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In dreams: (l-r) Gordon-Levitt and DiCaprio in Inception.

Welcome to My Nightmare

By Ann Morrow

Inception

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Corporate espionage is taken to new levels—three levels, to be exact—in Christopher Nolan’s new mind-bender, Inception. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best “extractor” there is: He steals information by “dream sharing” with unwitting victims at the behest of powerful clients. But something goes traitorously wrong during a meeting with a new client, Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), who wants more than information from a rival energy mogul. So Cobb proposes a dangerous solution: to implant an idea in the rival’s mind so that he will ruin his own empire. It’s called “inception,” and unbeknownst to his team, Cobb has already experimented with it. As he explains, the most resilient viral parasite is an idea. But how to get a self-destructive idea into the mind of Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the soon-to-be heir of a dying corporate titan? Nolan, the maverick who made his mark with Memento and who enriched the Batman back story in Batman Begins, creates visually dazzling playing fields for this ultimate in corporate raiding.

Cobb’s assignment is the framework for Inception’s multidimensional exploration of the interplay between dreams and memories, reality and delusion, and the invasive power of technology. A popcorn movie this is not, and any similarities to The Matrix are subversively expanded upon. Since Fischer has been trained to fend off mental invasions, Cobb proposes taking him down to a deeper level of consciousness where he can be convinced, through psychological chicanery, of a false reality regarding his father’s true intentions for his inheritance. The job requires a new dreamscape architect, and Cobb finds her in a brilliant student, Ariadne (Ellen Page). Flexing their new dream-sharing muscle, Cobb and Ariadne bend an entire city in half and then walk up the sides as though gravity didn’t exist. But gravity does exist, even in dreams.

What Ariadne eventually finds, however, through dream sharing with Cobb, is that he may not be stable enough for the mission, putting the other team members—his client Saito, his assistant (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his psychological contact, Eames (Tom Hardy)—in danger of losing their minds in a way that the film gradually reveals. The destabilizing agent is Mal (Marion Cotillard), his wife and mother of his two children. Mal is always on Cobb’s mind and wreaking havoc in his dreams.

Unfortunately, the stylishly bombastic score (by Hans Zimmer) swells in import in every scene, weighing down the chesslike advances in this mental puzzle box. Similarly, unchecked swells of action and emotion run rampant over the script’s psychological precision. However, the cinematography is as sleek and sinuous as a waking fantasy, the acting is utterly convincing (especially Page and Murphy in the less showy roles), and the plot delivers even when going out on a conceptual limb.

 

Cute Villainy

Despicable Me

Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

While I didn’t see the new 3-D movie Despicable Me in 3-D (probably, for weak-kneed me, a good thing, considering the roller-coaster scene), I think it’s fair to say that this is a movie that’s worth the ticket price, regardless of which format you choose. A sort of modernized version of Boris and Natasha, minus Natasha, Despicable Me hangs its narrative format around the second-rate villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), whose attempts at finally gaining the respect and love of his mother (Julie Andrews) culminate in a brazen plan to steal the moon. Problem Numero Uno: In order to succeed at such heist, Gru needs a shrink-ray device currently in possession of his arch nemesis, the nerdy Vector (birth name: Victor) (Jason Segel), who resides in a practically impenetrable fortress of a house, whose living-room floor is a piranha tank. Second problem: Gru needs seed money from the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers), only the Bank’s chairman is Vector’s dad. What’s a thwarted bad guy to do?

Well, in this case, as often happens with animation, enter cute tykes. Three orphaned girls named Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) are able to gain entry to Vector’s lair, while selling cookies for their orphanage. Gru, noticing this, hastily arranges an adoption of the trio, only to find out that their collective wits are more than he bargained for. “First rule,” Gru instructs, “is that you cannot touch anything.” Whereupon he lists a whole lot of things the girls cannot touch. Not to be outdone, Margo queries “What about the floor? . . . the air?” and so forth. It may be a cliché that Gru grows to like the girls, and they him, but strangely, this doesn’t take away from the magical quality of the movie.

Also assisting Gru are his mad- scientist partner (Russell Brand channeling Peters Sellers and Boyle) and a posse of yellow pill-shaped helpers called the Minions, who themselves are worthy of a cartoon series. The movie is inventive and fresh, even as it harks back in a weird but delightful way to the ’60s, and the stars really act, not just provide voices. The most audacious animation sequences evolve from the characters and their actions, which is a nice change of pace. Watching Despicable Me, one can’t help but feel we’re in the presence of decidedly intelligent filmmakers who recognize their viewers’ like-minded appreciation of smart storytelling, not just chills and thrills. This is, all in all, a very good thing.

—Laura Leon

 

Sulphurous Fury

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Directed by Daniel Alfredson

Lisbeth Salavander (Noomi Rapace), biker-bitch computer hacker with a horrifying past, returns to Sweden a changed woman—at least at first. In the second installment of Stieg Larsson’s kazillion-selling Millennium trilogy, Lisbeth’s attempt to start a new life intersects with an investigation by magazine writer Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), her cohort from the first installment, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Mikael, who is still enthralled with Lisbeth more than a year after she disappeared, is involved in a new case of corruption—a sex-trafficking ring discovered by a young journalist and his criminologist girlfriend—that reaches deep into Swedish law enforcement. Lisbeth is entrapped in the case by her nemesis from Dragon, her memorably repulsive legal guardian. When said guardian is found dead by a bullet to the brain, Lisbeth becomes a suspect, and Mikael works behind the scenes to protect her from the authorities.

Since their uneasy and intense collaboration was one of the most riveting aspects of Dragon, the lessening of their interaction for the follow-up diminishes some its voltage. So does the replacement of edgy director Niels Arden Oplev with the more conventional Daniel Alfredson, who softens the story’s inventively lurid sex and violence. However, since the plot is less sensational than in the debut, the director’s emphasis on low-key realism works to advantage with the old-fashioned police procedurals and dogged investigating of the Millennium team. He’s especially skilled with the plot’s emphasize on consequences as the banality of the sex-ring’s evils reverberates in an ever-widening web of malfeasance. A unique character in the annals of feminist vigilante survivors, Lisbeth is not as shockingly damaged—or creepily resourceful—as she was in Dragon (somewhat necessary, since characters progress differently on the page than they do onscreen), but revelations regarding her upbringing are paced for maximum impact. And like Dragon, the follow-up has a cast of fully dimensional supporting players from heroic to psychopathic, such as a professional boxer (Paolo Roberto) who gets involved, and a zombielike henchman (Micke Spreitz) who strikes terror in everyone he brutalizes.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is also distinguished by the trilogy’s stylized view of Swedish society (though it’s warmer than the forbidding chill of Dragon’s settings) and an effective soundtrack of subtle crime-drama music. Though the climax is not as horrifically satisfying as expected (and is noticeably a lead-in for part three), this distinctively Swedish thriller still sizzles with a sulphurous fury rarely achieved by Hollywood.

—Ann Morrow


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