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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Inception

Oscars: 'Inception' definitely a 'sound' mix ...

February 27, 2011 |  6:58 pm

Dinner break, but rumor is that "Inception" nabbed sound editing and mixing. Whew, that was a nail biter.


Red carpet photos

Oscar scorecard

Complete coverage: The Oscars

— Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio, left, and Cillian Murphy in "Inception." Credit: Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros.

Will validation-seeking Christopher Nolan fans finally get their wish?

January 10, 2011 |  3:08 pm

This morning's announcement of the five nominees for the Directors Guild of America's top movie prize is not something the average film fan would normally pay much attention to.

But the legions of Christopher Nolan supporters out there salivating for the director's first Oscar nomination -- and eagerly hoping for a chance to see their man stand up at the most-watched film event of the year -- could only be reassured by the announcement. As our sister blog Awards Tracker notes, the list of nominees for the group's outstanding achievement in feature film prize include the "Inception" man, as well as the directors of "The King's Speech," "The Social Network, "Black Swan" and "The Fighter."

Nolanites have reason to feel good. The DGA is about an accurate a predictor of the best director category at the Academy Awards as you can get: It's foretold at least four of the five Oscar nominees in all but two of the past 12 years.

That would seem like great news for those hoping to see "Inception" get some attention in front of the approximately 40 million U.S. television viewers (and many more around the world) at the end of February. To date, Nolan's movies have been nominated mostly in technical categories, and he was nominated once as a screenwriter (for "Memento"), but he has never landed a prized best-director slot, a source of irritation for his many fans. This year, the DGA nomination suggests, could be different.

Except for one problem: One of the rare Oscar names the DGA has not predicted in the past has been ... Christopher Nolan. It happened on two occasions. The director was nominated by the DGA for both "The Dark Knight" and "Memento." But when it came time for the Oscars, the academy decided to use that slot for someone else.

As an original work with its own mythology, "Inception" could stand a better shot with some Oscar voters than the superhero-based "Dark Knight." But the DGAs alone might not predict that.

Meanwhile, fans of Joel and Ethan Coen, whose "True Grit" wasn't nominated by the DGA, might want to reassure themselves in the other direction: That fifth slot is up for grabs, and the directors could still push out someone else when it comes time for the Oscars.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Christopher Nolan at the London premiere of "Inception." Credit: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters


Awards Tracker: DGA nominates five

Awards Tracker: Directors guild nominations: No love for Danny Boyle or the Coen Bros.

Awards Tracker: DGA nominees and Oscars usally disagree...a little bit

Awards Tracker: Christopher Nolan is 'thrilled'


Did movies get better or worse in 2010?

December 30, 2010 |  2:04 pm


The end of the year tends to prompt reflection on all things on God's green earth, including on what for film buffs is perhaps the most important thing of all -- the state of our  movie culture.

So that subject was already much on people's minds when this New York Times article about studios' willingness to gamble on original ideas began kicking up some dust, eliciting both scoffs and nods of agreement. And it made everyone, including us at 24 Frames, wonder if movies as a whole got better  or worse in 2010.

Is it possible to say both?

There's no objective truth on any of this -- one man's mess is another man's masterpiece -- but a lot of us have had the sense that 2010 was a tale of two seasons.

The summer brought more than its typical share of live-action critical clunkers --  for every "Inception" there was an "A-Team," a "Last Airbender," or a "Grown-Ups" -- while the fall seemed to yield an unusually large number of gems.

The summer and the fall have long had a quality gap, but this year it seemed wider than usual. "The Last Airbender" and "Grown-Ups," for instance, each failed to top a 10% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  (The lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating for a big-budget extravaganza last summer was 20%, for "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.")  And while "Grown-Ups" got an overall CinemaScore of B from audiences, that was inflated by under-18 viewers, who gave it an A-; most adults gave it far below a B.

But it all turned around after Labor Day once the smaller guys took the stage. Reviewers and audiences began embracing a wide range of movies: "The Fighter," "The King's Speech," "Black Swan," "The Social Network,""True Grit." (You can also toss "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone" into the mix -- they were technically released in the summer but both were indie films through and through.)

Last fall yielded some well-regarded movies too -- including "Avatar" and "Precious" -- but the list of the roundly loved was decidedly thinner. It was a season, after all, of "Brothers," "Invictus" and "The Lovely Bones." (None of this, incidentally, applies to animated films, which somehow continue to get better no matter the season.)

The widening in quality between summer and fall films is hardly an accident. As studios continue to go for sequels and brand-driven movies, some big-budget summer releases inevitably find themselves in a creative rut. Meanwhile, the independent-film world, still reeling from a shakeout, is experiencing a cream-rising-to-the-top effect. It's possible movies like "Black Swan" or "The Fighter" would have been made five years ago, when financing flowed more freely. But they probably wouldn't have been made as rigorously, and they might have been diluted in a sea of lesser films.

Given how studios remain focused on remakes while the indie world finds itself in a state of semi-recession, we can probably expect more of the same in '11. That's the bad news -- and the good news too.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "The Last Airbender." Credit: Paramount Pictures

'Inception' wins informal poll as most overrated movie of 2010 (Part 2)

December 30, 2010 |  7:00 am


Last week we asked readers to weigh in on the most overrated movies of 2010. In messages, comments and tweets, the feedback has come, and the consensus choice is..."Inception."

Christopher Nolan's action-puzzle had its defenders, to be sure. But the plurality of moviegoers who responded said that it, among all 2010 films, didn't live up to the praise it was getting. ("The Town" and "The Social Network" finished in essentially a tie for second.)

Much of the feedback on "Inception" came with some pithy comments . Among them:

"Big set pieces are the wizard's curtain."

"Inception, hands down. And it will be like a taco inside taco within a Taco Bell that's inside a KFC that's within a mall that's inside your dream!' Seriously. Inception."

"'Inception' is 'Ocean's 11' minus the hot dudes & charisma."

Of course the choice may have something to do with the fact that "Inception" received so much praise in the first place, and was also one of the biggest hits of the year. (But then, we suppose that's what overrated means.)

The movie still has a shot at winning the Oscar for best picture. Which would only make the supporters and the skeptics scream louder.  Which in turns means that the film may also deserve another title: the most polarizing movie of 2010.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: 'Inception.' Credit: Warner Bros.


What's the most overrated movie of 2010? (Part 1)


Why did so few specialty films cross over this summer?

September 3, 2010 |  1:16 pm

Summer -- that elusive, seductive damsel exiting the bar after this weekend -- tends to inspire a lot of things, including too many contemporary country singers to write bad songs. What it usually also does is get filmgoers to take a break from the male explosion extravaganzas and female star-driven dramedies to check out something smaller. lighter and more human, movies that people see because they discover them, not because they're marketed into submission.

The so-called specialty crossover hit has  been a certainty in recent summers, when there's reliably been a  "Little Miss Sunshine" or a "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" to attract filmgoers. This year? Not so much.

The offbeat family dramedy "The Kids Are All Right" comes closest to earning the crossover crown -- it's grossed just over $19 million since being released in early July. For a $5-million acquisition of worldwide rights out of Sundance, that's not a shabby investment for distributor Focus Features. But it's hardly the blowout success of "Little Miss Sunshine," a movie to which "Kids" has been compared but which grossed nearly $60 million, or even the quirky breakup dramedy "(500) Days of Summer," which grossed $32 million last summer.

In only one other summer in the past decade did a specialty movie not crack the $20-million mark (it happened in 2007, when "Waitress" just missed the cut). "The Kids Are All Right" will probably make it to $20 million, but barely. And the Lisa Cholodenko film is actually the exception -- there isn't a single other specialty movie so far this year close to it. Many years there are multiple films. And sometimes there's even one blowout one, a "Napoleon Dynamite" or, all the way at the upper end of the register, a "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." This year the well is dry.
Executives we spoke to ranged around for explanation about the crossover crisis. There's the matter of changing audience appetites, they said. Or maybe the specialty business is simply cyclical, and we're at a low point. And then there's the fact that this summer's breakout, "Inception," a kind of big-budget art-house film, sponged up many of the moviegoers who might have otherwise seen specialty counterprogrammers.

But it's the simplest explanation that may be the truest: The number of financiers and distributors that might have produced and pushed these films are no longer doing business.  The brothers Weinstein -- who regularly churned out counterprogrammers earlier in the 00s, have been laying lower this year. Miramax and Bob Berney are off the scene. So are a lot of indie financing instruments. Sure, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features are still here as well-funded, infrastructure-heavy producers and distributors, but they're increasingly the exception. Searchlight also took a rare pause form its usual crossover dominance this year as it released "Cyrus," which grossed just over $7 million. (It did have the urban romantic comedy "Just Wright" gross $21 million, though that doesn't fit the typical definition of a specialty film.)

There is, however, some hope for those who toil in specialty fields, or simply appreciate its fruit: a number of word-of-mouth movies that quietly found a nice niche audience. The screwball family romp  "City Island," an Anchor Bay movie that few wanted even after a strong showing at the Tribeca Film Festival two years ago, has cranked out nearly $7 million on a minuscule marketing budget. Ditto for the Swedish-language crime thriller "The Girl Who Played With Fire." And a host of well-reviewed, micromarketed dramas have hovered at or near a respectable $5 million in domestic box office  -- Michael Douglas' "Solitary Man," Tilda Swinton's "I Am Love" and critics' darling "Winter's Bone."

When the financial crisis hit a few years ago, we heard often that indie films would now be left in indie hands, making indie money. This summer, we began to see it.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "The Kids Are All Right." Credit: Focus Features

Cairo Time: Walking (like an Egyptian) into a Hollywood blockbuster

September 1, 2010 | 10:15 am


There may be, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, no foreign lands, only travelers who are foreign. A nice thought, but it does little to smooth the adjustment for someone entering a Cairo structure to perform the ultimate  in Middle Eastern travel rituals: watch "Inception."

In a theater adjacent to a place with the delightfully East-meets-West-- or is it Cecil B. DeMille-meets-the hotel industry? -- name of the Ramses Hilton, the Christopher Nolan film is playing, and I, on vacation in the Middle East, decide I must go. The pyramids? Fine. The sphinx? Yeah, OK. A Kubrickian masterpiece with heart? It has to be seen to be believed.

As it turned out, the impulse was simpler than the act. To get to the theater is to undertake one of the most dangerous of Cairo activities: crossing the street, a process akin to walking across hot coals while playing Frogger, only with real-life trucks. Things don't get much smoother on arrival. To enter the shopping center where the theater is housed, one must pass through multiple metal detectors and security checkpoints, an inconvenience eased slightly by the fact that a giant lamp bearing a campy Ali Baba theme greets you upon your entrance. What foreign cultures take away with one hand, they give with the other.

Farther inside, in the building's icily air-conditioned hallways, a post-Ramadan late-night crowd is swelling the food courts, the shops and, upstairs, the movie theaters. Or, more specifically, the movie theaters showing films such as "Sameer, Shaheer & Baheer," a puerile-looking Arabic-language comedy whose poster offers definitive proof that Adam Sandler is more influential than any of us had feared. But while the crowds lined up for a number of local movies, inside the theater where "Inception" was playing sit only about a dozen people, most of them looking rather well-heeled. This is a young, educated crowd, and even includes some solo film-goers, especially anomalous given the group mentality found elsewhere around the city.

As the movie begins, an intense reverent silence (of the kind not found in mall theaters no matter the hemisphere) takes hold, breaking only for laughter at the subtle moment when Joseph Gordon Levitt's character kisses Ellen Page's character as a "test." It begin to dawn on me that while, in the U.S., "Inception" was the ultimate in mainstream hits, with millions of people across every age and educational range turning out to see it, in other countries, or at least this one, it's something else. Despite the buzz and the international stars and the big-budget effects, "Inception" in Cairo something that Hollywood, in its export-minded glee, would probably not have expected: an art-house film.

Like pretty much all other movies, "Inception" also plays differently to an audience that speaks a language different from the characters -- only, somehow in this case of this film, those differences are even more pronounced. Paragraph-long chunks of Nolan's dialogue are shortened, given subtitle space constraints, into just a few Arabic words. It is, perhaps, a study in the nuances lost in foreign-language film-going. Or maybe it's just a Thoreau-ian argument for simplicity. You could spend 500 words explaining how, in collective dreams, subconscious projections of the subject can turn on the dreamer as he nears a conscious state. Or you can just say people sleep, and then they wake up.

Hollywood is supposed to shorten distances, the uniformity of its exports making us seem a little more alike. When the lights go down, we're all watching he same thing. (Literally, given global tent-pole culture.) But the experience of watching a blockbuster in a place like this only makes those differences more apparent.

As if on cue, Just as the film's well-known taxi chase starts to unfold, an intermission for the purpose of a reel change is called, an occasion the projectionist marks by abruptly casting an image of a box of exploding popcorn on the screen, something that has not, to my knowledge, happened at any theater in the U.S., despite our long tradition of anthropomorphic snack foods on the big screen.

Then the house lights come up and an Akon song comes on, and I think "Maybe Stevenson was right after all."

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: The pyramids at Giza, in a sense the world's first multiplex. Credit: Getty Images


Lighten up, Leo DiCaprio? Readers respond, Sharkey bites back

August 13, 2010 | 12:20 pm

Leonardo DiCaprio2

On Tuesday, I began an essay examining Leonardo DiCaprio's career with this question: "Is it just me, or does it seem as if Leonardo DiCaprio's acting career has somehow lost its way in the seventh level of "Inception's" labyrinth?" And before the ink was dry, like a bad moon rising, the reactions started rolling in...

Eric, a reader who periodically checks in when he thinks someone should hold my feet to the fire, was typical of the first wave. The subject line said it all: "It's you, Betsy." He went on to chalk up my musings to "female hysteria," and offer a couple of remedies... but at least he had a sense of humor about it. Besides, as he put it,  "No one ever said being a film critic was going to be easy. The shadow houses are banned in Saudi Arabia for a reason, dear." I love it when he calls me  "dear."

RB checked in from the lobby of "the old Warner Hollywood Studio" writing: "Leo is right now at this very moment a man, an actor, a talent to cherish and not to direct." Bummer, I always wanted to direct...

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Will Christopher Nolan's 'Inception' become a phenomenon?

July 19, 2010 | 12:34 pm

"Inception's" stellar opening weekend is reassuring news for Warner Bros. and ardent Christopher Nolan fans. But it's not, given the film's pre-release interest, a huge surprise.

The bigger question, both financially and culturally, will be how the Leonardo DiCaprio movie holds up in the coming weeks. Getting Americans excited about seeing the puzzle-heavy acton movie was one hurdle, and the studio jumped over it nicely (with the help of many of the online pundits to whom the studio showed the film early and who went gaga for it). Maintaining strong word-of-mouth, however, will be trickier, especially since many of the opening-weekend impressions were mixed.

Critics, for instance, were lukewarm, as many in the mainstream print media piled on the movie as a triumph of the technical and conceptual over the narrative and emotional. (More on the two waves of interest -- the flattering early hosannas and the decidedly cool critical reaction, one of the sharpest swings we've seen in a long time, in our article "The Rise and Reassessment of 'Inception.' ")

And the overall reaction from filmgoers wasn't effusive; the movie's CinemaScore, a kind of exit poll of opening-weekend audiences, came in at B+, solid but hardly the stuff of which long-running phenomena are made. In fact, older filmgoers — the demographic that usually carries a movie beyond its opening weekend — were noticeably chillier to the film, grading it a B-, compared with the A given to it by filmgoers younger than 25. (That, incidentally, is a mystery in its own right, since the early talk about the film's complexity had it that "Inception" may play better to audience members in their 30s and 40s than to, say, teenagers.)

What all of this adds up to is still, well, a puzzle. The threshold for a big-budget summer movie to be considered a domestic hit is probably a gross between $150 million and $200 million, a figure that’s within reach for “Inception,” even if it may take some stretching to get to the higher end of that range.

But that's only part of the question. Several of Nolan's previous films, including "Memento" and "The Dark Knight," became full-blown cultural phenomena, with op-eds about the topics they engaged with, buzz about awards and a life that extended far beyond their run in the theaters. "Inception" had a nice weekend, and it's certainly a hit with the young and the fanboy, but there's little evidence at the moment to think it will become more than that.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Poster for "Inception." Credit: Warner Bros.


The rise and reassessment of 'Inception'

'Inception' tops box office

The season of 'Inception' begins, but where will it end?

Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.

The season of 'Inception' begins, but where will it end?

July 16, 2010 |  8:02 pm


The A-list critics on Friday weighed in on "Inception," and their reaction has been ... diverse. The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan embraced the film ("If you're searching for smart and nervy popular entertainment, this is what it looks like"), while the New York Times' A.O. Scott was more lukewarm. (It "gestures in the direction of mighty philosophical questions that Mr. Nolan is finally too tactful, too timid or perhaps just too busy to engage. ... The accomplishments of 'Inception' are mainly technical.") And so it goes.

All of this come as expectations for the film's commercial performance climb ever-higher. My colleague Ben Fritz notes that box office receipts this weekend could reach $45 million. Several experts we've dropped the question on say it could go as high as $55 million or even $60 million -- a number that would make it the fifth-highest-grossing movie of the summer and serve as an unusual testament to the power of a name-brand director.

Key to the film reaching that figure will be how it fares among some of the groups with which it has shown weakness in pre-release tracking, particularly older women.

Earlier this week, at the film's premiere in Hollywood, the stars told my colleague Amy Kaufman that they feel the hype attendant to Nolan's film. "I think there are probably expectations," said co-star Cillian Murphy, "but I think the film will definitely live up to those because it does deliver on so many different levels."

How much those expectations help or hurt it remain to be seen. Certainly they drive opening-weekend curiosity. After that, it's the film's buzz that usually takes over. And that's where things get tricky. The movie's complexity could, on one hand (level?), put a damper on word-of-mouth, even as the conversation that complexity spurs could drive people to see what the fuss is all about. For a movie whose reception and interpretations have been all over the map, it only stands to reason that its commercial prospects follow suit.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page in "Inception." Credit: Warner Bros.


The expectations keep ratcheting up for "Inception"

Movie Review: "Inception"

"Inception" should hit No. 1

'Inception' is absorbing and provocative, but probably not a masterpiece

July 12, 2010 |  7:00 am


The noise for the summer's most anticipated movie is starting to hit a crescendo, as Warner Bros. prepares to release Christopher Nolan's warped-reality action picture "Inception" this weekend.

We're not critics here at 24 Frames, so no review in this space -- look for The Times' critical take later in the week in the paper and on our website.  But given the level of interest in the film, and the fact that everyone and their therapist has begun to offer their online assessment, we did want to react to some key elements in the film. Because this isn't a review, we'll leave plot details out -- apart from noting the basic premise of a dream-invader (Leonardo DiCaprio) who tries the difficult feat of implanting an idea in someone else's mind -- and also assume you either know many of those details already or don't want to know any of them at all.

What we will say is that "Inception" is an impressive movie with notable flaws. On a purely visceral level, the film is an exciting experience. Nolan creates a fully (sometimes overly) realized conceptual world and pairs it with intricate visual detail.  His cinematic method for literalizing dreams -- hardly the easiest trick in the handbook -- looks spectacular and feels accurate. Elaborately devised and conceived, "Inception" achieves the primary aim of all big-budget films: it takes all that money and puts in the service of a deep and sprawling vision, the kind of combination that can, at least on a surface level, make for a fulfilling time at the movies. Few films slather on so much conceptual ambition while delivering this much effects firepower.
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