Inception

OK, so you gather I’ve been somewhat excited about Christopher Nolan’s new movie Inception. But does it live up to its hype? Answer: Yes. And no.

Yes, in that it’s a visually astounding piece of art – parts of Paris rolling up and over itself is a stand-out, and the gravity defying-bits you’ve seen in the trailers: mindblowingly awesome. But no, too, in that it’s hard enough for most filmmakers to weave one or two complex parallel plots together, but Nolan attempts five – a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. Within a dream. Get it? That’s an awful lot to hold together, and to his credit he does just about manage it. But we spend so much time marvelling at the spectacular visuals of set-piece after set-piece, all the while trying to keep track of the intricacies of the plot, that there’s little chance to engage with any of the characters or their emotions. So: wondrous to watch but tedious too, both a masterpiece AND a clunker: how about that for alternate realities?

As for locations, Jerry Garrett again has a lot of interesting stuff, here on the ski resort that’s the penultimate dreamscape…..

The Fortress Mountain ski resort has fallen on hard times, since its use in the 1988 Winter Olympics in nearby Calgary. Alberta’s provincial government closed the resort in 2008 over unpaid taxes and other bills. By 2009, it had degenerated into just exactly the kind of seedy, forelorn, eerie aerie that Mr. Nolan loves to film (remember “Batman Begins”?). Set builders enhanced the area’s cement-gray buildings with an austere fortress of the mind (miniature models of it were what was later blown up)…..

Shutter

Bad American remakes of whacky Japanese horror movies aren’t really my thing. (Sequels of re-makes are even worse.) Shutter though, staring Pacey and a blonde Australian, is surprisingly well made.

Pacey’s done well for himself since ditching Joey Potter (who wed-up to Tom Cruise – wow) and that loser Dawson (what happened to him, huh?); he’s now a top fashion photographer called on assignment to Japan with his gorgeous new wife. Following a creepy and horrible experience on a country road, they return to Tokyo, only to realise that they’ve brought something nasty back with them…..

So I actually liked this movie. Gasp. In the same way that phyisical defects were the visual clue for difference in Victorian melodrama, here it’s Tokyo; the young Americans are so clearly out of their depth in this utterly alien world, and the shock and confusion elicited by the unfriendly ghost is therefore exacerbated. It works. The young foreigners (well, Pacey and his Aussie chick) are believable (I love it that Pacey screams – since when do boys do that in movies??) and the story itself is not so other-worldly that you can’t happily suspend disbelief for an hour or so. It’s not a great film compared to, say, Out of Africa or The Shawshank Redemption, but for a film of its kind, it’s OK.

Shooting on location in Tokyo is reportedly something of a challenge, and in this case the production found a home at the Toho Company studios, where “Godzilla,” “Mothra” and many Kurosawa films were shot. Other locations included an abandoned hospital and empty old houses that provided suitably unsettling environments. Another key location was Mount Fuji, site of the pivotal car crash. I found more on the challenges of Japanese production here.

Babel

Caught Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel on tv again last night – a beautiful, gut wrenching and entirely appalling exposition of the confusions and mistakes and misunderstandings that separate us. In light of the xenophobic wrath unfolding in Johannesburg right now, it’s a timely reminder of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – our humanity connects us, a person is a person through other persons. But then, Desmond Tutu is my hero.

Starring a toned-down Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Babel features four stories that revolve around the central tale of an American couple on a vacation in Morocco. She is badly wounded when a bullet is fired through a tour bus window by a child playing with a gun. Meanwhile, back in America, the couple’s children travel into Mexico illegally with the family’s housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), to attend her son’s wedding near Tijuana. They are accompanied by Amelia’s unstable nephew (Gael García Bernal). And far away in Tokyo, a deaf teenage girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) spins through the emotional upheavals of adolescence, disability and her mother’s suicide.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syfU7drScwg; 350 350]

Each place has its own aural and visual palette, and the fine cinematography distinctly captures the harsh light and dessicated landscapes of Morocco and the Mexican border, as well as the neon chaos of Tokyo. As the movie jumps from place to place and time to time, we learn that the narratives are intertwined and, inspite of the misunderstandings of language (the cast speak Spanish, Berber, Japanese and sign language, as well as English) that everyone is somehow linked.

There’s an interesting insight into the director’s choice of locations and the impact of those choices on the film via the production notes at Movie Grande.

A couple of things stand out for me. Talking of the experience of filming on the edge of the Sahara, Iñárritu says: “The heat was brutal and uncomfortable, but it’s precisely what this story is about. This was not only method acting but method execution.”

And at the other end of the spectrum, Tokyo -the only urban location – was rife with its own challenges. Says Iñárritu; “Things work slowly there and there’s no film commission to help you through. There’s no permission to shoot anything, so you are always escaping from the police at every corner. We had to be brave and work like a guerilla-style crew, ready to improvise, moving fast.”

And that’s why we need Film Commissions……