Pay close attention to 'Inception'

A remarkable revolution has taken place in filmmaking over the past two decades, one that has profoundly altered the movie-going experience. What has occurred is the increasing use of CGI (computer generated imaging) in movies of all genres. The transformation has taken place with little fanfare, involving esoteric technology that is today incorporated in even the most mundane movies without audiences taking particular note.

Of course, recent blockbusters such as the big-tent hit "Avatar," as well as those countless comic book-derivative films, have all utilized state of the art, milestone advances in CGI hardware and software, as have the many recent children's stories adapted for the screen such as "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Lord of the Rings" and the recent "Airbender."

The ever-more sophisticated software allows filmmakers to seamlessly blend into their movies all manner of visual imagery, often breathtaking, that only a short time ago would have been while imaginable simply not achievable with any semblance of verisimilitude.

As well, Disneyesque animation, where every frame was hand-drawn and transferred to cells and then painted, is now done entirely with computers. Pixar's "Toy Story," "Wall-E," and "Up" are just the tip of a creative iceberg regarding the explosion of CGI-animated feature films. The transition has been astonishing and transformative.

What audiences see on the screen today is only limited by the imaginations of the writers, directors and cinematographers. No longer do they have to construct elaborate props, sets, hand-built models or miniatures or use stop-motion claymation. They can create set pieces that are mindbenders.

CGI has given new meaning to the thriller, but it has also allowed filmmakers to create virtual characters, extras, crowd scenes, flocking, backdrops (using blue screens), all of it synergistic thus enhancing the gestalt of watching a movie.

Recall the impact of watching the groundbreaking "Jurassic Park," one of the first films to effectively use CGI, replete with gripping set pieces that raised goose bumps on more than a few arms. And not to forget such edge-of-the-envelope movies as "King Kong," "Labyrinth," "Star Trek," "The Abyss," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," "Titanic," "The Matrix," "The Polar Express," "A Christmas Carol" and "Beowulf." To name just a few.

A side note: While films like "The Polar Express," "A Christmas Carol," and "Beowulf" were marvels of technology, they were not successful. The intent was to create humans as realistic as possible using a live action-performance capture technique where the actors were wired to computers and their images digitally animated. What occurred is the "uncanny valley." Mashahiro Mori, a roboticist, explains that animated, realistic human characters in such films can appear slightly surreal or even creepy—— their eyes are stilted, never seeming to fully focus. The response by audiences is one of "revulsion," using Mori's word.

If there's a downside to the revolution in CGI — by some estimates 50 percent of all films now use digital special effects — it has been the temptation to make special effects the main character, giving less thought to dialogue and narrative, turning films into carnival rides, absent coherent stories.

But when CGI is joined with exceptional storytelling, well, a new level of entertainment has arrived.

Any discussion of CGI is mere prologue to the just-released film, "Inception."

Director Christopher Nolan ("Dark Knight," "Memento") has taken a spare story, a heist in reverse, and, with computer-generated imagery, created a complex, visually stunning film.

Set in the not too distant future, it involves a crew of corporate espionage specialists, led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who steal ideas from people's minds while they are in a dream state. Cobb is hired for one final job by an energy mogul, Saito (Ken Wantanabe); however, instead of stealing an idea from the mind of the mark, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to a corporate empire, the objective will be to plant an idea in Fischer's unconscious. If they succeed, he will decide (against his own best interest) to fragment his father's global corporation and sell off the parts. The mission is high risk, high gain, the possibility of being lost in Fischer's unconscious a distinct possibility.

There's a lot more to this film than I've just described. Trying to summarize it is like trying to herd cats. Suffice it to say that travel into the unconscious, into a person's dreams, requires an elaborate construction of a new reality. An architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), is brought on board to design the scenes and structure the journey. And it is in that construction that Nolan demonstrates his talent for consummate filmmaking.

The movie is a labyrinth, a journey into a different world, across six countries, as the crew wends its way through multiple layers of Fisher's unconscious, searching for the precise point where the idea can be planted (an inception as opposed to an extraction). When Fischer returns to consciousness, he will believe the suggestion is his own.

Of course, the narrative, with film noir overtones, is convoluted and complicated. And Cobb, despite his brilliance, has personal issues involving Mal (Marion Cotillard), his wife, and his absent children, issues which he takes along like so much personal luggage.

The risk inherent in such films is that the emotional core of the movie will be lost as the special effects dazzle. And they do dazzle. But Nolan manages to sustain a coherent story throughout. It is necessary, however, to pay very close attention.


At the center of "Cyrus" is a triangle, that most common and often disconcerting dynamic found in so much of human interaction. Triangulation in relationships is seductive and damaging and is too often predicated on dishonesty or, at the very least, secrecy.

It's the inherent dysfunction of triangles that creates, almost from the get-go, a creepy sense of dis-ease as "Cyrus" unfolds.

First there's John (John C. Reilly), divorced, living alone, self-described as being a bit desperate and in a tailspin. His ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), shows up at his house to invite him to a party and to tell him that she is getting married (it's been seven years since they split). John resists the invitation but reluctantly shows up and speed dates his way from woman to woman in a seriocomic fashion.

Having had too much to drink, he finds a backyard bush and stands urinating when Molly (Marisa Tomei) walks by — single, attractive and sober. She glances over, comments on his gear, and improbably decides that John, who refers to himself as Shrek, is interesting.

Though they share the Cliffs Notes of their lives, Molly leaves out one important detail: her 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), is living at home. In fact, he has never left.

And so the triangle is cast. Cyrus, who was homeschooled by Molly, is deeply embedded in her life, like a barnacle on the hull of a cruise ship, the ecology of their relationship long ago established. And here comes John, the third corner, unsuspecting, crazy about Molly, eager to be liked and wanting to win Cyrus over. Meanwhile, more red flags are raised than at an amusement park, which John, to the frustration of the audience, is ignoring. But then, how can he not. Confrontation could mean losing Molly and a return to a life he wants above all to leave behind.

Cyrus and Molly, as it turns out, have no boundaries. In one scene, Cyrus walks into the bathroom while Molly is showering and quietly closes the door as John looks on, preparing to get undressed. In fact, no one in the film has boundaries, meaning John inserts himself into Jamie's life and pending wedding plans, seemingly unaware of his intrusiveness, focused only on his own neediness.

Though the film is unsettling throughout, as it moves from one set piece to the next, the fulcrum being conversation, it is also compelling in a neurotic, won't-someone-please-tell-the-truth way.

Actually, "Cyrus" is a Gordian knot of neurosis, and in some strange way accurately mirrors so many sad, comic, frustrating and deeply human facets of life as folks go about navigating the meaning and the maze of significant and casual relationships.

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