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1st August
written by Mad Cow

Rating: 3 ½ cowbells

Dreams are of interest mostly to those who study them and those who have them. Hearing a friend or spouse go on and on about a “weird dream I had last night” is usually painfully boring. I really don’t care that my spouse dreamt of an elephant on the ceiling or climbing a mountain in Siberia. In movies and books, dream sequences are often superfluous, inexplicable, or obvious ways of moving the plot along, i.e. not really dreams. Thus it was with trepidation that I approached the film Inception, which is about dreams, or at least what one can do with them. I was pleasantly surprised.

A caper movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Memento, Insomnia), the plot is anything but simple. Some might call it science fiction. To me it’s more akin to magical realism, maybe because outer space is not involved. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a con man with a specialization in industrial espionage achieved by extracting secrets from people’s dreams. Japanese industrialist Saito (Ken Wantanabe) engages him to do the opposite – to plant an idea into someone’s brain via a dream. Cobb agrees because Saito promises his unblemished re-entry to the U.S., where Cobb is wanted for murder.

The well-written and casted characters are key to the movie’s delight. Cobb’s team, including Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy), Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt), consists of well-drawn characters. Each clearly has a story, even if its hidden to us. Wantanabe, who insists upon going along to make sure the escapade is successful, also contributes mightily to the ensemble, as does Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), frequently seen in dream sequences. Although on screen in fleeting moments, Cilian Murphy as the target of the scheme Robert Fischer and Tom Berenger as his godfather are near to perfect. Unlike many shoot-em-up movies (and this is one), the guys can be differentiated from each other in both looks and personality. What a concept!

While it’s true that one doesn’t always know whether one is in a dream or not – the plan involves a dream within a dream within a dream – following along without getting annoyed is possible if one goes with the flow. Scenes with Mal offer dramatic conversations that give relief from all the action. The dreamlike landscapes, including crumbling buildings and the ground in the sky, are fascinating and more fun than the creations in Avatar.

Fighting, however, is primary, with gunfights and fist fights amid snowy mountains and burning buildings. One loses track of who is fighting whom and why, whether it actually matters. Will it mess up the dream or is this real life? The device allows for violence completely devoid of good guys and bad guys. Just take a side. Too bad that they go on way too long with all this violence, but meaningless violence is customary for boy-fight movies. Composed of animated action, fisticuffs faster than real time, it gets boring.

Ellen Page as Ariadne, dream architect, was a brilliant bit of casting. Instead of having two gorgeous women, both of whom might be lusting after Cobb, one is a nerdy genius with little in the way of sex appeal, not even cleavage. We rightly know that she and Cobb will not be shacking up. On the other hand gender roles prevail.  Ariadne serves as confident to Cobb and they discuss pertinent feeling stuff that guys don’t talk with each other about in these kinds of movies. Indeed, only Ariadne knows Cobb’s emotional secret. But the fact that Ariadne is very smart and doesn’t have to look like a bimbo is a real plus.

DiCaprio (Shutter Island, Revolutionary Road, The Departed, Aviator) was of course good but the movie doesn’t overly rely on him to carry it. His character is as smooth as one would expect and he has the added emotional overlay connected with his conflicts with his wife and desire to see his children in the U.S. A brilliant actor, he hits the mark here and I hope to see him showcased more in his next film. He is slated to play J. Edgar Hoover in Hoover, due in 2010, and apparently has twenty-two projects in development. I guess we will be seeing a lot of him on center stage.

Other people’s dreams are still to be avoided, but exceptions must be made. Using dreams expanded the movie’s possibilities without messing up and almost miraculously keeping one’s attention while providing sparkling scenes. I should have had more faith in the guy who gave us the incomparable Memento. This is fun entertainment.

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