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Inception, Sorcerer's Apprentice, Predator
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What would noted dream warrior Sigmund Freud make of Inception, Christopher Nolan's first film since the eye-popping success of The Dark Knight? That's impossible to say, of course, but personally, it left me absolutely giddy. And if "giddy" sounds like a rather juvenile word to use to describe such an astounding experience (I can't imagine Freud would critique it in such terms!), that's simply the fault of the picture itself, a moviegoing marvel with the ability to get cineastes intoxicated on the pure pleasure and the pure possibility of the medium of film.

Nolan, who's been engaging audience intellect since the days of Following and Memento, has come up with another head-scratching one-of-a-kind, a movie that takes place on -- and consequently works on -- numerous levels. It's so densely plotted that it occasionally loses the viewer, yet it's so vastly entertaining that it'd hardly be a chore catching it a second time to fill in some pieces. Yet I suspect repeat viewings won't be enough to nail this one down: Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's both knotty enough and ambiguous enough to lead to conflicting opinions down the years. Besides, our dreams are open to different interpretations, so why not some of our movies as well?

Offering any sort of synopsis is a risky business, since this is one of those pretzel-shaped pictures that rewards the unaware. Suffice it to say (and this is pretty much shown in the trailer) that in what appears to be the near future, it will be possible to enter other people's dreams. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best in the business of creeping into targets' minds and extracting valuable secrets for which others will pay a hefty price. His latest customer, a businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe), wants him to infiltrate the mind of a rival, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), but rather than extract info, he wants Cobb to try the near-impossible art of inception, i.e. planting an idea.

For this assignment, Cobb cobbles together a crack team, including his dependable sidekick Arthur (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) and newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page), who's tasked with designing the various levels of the dream world they'll be inhabiting. Yet while Cobb appears to have things under control, he's repeatedly distracted by the unexpected presence of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who keeps popping up while he's on the job.

To explain Mal's connection would be to reveal too much, but she's at the heart of one of the picture's prominent themes, this one involving (to borrow from another dream expert, Salvador Dali) the persistence of memory. To back up his lofty ideas, Nolan has assembled a typical A-list of behind-the-scenes personnel, including Oscar winner Hans Zimmer (who delivers what might be his best-ever score) and a special effects crew that serves up some truly spectacular images (the incredible sight of a Paris street folding over on itself still takes only the silver when positioned next to Arthur's weightless hotel-corridor fights). And Nolan also slyly borrows from the classics of yesteryear, with particularly obvious nods to Citizen Kane, select Hitchcock titles and the aforementioned 2001. It all adds up to a superb motion picture, one with the ability to infiltrate both our dream state and our waking life.



It isn't a Jerry Bruckheimer production if the movie doesn't hit the ground running, and sure enough, The Sorcerer's Apprentice gets off to a frantic start with a whirlwind sequence in which reams of centuries-old back story and endless exposition are dumped on the audience's collective head in order to quickly let the modern-day bulk of the movie commence. But as is often the case with the punishing producer, the prologue is so loud and frenzied and chaotic that I was ready to leave upon its conclusion, feeling as if I had already sat through an entire movie's worth of bruising behavior.

This penchant for creating faux-excitement simply by making everything blaring and calamitous is a specialty not only of Bruckheimer but also director Jon Turteltaub, who previously gave us two daft National Treasure movies (if you somehow haven't seen that pair, they're like 6th-grade versions of Raiders of the Lost Ark). This is basically more of the same, although unlike that twofer, this at least has the decency to clock in at under two hours.

Nicolas Cage is miscast as Balthazar Blake, one of Merlin's original disciples(!) who turns up in modern-day New York City after countless centuries searching for the Prime Merlinian (not to be confused with the Prime Meridian or even Optimus Prime), a novice wizard expected to eventually be about as powerful as Merlin was back in the millennium. Balthazar discovers that a geeky college kid named Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel, last heard training a dragon) is the object of his search, and he hopes that after providing the proper tutelage, Dave will be able to help him fight off another Merlin disciple: Maxim Horvarth (Alfred Molina), the Judas to Balthazar's John.

Inspired in part by the delightful Mickey Mouse sequence from Disney's 1940 Fantasia (there's even a scene in which Dave battles dancing mops), The Sorcerer's Apprentice is strictly standard action-fantasy fare, not too bad as these Bruckheimer boom boxes go. There's some clever CGI trickery mixed in with the more lackluster effects, Baruchel is appealing in his limited way, and the jackhammer pace insures that there's no time to get bored. But is any of it memorable? Hardly. I remember the contours of my theater seat better than I recall the particulars of this cinematic sleight of hand.



It may not have seemed like much at the time, but in retrospect, 1987's Predator now stands as one of the better pictures on Arnold Schwarzenegger's surprisingly underwhelming resume, behind only the first two Terminator films and Total Recall. Predators, on the other hand, won't seem like the cream of anybody's crop; instead, time will dismiss it as yet one more belated sequel hoping to turn name recognition into cash value.

An '80s breeding ground for future governors (Arnold and Jesse Ventura) and a wannabe governor (Sonny Landham), Predator benefitted not only from powerful visual effects and brawny performances but also from the muscular direction by Die Hard's John McTiernan, who worked over the streamlined storyline and brought it to rippling life. Director Nimrod Antal can't manage to do the same for Predators, a flabby new variation on that most reliable of short stories, Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game."

Instead of Zaroff and his hounds, we get the title fiends and their hounds from hell, four-legged grotesqueries employed to drive the human prey out into the open. Here, the hapless earthlings, all imported to a distant jungle planet for the amusement of the alien hunters, include a humorless mercenary (Adrien Brody), an Israeli soldier (Alice Braga), a murderous convict (Walton Goggins) and the apparent wimp of the group, a meek doctor (Topher Grace).

You know priorities are out of whack when the film's most interesting performer, Machete's Danny Trejo, checks out waaay too early while the worst actor in the bunch, the perpetually hammy Goggins, is allowed to hang around. Laurence Fishburne, who I always assumed couldn't give a bad performance, proves me wrong with a head-scratching turn as the only survivor of the predators' previous hunting expeditions. And Adrien may have the Oscar, but he's no Arnie, and he turns out to be a rather colorless action hero.

Speaking of the action, which of course is the film's raison d'Être, it's dutifully handled, but there isn't much here that quickens the pulse or jolts the imagination. In fact, if there's a central failing in Predators, it's that true innovation is in desperately short supply. The film comes armed with memorable monsters and a workable premise (the hunters become the hunted), but by offering little more than one-dimensional variations of the original's entertaining characters as well as basically duplicating its lush forest setting, this one qualifies as little more than a bungle in the jungle.