Sunday, July 18, 2010


Both Inception, the new movie by Christopher Nolan, and Jon Turteltaub's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, involve physics

and the human brain's capacity for perception. Both succeed on different levels.

Inception is the first movie by Chris Nolan conceived as an original story since his 2000 hit, Memento, which had the heady premise of presenting your standard neo-noir in backwards order; since then, Nolan has cut his teeth on adaptations -- Insomnia, the two recent Batman movies, and The Prestige. I'm not sure that his storytelling chops have evolved, but what's there can certainly be identified as a personal style, which always seems to involve spinning tricky stories with some sleight of hand and some admittedly charming old fashioned movie magic. In Inception, we're immediately thrust into a world where the invasion of a person's dreams and unconscious mind is a given, a la The Matrix or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At the same time (not unlike Nolan's previous efforts), the plot follows that of a basic heist genre picture, set up as protagonist Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) one "last big score" to get him reunited with the kids he hasn't seen since having to flee "Stateside". He recruits a crew for the job -- an Arthur (loyal partner Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an architect (Ellen Page, also doing extra work as a psychologist in some scenes), a forger (a lively and entertaining performance by Tom Hardy), and a chemist (Dileep Rao), all bankrolled by a new employer (Ken Watanabe) who can guarantee his future amnesty. Lurking in the shadows is a femme fatale in the form of Mal (Marion Cotillard and yes, that is one heavy-handed character name), who may or may not gum up the works. What sets this basic plot apart is that the majority of the action takes place in what are essentially several floors (and a basement) of Cillian Murphy's subconscious house of a mind (which also brings us into Being John Malkovich territory). The movie toys with this, has its fun, and keeps the audience engaged, albeit on an intellectual plane rather than an emotional one. While a lot of talky talk exposition gets unpacked (one of the drawbacks of sci-fi in general), it's kept to a minimum; the filmmakers are confident enough to rely on their visuals, which are enjoyable in details big (such as Page's quick read of what she can manipulate via the physics of the dream world) and small (the joke of explaining "the kick" by subjecting Gordon-Levitt's character to successive pratfalls, or Hardy's transformation into Tom Berenger via clever cutaways to various mirrors). JG-L gets to perform some of the more exhilarating effects work, in a scene -- probably the movie's best -- that moves from a fist fight in a rotating corridor to free-floating in the same environment to solve yet another dream conundrum (take that, 3-D!). Overall, it's an entertaining and refreshingly imaginative movie, inventively dazzling while being bereft of any real feeling. The prime example is the explanation of Cobb's angst over his relationship with Mal: You get the impression that our hearts are supposed to go out to this doomed affair, but like so much of the narrative not directly dealing with the main event, it only serves as more distancing backstory. The best you're going to get is the chemistry teased out between Hardy and Gordon-Levitt's characters, who seem ready for their own Oceans series. In line with the rest of Nolan's oeuvre, you're better off not overworking the 10% of your brain used in regard to the big dreamy ideas (or the length -- a James Bond ski chase sequence taxed my watch-glancing resistance) and just enjoying the small spinning top.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice, while being of more modest means (and, as the latest Cage/Bruckheimer co-lab, that speaks volumes), may arguably be the more rewarding experience: After an awesome voiceover intro by Ian McShane (can we just have him introduce everything from now on?), an unlikely "I make music with my Tesla coil" genius Dave (a winning Jake Cherry at 10 years old, then Jay Baruchel at 20, giving Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg some much needed competition) gets recruited by "Merlinist" magician Balthazar Blake (but really, they could've just named him "Nicolas Cage"), discovers he is -- wait for it -- "The Prime Merlinian" (LOL), and learns how to use more than 10% of his brain not to manipulate dreams but to blow shit up and get the girl. How does physics get explained in this, you may ask? Physics = Magic. Done. Seriously, Nic and the writers (based on a Goethe poem!) make it that easy for the audience. The rest is Alfred "Horvath (whore bath?)" Molina relishing his role as the baddie and forcing several Cage matches to ensue, involving floating sword fights, an urn with a ten year imprisonment expectancy (to the day), a dragon, a Russian nesting doll, an ashy Alice Krige and a Chrysler building gargoyle that knows how to get to Paris. Oh, and I forgot -- broomsticks. It's Maaaagic! All you have to do is get past the complete implausibility of a WNYU dj playing a Jonas Brothers-esque song on the New Afternoon Show. While the best magic is performed in getting our hero from Washington Square Park to the Chrysler Building in mere seconds, The Sorcerer's Apprentice makes the perfect palate cleanser to the high concept ambitions of Inception.

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