Nolan elegantly probes world of dreams in “Inception”

The Forger (Tom Hardy) and the Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dream of big guns in "Inception."

“Star Trek” touted space as “the final frontier.” Christopher Nolan’s expansive, brain-bending “Inception” makes a case for human dreams as the true unexplored, untapped realm. There’s an underbelly of reason there. The outer boundaries of dreams — even more than the blackness of space — could be unknowable, or just inconceivable. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire who invades the subconscious of his mark and steals information, spends more time in dreams than in reality. He believes he can navigate the human subconscious better than anyone and that he can control his own.

The characters in “Inception” feel much like the people in human dreams — ephemeral and furtive, but with an element of humanity that smudges the line between the conscious mind and the subconscious. There is a core of emotion to them that sets “Inception” far apart from typical heist films (the scenery and the apocalyptic-feeling Hans Zimmer score do the rest). We know little about Dom’s team members, but their interactions provide some real-world touchstones. Though these people could be projections of someone’s subconscious, but that’s beside the point. They instill a level of trust between viewers and the director. Dom’s capable team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man who researches Dom’s marks; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger whose arguments with Arthur supply the film’s funniest moments; Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architect Dom hires on his father’s (Michael Caine) recommendation; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist skilled at creating sedatives. The job, proposed by business tycoon Saito (Ken Wantanabe), will be the trickiest Dom has attempted: infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s company, and plant the idea to dismantle his inheritence. This, however, is not an in-and-out job. Dom and crew must descend into dreams within dreams and root the idea in catharsis. Yet the deeper Dom goes into Robert’s dreams, the deeper he goes into his own, and Dom’s memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) are bursting their prison.

Much like “Memento,” the structure of “Inception” defies linear analysis. The beginning, middle and end are there; they bleed into one another. Besides, the story is dreamlike in the way the beginning is hazy. All the immediacy lies in the middle, which is where viewers find themselves. There are dreams and meta-dreams and even dreams inside those; Nolan fashions these dreams, designed by Ariadne and populated by the mark’s minds, like everlasting gobstoppers. The dream layers seem interminable, and the only way to leave them is through a kick: the feeling of falling, or death, in a dream. There’s only one way to determine reality from a dream, and that’s the presence of a person’s totem, an artifact or self-made object. (Dom’s metal top is integral to the fabric of the story and to his memory of Mal and the part of his subconscious only Ariadne has seen.) The thought of making visible this shifting other plain boggles the mind, but Nolan — with an astronomical budget and shoots in six countries — pulls it off. He’s limited only by his imagination, and his imagination is vast. Mountain fortresses on snowy peaks, cliffs collapsing into the ocean, trains that barrel down city streets, fights in revolving hotel halls — these are sights that demand and deserve marveling. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, when combined with Zimmer’s trumpeting score and Nolan’s gift for confounding, is a sight to see.

More surprising than the images and the stunts, though, are the characters. Written in true Nolan fashion, they are not swallowed up by their majestic surroundings. Page finds curiosity and, better still, empathy in Ariadne, both amazed and horrified by the job she’s accepted. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are a dream comedy team, lightening the atmosphere with their bickering, while Watanabe is no-holds-barred intensity. We can’t discern how close to the vest Saito is playing, and Watanabe doesn’t want us to. The talents of Caine and Cotillard continue to make impressive what should be minor parts. DiCaprio’s Dom is becoming the actor’s specialty: the man eaten away by pain and guilt he’s convinced he can hide from everyone. He assumes he’s the architect when it’s possible he’s as lost as everyone else.

Grade: A-

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The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” — Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” — “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” — Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” — Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” — Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” — Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” — With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

10 (working) directors I love

Parters in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Partners in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Steven Spielberg is not on this list.

You want a controversial statement? Well, there it is. After “Crystal Skull,” don’t even think of saying his name to me. And since I’m apparently flirting with controversy and confrontation today (I’m tarty like that), here’s another: You won’t see Ridley Scott’s name here. Peter Jackson’s been given a pass. Ditto George Lucas.

However, here are a few directors who make the cut. Some are obvious (see No. 1), others are a tad obscure and some are maybe even a little questionable (hey, I never said I was mainstream):

1. Joel + Ethan Coen — The shock! The pure and utter dismay! Right … anyone who knows me knows that I’m a late-in-life Coen convert, so my decision to award them top honors is hardly surprising. But, really, could any two directors be any more deserving? This is the duo that gave us terse, meticulously paced masterpieces like “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” and inspired, idiotic comedies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.” That warped humor, that eye for minute details and foreshadowing — love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny Joel and Ethan have imagination and talent to burn.

2. Clint Eastwood — Eastwood’s a prime reminder that we should never go for the knee-jerk sneer of disdain when an actor steps behind the camera. For as fine an actor as Eastwood is, he’s an even better director with a knack for casting (who but Hillary Swank could have made “Million-Dollar Baby” so hopeful and bittersweet?) and a desire to plumb the dark depths of the human psyche (see “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Changeling”). What’s more remarkable is the fact that, at 79, he’s only nicked the surface of his directing abilities … and that’s a miracle in itself.

3. Martin Scorcese — Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: Nobody makes gangster sagas like Martin Scorcese. It simply can’t be done (not even by the Coen brothers). He is the modern master of the genre. But what people forget is that he’s a genius when it comes to creating movies that explore man’s darker side, the blind rage and the ambition and the fear that take us to evil places. From “The Aviator” to “Cape Fear” to “The Departed,” arguably Scorcese’s magnum opus, this is a director whose take-no-prisoners approach translates into stunning films.

4. Christopher Nolan — It would be easy to think Nolan’s such a hot commodity because he reinvigorated the long-dead and much-maligned Batman franchise. Though he did that, and radiantly, he also makes movies that are rather fearless in the way they jumble our concepts of linear time and play with human memory (“Memento”) and challenge us to play architect in order to find out what’s really happening (“The Prestige”). His films demand intelligence and vigilence, but the payoffs are extraordinary. My only question: After “The Dark Knight,” how can he do better?

Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz, King of the Sadsacks

5. Todd Solondz — Solondz is a director who’s hard to like, much less love. He makes experimental little films about ordinary people with few redeeming qualities, odes to the pathetic masses leading lives of quiet desperation. Even worse, he makes the kind of movies that contain no traces of optimism, or hope, or anything resembling closure (re: “Storytelling” and “Happiness”). But in a world where fluff like “The Proposal” lobotomizes us regularly, isn’t that kind of terribly refreshing?

6. Sam Raimi — How unfortunate that these days Raimi is known as “the guy who directed those ‘Spiderman’ movies,” for there was a time — long, long ago, in the ’80s — where he made the kind of unapologetic horror camp (the “Evil Dead” series) that delighted and repulsed us. He jumps from serious movies (“A Simple Plan” is the quintessential thriller) to “Spiderman” to the recent “Drag Me to Hell.” And he never takes himself too seriously. What’s not to love?

7. David Fincher — Fincher has made a very fine career out of making very fine thrillers that possess a kind of bruising intensity, sly, punishing humor and startling intelligence. (He is, after all, the man who gave us “Fight Club.” Yes, “Fight Club.”) It’s his niche, and if he rarely strays from it, well, it hardly matters — he’s so good at being dark and twisty (recall “Se7en”) we don’t want him to. Then he brains us with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and now he’s making a movie about the creators of Facebook. I sense that Fincher’s zigging when we expected him to zag … and I dig that about him.

8. Steve Buscemi — There’s not much difference between Steve Buscemi the actor and Steve Buscemi the director. In his performances, he gives us fully realized but completely understated characters like Seymour in “Ghost World,” who use bitter humor to keep the world at a distance. In his movies, like the exquisite “Trees Lounge” and the haunting “Lonesome Jim,” he creates worlds where people are subdued and real and loose ends are left dangling. And, in his way, that makes him one of the most amazingly observant directors working today.

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

9. Alexander Payne — Payne is one of those directors who lives to frustrate his fans because he makes sharp, attentive, penetrating satires/character studies (“Election” and “Sideways,” you may have noticed, appear proudly in my Top 100) but he makes far too few of them. This speaks, no doubt, to his meticulous nature, since his films are flawless. So I have but one request, Mr. Payne: More please, and the sooner the better.

10. Sofia Coppola — It’s the eternal question: Will Sofia ever live up to her last name? Or live down that dreadful performance in “Godfather III”? Given the fact that she’s created films as innovative as “Marie Antoinette” (criminally underrated) and stunning sleepers like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” she’s well on her way. There’s a few more masterpieces in her yet.

Honorable mentions: Tarsem Singh (“The Fall”); Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”); Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop-Loss”); Pedro Almodovar (“Todo Sobre Mi Made,” “Volver”); Quentin Tarantino; John Hughes; Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”); and Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”).