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Knight at the Movies: Inception; The Sorcerer's Apprentice
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2010-07-14

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In this summer of also-ran blockbuster sequels only the kiddie fare like Toy Story 3 and the alternative movies like I Am Love and The Kids Are All Right have really thrilled me. Like other fans of big, effects-driven action pictures, I have been waiting for something to rhapsodize about—something to give me that roller-coaster thrill effect. Inception, from writer-director Christopher Nolan, certainly promised to live up to these expectations.

The follow-up to Nolan's dazzling 2008 summer hit The Dark Knight, this epic action blockbuster would seem to have everything going for it. Inception is visually dazzling; stuffed with great action sequences; and acted by a gorgeous cast headed by Leonardo DiCaprio that includes queer audience faves Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And it's not a sequel with a premise that's far from the standard-issue action blockbuster. So far so good.

But the reality isn't quite as enervating as one would hope. To begin with, Nolan's propensity for gimmicky, unnecessarily complicated stories—witness Memento as Exhibit A—wraps his audience in so many layers that eventually even his characters onscreen cry "Uncle!" Second, if I see one more movie with a subplot that focuses on DiCaprio's character in emotional freefall due to guilt over the death of his wife ( this year's Shutter Island and 2008's Revolutionary Road immediately spring to mind ) I'm going to have nightmares myself. Third, the picture's too long.

In this futuristic thriller, dream manipulation has become possible. DiCaprio plays Cobb, who leads a crack team of operatives into the dreams of wealthy clients and their targets to unearth subconscious secrets. ( Talk about high-concept! ) After being tested by Saito ( Ken Watanabe ) , a wealthy Japanese businessman, in the movie's opening sequence the group is hired to pull off an intricate job that involves "inception"—or planting an idea in someone's head. The specific someone is Robert Fischer, Jr. ( Cillian Murphy ) , the son of a dying business tycoon and Saito's biggest competitor, who will inherit the business. Saito wants Fischer to break up the corporation and hires Cobb & Co. to plant the idea in his head.

Page is the dream architect brought in to construct the maze-like spaces of the multilayered dreams, all reality-based and all occurring simultaneously. Once the team goes in, it learns that Fischer has had training to block dream invaders and has dream security with weapons ready to fight off the mental attack. DiCaprio's late wife ( played by Marion Cotillard ) is inside one of the dreams, too, adding another level to the thick-as-molasses proceedings.

By that point the movie has become so dense with the pretzel logic that Nolan has conjured up that when Page exclaims, "Wait a minute. Whose subconscious are we going into?!" you can't help but laugh in relief. If the characters are confused, imagine how the audience feels. And the dreamscapes don't have nearly the otherworld visual panache of The Cell, What Dreams May Come or even the Nightmare on Elm Street series ( or, for that matter, 1984's Dreamscape ) . We simply see a multitude of action sequences in different exotic locations—the effect is like seeing a sort of stylized Ocean's 11 without the tongue-in-cheek humor or a James Bond without the sensual violence.

At one point Page is given a reason why she must keep the dreams reality-based but the explanation slipped past me and, as the action sequences piled up and the Hans Zimmer score was cranked to the heavens, my attention wandered. Nolan is so in love with his convoluted concept he lets his movie go on for close to three hours. At two hours the density would have been much more welcoming but at this running time … well, it's like a dream that goes on too long. One awakens with a bit of a movie hangover, remembering slivers of pleasure and the feeling that a lot of stuff has happened—but virtually no recall of what it was.

Any movie with Alice Krige and Alfred Molina as the villains is worth at least a cursory look and that The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a fantasy film from Disney, doesn't completely utilize them is a strike against it. But, hey, at least they're there.

So are a long-haired Nicolas Cage as a centuries-old wizard named Balthazar Blake, a one-time student of Merlin, and Jay Baruchel ( sounding more than a tad like Christian Slater ) as the physics geek he takes on in his quest to defend New York City from a passel of bad magicians ( including Molina and Krige ) once they are freed from an ancient vessel. Cage must train the nebbish who he deems is the one to take his place. But said nebbish only has eyes for a pretty blonde classmate who has a radio show at the college ( all the better to stick in a batch of song montages ) and gets to say all the snarky, jokey stuff the audience is thinking about the dour Cage, who natters on about rings, dragons and other ancient stuff. Baruchel also gets to comment during the action sequences—a pint-sized Bob Hope or Lou Costello in his prime—but this device, nearly as ancient as Merlin, works thanks to the young actor's comic timing.

Less persuasive is a live-action re-creation of the classic "sorcerer's apprentice" animated sequence from Fantasia. Because it feels wedged into the action, it breaks the flow of the movie. But that's a minor bump in the road for this likeable little movie. Directed by Jon Turteltaub—responsible for the fleet-footed National Treasure pictures—The Sorcerer's Apprentice is, at last, the delightful Saturday matinee fantasy-action fest that kids and kids at heart have been missing this summer. Brimming with much more vitality and creativity ( not to mention Cage having a hammy good time ) than Prince of Persia, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, and the stilted Clash of the Titans, this is a lively, diverting fantasy. Though the movie is magic-like rather than magical and is, to be honest, on the thin side, it cast enough of a spell to keep me entertained.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.

'Glee,' 'Modern

Family' get

Emmy nominations

FOX's Glee—the breakout TV show that centers around a high-school performance club—and ABC's Modern Family ( which includes a gay couple among its main characters ) were among those receiving Emmy nominations. Sofia Vergara ( of "Family" ) and Joel McHale ( of Community ) announced the nominations July 8.

Glee led all TV programs with 19 nominations, with AMC's '60s show Mad Men a close second with 17 nods.

The nominees for Outstanding Drama Series are True Blood, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Lost, Mad Men and The Good Wife. Glee and Modern Family will compete for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy along with Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, The Office and Nurse Jackie.

Lesbian actress Jane Lynch received an Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series nomination for her role as Sue Sylvester on Glee. Among her competitors are Vergara and 30 Rock's Jane Krakowski. Sharon Gless received a nod for Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Drama Series for her role in USA's Burn Notice; among the other nominees in the category are The Good Wife's Christine Baranski and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss and Peggy Olson.

Also, Sir Ian McKellen received a nod in the Outstanding Lead Actor In A Miniseries Or A Movie category for his role in Two. His competition includes Jeff Bridges, Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid and Al Pacino.

A Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ( GLAAD ) press release congratulated other openly gay and lesbian actors, including Chris Colfer ( Glee ) , Alan Cumming ( The Good Wife ) , Neil Patrick Harris ( How I Met Your Mother; Glee ) , Jesse Tyler Ferguson ( Modern Family ) and Lily Tomlin ( Damages ) . Wanda Sykes received a nod for her HBO comedy special, Wanda Sykes: I'ma Be Me. In addition, heterosexual actors Eric Stonestreet and Will Arness were nominated for gay roles in, respectively, Modern Family and 30 Rock.

Also, openly gay directors Paris Barclay and Ryan Murphy received nominations.

An intriguing development occurred when the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien received a nomination but the Tonight Show with Jay Leno did not.

The awards show will air on NBC Aug. 29.


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