Film Friday: ‘Inception’ and ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’

by W. Andrew Powell

Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception

Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception

New this week at a theatre near you: Leonardo DiCaprio walks the dreamscape in Christopher Nolan’s daring thriller, Inception; and Jay Baruchel plays the wizard in training for Jon Turteltaub‘s live-action adaptation of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine
Director: Christopher Nolan

Rated: 9/10

There are very few people working in the film industry today capable of creating a movie like writer and director Christopher Nolan’s Inception. This is daring cinema at its best, and much like Nolan’s previous works, including Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, it leaves you wanting more.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the wanted criminal, Cobb, a man who has mastered stolen government technology that allows him to enter other people’s dreams, which he is using for corporate espionage. Set in a very close future, where everything else looks the same, but certain people around the world have access to this strange technology, the film could almost be a heist movie, but it’s so much more than that.

After a trip in to the mind of a corporate giant fails, Cobb and his team of dream experts are given the task of doing something most people consider impossible: Inception. Saito, played by Ken Watanabe, wants Cobb to break into the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr., played by Cillian Murphy, the man who runs his company’s rival corporation, and give him the idea of dissolving the massive conglomerate.

Cobb’s right hand man, Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, insists the job can’t be done, but Cobb will do whatever it takes to complete the job. His motivation is simple, if he can pull it all off, Saito will make a call that will clear Cobb’s name, allowing him to return to his family back home in America.

All that’s missing is one person: a genius who can build the dreamscape that the team will perform within, and when they find psychology student Ariadne, played by Ellen Page, they start scheming the biggest job they have ever attempted.

Featuring powerful performances by the entire cast — an all-star team of some of Nolan’s favorite actors from previous films — Inception is a nearly perfect action thriller. The film is also far beyond the average summer popcorn movie, thanks to Nolan’s deft, daring, and driven tale.

I’m convinced that lesser writers and directors would have had a hard time making this story work because the concepts are well above the normal Hollywood threshold. Nolan makes this big concept work because he breaks it down to the essentials; he gives the dreamscape a set of basic rules, and fills his story, and that dream world, with the stories of the inhabitants.

While there are a few stories to tell, including how this heist can be pulled off, the major story arc revolves around Cobb’s issues with his dead wife, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard. Ariadne dives into Cobb’s story and quickly unravels him, but he won’t let her understand everything, like why he’s a wanted man in America, and why Mal lurks around every corner of his mind.

It’s Nolan’s attention to the story of Mal and Cobb that makes Inception truly a masterful work of filmmaking. As the story unfolds, the action intensifies, and everything builds to a huge peak that culminates with a truly satisfying ending for the story, and Nolan’s dream. The miracle of all this is that Nolan found a way to drive the thriller aspect of this story without losing the thread of Cobb’s underlying sadness, angst, and motivation.

After two-and-a-half hours I also left the theatre amazed that this fairly long film never dragged for a moment. It clipped along at the perfect pace, aided in part by Hans Zimmer’s breathtaking score, cinematographer Wally Pfister’s camera work, and editor Lee Smith ability to bring very complicated scenes together effortlessly.

Inception is near-perfect summer cinema, and I can’t recommend it enough. Nolan is in his top form with this rich story, maybe not to the peak we witnessed in The Dark Knight, but this is still a stunningly complex film that is no less brainy than it is action-packed.

Between the powerful performances from DiCaprio and Cotillard, not to mention strong co-starring roles from Tom Hardy and Page, this is no doubt going to be on a lot of people’s list as one of the year’s best films, and hopefully just one more step in Nolan’s incredible career.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Toby Kebbell, Monica Bellucci, Gregory Woo, Ethan Peck
Director: Jon Turteltaub

Rated: 6.5/10

There is something powerfully strange about seeing Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina and Monica Bellucci in one film that also happens to be a reinvention of one of Disney’s most treasured animated classics. It’s a feeling that all is not quite right in the world, and yet I won’t deny that I was entertained.

Recreating Disney’s original Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was a short in the classic 1940 film, Fantasia, director Jon Turteltaub walks on hallowed ground with the guiding help of producer Jerry “You Can Never Have Too Many Explosions” Bruckheimer.

Featuring an army of screenwriters, with no less than six writers credited for the overall story, this Sorcerer’s Apprentice is set in modern day New York City where a very young boy named Dave finds himself face-to-face with a real-life wizard named Balthazar, played by Nicolas Cage.

For hundreds of years, since Merlin was killed by the witch Morgana, Balthazar has been looking for what he calls the “Prime Merlinian,” a magician who will one day be able to destroy Morgana. Through a strange incident, Dave finds himself wandering into Balthazar’s store and not only claiming the ring of the Prime Merlinian, but also releasing Morgana’s minion, Horvath, played by Alfred Molina.

Unfortunately for Dave, the meeting leaves both Balthazar and Horvath trapped in an urn for ten years, and without any proof, everyone basically thinks he’s crazy.

Jump ahead ten years though, to the day, and young Dave has turned into teenage Dave, played by Jay Baruchel, and he’s about to find out the truth: he really is a wizard, and he’s got to help Balthazar overcome Horvath before the villain finds a way to release Morgana from her imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Dave also has to decide how seriously he’s going to take his role learning magic and helping Balthazar since he’s falling in love with the girl of his dreams, played by Teresa Palmer.

Earning his keep as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Baruchel is a surprising lead in this film, and he makes the film both fun and funny, while still managing to make the action scenes fairly convincing. The trouble is that Cage is good at this role of being a father figure, but even as he chews the scenery, the character ends up getting lost in the overall story.

Molina on the other hand plays a decent villain once again. This is not as mesmerizing a performance as his role of Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, but it’s acceptable for what the film is: a big joke-filled popcorn-adventure, which should be enough to bring in the fans this weekend.

While my biggest problem with the film is the script itself, Turteltaub was not the best choice for this film. His direction is ambitionless, and overall the film feels rather jagged and uneven. Like National Treasure: Book of Secrets, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is filmmaking lite, with no real passion or flavour of its own – just a lot of borrowed sights and sounds.

Taking cues from superhero films, a little Harry Potter, perhaps, what I realized the most was that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice really wants to be like some of those fun and campy classic from the 1980s. The flavour feels like a partial ripoff of The Never Ending Story, and maybe just a little nod to The Princess Bride, but with very little character of its own. Even a stunning actress like Monica Bellucci as Balthazar’s imprisoned girlfriend is somehow lost in this odd little story that revolves around magic and electricity in some combination I never quite believed or understood.

Great as Baruchel was in this role, and bad as some of the scenes were, I earnestly hope that he gets a chance to play the role again in a sequel. But, I also hope that Disney realizes what a crumby director Turteltaub is and replaces him with someone more up to the challenge of bringing real magic into this still-powerful concept.

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