. I mean, everyone pretty much takes out quite a bit of time. I mean, that’s the one thing that I was frustrated with is that I did feel like there was a lot of explaining, that everybody’s telling you what’s going on and what’s happening and why it’s happening. And they give you a big chunk of it and then a little bit later they go, oh, and by the way, did we remember to also add that this – this can also happen and…

WRIGHT: But, you know…

ACCOMANDO: …oh, we can add another layer of detail.

WRIGHT: You know what I think, though. I mean, that – I think that all that’s totally intentional. I mean, I really liked this. I feel like it’s a finely tuned watch but you can see all of the gears turning at the same time. And what I really like as well this, you know, we set him up to be a thief so it’s a heist movie but it’s not, it’s a con movie. It’s a con artist movie. And the biggest con artist of all is Christopher Nolan because you can never trust what he’s telling you. You never know if any of the things he’s portraying as reality are actual – actually reality. So, for me, the idea that one character is there for exposition, if you don’t really know what it is you’re seeing, is this all a dream? Is it all Cobb’s dream? Is it all Ellen Page’s dream? Is it all somebody else’s dream? That, to me, is what it – what works so well, is that you never trust exactly what you’re seeing.

ACCOMANDO: But you could do the same thing without constantly bogging it down in exposition like that. I mean, there’s an animated film “Paprika” that is a similar sort of concept where it’s…

MARKS: Very good, yeah…

ACCOMANDO: …a dream.

MARKS: No, you’re right. I like that movie.

ACCOMANDO: It’s a woman who goes into dreams. She’s like a dream therapist…

MARKS: Umm-hmm.

ACCOMANDO: …where she goes into dreams to try and help people solve their, you know, emotional and mental issues. But from what I – I mean, I haven’t seen the film recently but I don’t remember there being so much discussion of what’s going on. You get thrown into it and you don’t know what’s happening and you don’t know why kind of the parameters of the real world aren’t functioning for you but you find out as you continue on in the story. And I would’ve preferred to let some of this stuff happen and be more confused or misled or whatever without having everything just kind of grind to a halt for discussion.

WRIGHT: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t have a problem with it. I really – Honestly, I like the way they set up these very specific rules for how things are supposed to work and then they go ahead and break them sometimes, and sometimes they all sort of tie together. I mean, it’s – to me, it’s – I also love the fact that it is complex but it’s not complicated. You can follow along. You can…

CAVANAUGH: I – That’s what I was going to ask. Scott, is this the type of a movie that when you leave you’re pretty clear on what happened? Or do you still have questions?

MARKS: Absolutely not. I don’t know – I don’t – When you say that this film is not complicated, you talk about a guy who is purposely trying to convolute meaning and to obscure meaning, it’s Christopher Nolan.

WRIGHT: Well, like I said, he is the con man of the entire thing but at the same time, I don’t know, we were just talking about this before the show started, I felt like when it came up, I understood exactly what it was he was trying to do. I got it.


WRIGHT: So maybe that’s just me.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s – let me – let me…

MARKS: You are smart, guy, dammit, you are.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk about Leonardo DiCaprio. Was he good in this role? Did you like him?

MARKS: Didn’t it seem like he washed up from “Shutter Island.”

ACCOMANDO: Yes, it did. Oh, my God.

MARKS: I mean, and the whole relationship with his wife is the same…


MARKS: …story from “Shutter Island.” Identical.

ACCOMANDO: Which took away some of the – kind of tension in the film.

MARKS: Yeah.

ACCOMANDO: I’m like, oh, it’s going to play out the same way.

MARKS: I guess he’s gotten really solemn. I mean, and no sense of humor. I mean, this guy makes Richard Gere look like Milton Berle. I mean, he has – he’s completely lost his sense of humor and everything is so intense and so serious. You know, Christopher Nolan, lighten up a little bit. Have a little fun. There are two laugh lines in this film, and that’s it.

WRIGHT: The one, I can think of at least one of them. But…

CAVANAUGH: What about the rest of the cast’s strengths and weaknesses?

WRIGHT: You know, actually the guy who sort of steals all of his scenes is this guy called Thomas Eames, who is sort of the forger/translator. I don’t know, I mean, everybody sort of has a part to play but I – and I definitely feel Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in the film and he’s very somber as well but I – I mean, I personally thought some of that was intentional, you know, because, again, the idea is that what – what he really – what Christopher Nolan does really well—and we heard a little bit of it in that clip—is he taps into these things that are familiar to all of us about dreaming even though they’re not necessarily talked about. The idea that, you know, when we wake up from a dream, we have this – these bizarre sensations that are familiar to us only when we experience them. He talks about several things like that in the course of the film and you’re like, oh, yeah, I’ve had that feeling. I know exactly what he’s talking about.

ACCOMANDO: Well, I didn’t mind the somberness but I’m just – Leonardo DiCaprio is just getting kind of tiresome now. I mean, he seems to be relying on a similar bag of tricks for each of his films and it’s – it kind of pulls me out of the film when he has these really intense moments where he suddenly like looks into the camera and furrows his brow and yells something out and… I mean, I’m – I find Thomas – Tom Hardy, who was the forger character, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to me, are far more interesting actors and I wish they were on screen more.

WRIGHT: You know who has a part in this who I haven’t seen in years and it’s…

MARKS: Go ahead. I know who you’re going to say.

WRIGHT: …Tom Berenger.

MARKS: It’s so good to see him.

WRIGHT: Wow! Tom Berenger.

MARKS: But he don’t look all that good.

WRIGHT: No, but he’s – I mean, there’s a guy who was at the top of his game and he’s been gone for a while. It’s just – it’s great to see him.

MARKS: And he’s a good actor.

WRIGHT: Yeah, he’s very talented, yeah.

MARKS: A really, really good actor.

WRIGHT: And he’s been making terrible movies.

MARKS: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: One of the big things about “Inception” is its visual effects and I want to talk a little bit about that. Did they impress you, Scott?

MARKS: Paris as a bendable straw is very, very impressive.

ACCOMANDO: That was fun.

MARKS: And the scene when they’re having cocktails and the entire town explodes around them, it’s terrific but, again, I wanted more of this – I wanted more of this dreamlike stuff throughout the entire film. When you said that he takes this stuff seriously, the reason everything is so damn serious is because I think he thinks that the only way people are going to take him seriously is if he plays everything seriously. No sense of humor, no nothing. If the whole tone of the film was so serious, dammit, you have to accept this film as being brilliant and serious. And I think Christopher Nolan at times is really pretentious. At least he put away the 360 degree useless pan that he used in “The Dark Knight,” I’ll give him that. But I – I’m not a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s. I think the guy is just pretentious.

CAVANAUGH: So is it – is this a kind of a movie, Beth, when you go you’re going to be blown away by the visual effects?

ACCOMANDO: I think there are a lot – There are a number of scenes that are quite impressive and – But I don’t know if I would say ‘blown away’ because just the context in which they occur is not quite the same as you get in like these blockbuster films. I mean, it’s much – the effects are much more integrated into the storyline, which is why I think they work well and why I like them. But I don’t think they’re really the kind of effects where you suddenly like just totally pull yourself out of the film and feel like you’ve been blown away by them.

WRIGHT: It’s less about the effects themselves and more about how all of these different sort of realities that have been set up intertwine and come together. And that – I mean, that’s a pretty impressive bit.

CAVANAUGH: Does it have any kind of a video game feel?


MARKS: No, that’s “Restrepo” and we’ll get to that later on.

ACCOMANDO: No, there’s just – You don’t talk that much in a video game.

MARKS: “Restrepo,” we’ll…


ACCOMANDO: But there’s not that much discussion…

WRIGHT: I – I mean, I would disagree. I mean, there are definitely – I’ve seen things like this in some games before, I mean, but that’s definitely the sort of look and feel that as that medium gets more and more sophisticated, it – you see things that are sort of, you know, coming together.

CAVANAUGH: So I’m getting – I’m getting the…

ACCOMANDO: But not the video game feel, though.

CAVANAUGH: I’m getting the feel from you, though, that this is not perhaps a typical summer blockbuster?


MARKS: No, of course not.


MARKS: Of course not. But I’ll tell you, and I can leave right now after I say this, I think the special effects in “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” are just as good.

CAVANAUGH: “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

MARKS: Yeah, I know. And I should hate that film. I should never even have gone in to see that film. I went in to see that film to laugh.

ACCOMANDO: You were so curmudgeonly coming into that one.

MARKS: Oh, come on, it’s John Turteltaub. The man who made “Phenomenon” or that posits John Travolta is a genius? Come one, I have to watch what this man does.

WRIGHT: You know what, though? Here’s the thing. It is – I mean, whether or not you go for everything in “Inception,” it’s so much more ambitious than all of the big summer movies. It really tries to be something bigger than all those things.

CAVANAUGH: And does it succeed?

WRIGHT: I thought it did. Apparently I’m in the minority.

ACCOMANDO: No, I think it succeeds to a point. I mean, I just felt like there was more exposition than I wanted and it kind of bogged the film down. And, you know, they make these references to the fact that five minutes in a dream is – or is like…

MARKS: An hour in…

ACCOMANDO: …ten year – and, you know, at the end of the movie I was checking, like, so we been in here for what? Ten years?

MARKS: Yeah.

ACCOMANDO: So, I mean, it did feel a bit…

CAVANAUGH: And your seal of approval, are you going to see it again, Scott?

MARKS: Again?


MARKS: No, once – I – Once was enough.


MARKS: This is not a cinematic puzzle that I really want to spend time cracking. You know, I mean, I’ll – That’s “Wild Grass,” that’s this year’s cinematic puzzle for me. We’ll get to that later.

CAVANAUGH: We are going to be…


CAVANAUGH: …talking about that later. I want to tell everyone, “Inception” opens in area theaters this weekend. We’ll take a short break and then return with the KPBS Film Club of the Air.

Companion viewing: "Paprika," "Memento," "The Following," "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

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