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On Movies: 'Inception' creates thrilling dreamscapes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 16, 2010 -In a slow summer for movie-goers, Christopher Nolan's "Inception" has been well worth the anticipation. Audiences who have come to expect complex and moody movies from the writer-director who gave them "The Dark Knight" (2008) and "Memento" (2000) are not likely to be disappointed.

In the eerie "Memento," Guy Pearce, who had a weird amnesia, was unable to create new short-term memories, as he searched for his wife's killer in a double plot, one going forward and one going backward, one in color and one in black-and-white. That effect was mesmerizing. Well, get set for even more, even stranger.

In the new "Inception," an industrial spy named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) makes his living doing "extractions" --- he steals proprietary ideas from the subconscious minds of businessmen. But in this particularly dangerous case, he will go one triple-deep step further -- "inception" -- and he will plant an idea in another man's mind.

If you tried to like "Synecdoche, New York" (2009) but couldn't enjoy anything except the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener and the slick title, then "Inception" will probably be far more satisfying. Nolan's new movie has a heart, and it centers on Cobb's lost wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who once worked on extractions with him but who somehow got twisted up in their reality games and left him alone with two small children. The beautiful Mal is literally haunting Cobb's own subconscious.

The story line is so complex that the viewer is told very quickly how it will work. Otherwise, nobody would be able to follow the intricate layers of events. Simply stated, Cobb will attempt to take his spy team into a dream inside a dream inside a dream. And yes, the movie works, creating a complex and thrilling story that will hold the eye of the most jaded viewer.

Even more than riveting viewers' eyeballs to the astounding images of three simultaneous dream stories on the screen, the script requires the full imaginative attention of the audience, who must juggle heist-movie events inside spy-movie events inside film-noir events, all the while trying to keep clear about the fourth "real" world framing the story. Do not try to leave for a quick smoke and don't have any stiff drinks right before the movie starts.

While the immensely complicated script works almost perfectly, the casting is a bit confusing. The strong secondary cast seems somewhat wasted, including brief turns by Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, Tom Berenger and Lukas Haas. Surprisingly, Ellen Page as Ariadne seems overwhelmed most of the time. Ariadne should be the audience's one solid safety bar in an otherwise insane roller-coaster ride through a nightmare.

Even so, Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard are always anguished and frightening together as could be expected. The British actor Tom Hardy ("RocknRolla," "Layer Cake") is also particularly winning as a shape-shifting wise guy. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt almost steals the show. His growing army of fans (after "Brick" and "(500) Days of Summer") will probably marvel at his insanely cool fight in a hotel corridor. He's also making a documentary of his own about "Inception" with "Genghis Blues" director Roco Belic, which should be one of the highlights of the DVD to come.

For the meditatively inclined, the movie also presents an interesting commentary on what goes on in the mind of anybody trying to navigate "real-life" and even more curiously, what might go on in the minds of any movie-goers who suppose the virtual daydream of a movie will leave them unscathed when they walk out of the theater.

Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has written extensively on movies.

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