Friday, July 16, 2010

Stop messing with my mind, Christopher Nolan!


Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe

It’s summertime at the cinema, and most of the movies on the marquee feature big names, big explosions, a feel-good ending and a plotline that you can easily follow between handfuls of buttered popcorn. Apart from a simplistic plotline, ‘Inception’ offers all of those things in a deeply moving yet very shiny package. The latest film from Christopher Nolan, of the Batman reboot, is brilliantly written and acted, and boasts the sort of jaw-dropping effects that made ‘The Matrix’ an international phenomenon. Fair warning: This movie requires you to be an active viewer. Nolan can never be accused of spoon-feeding his audience, and it’s likely you will walk away feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted. After all, this is the same guy who made us question our own memories in ‘Memento.’

It all starts with a dream. In this world, dreams can be used as a weapon. Mainly of corporate espionage. If you want the secret plans of your competitor’s expansion, you enlist the service of Cobb and his team to go and steal them from your rival’s subconscious while he sleeps. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is an extractor, the best there is. But he’s tired and haunted. He wants to retire and return home to his children. There’s just one last job that he needs to do. Rather than steal an idea, he needs to plant one and let it grow. Which requires a great deal more of his team than they’ve ever done before.

The team is what makes ‘Inception’ stand apart and feel almost like a heist film. I love every character and wouldn’t mind seeing an origin story or spin-off for any of them. Because even through the mind-bending visuals and heart-stopping action sequences, you learn who these characters are and what they’re about. DiCaprio brings the experience and the mournful eyes of a tragic hero who knows how quickly these dreams can turn into nightmares and virtual prisons. Ellen Page is the gifted architect enlisted to build the labyrinthine dream-states into which Cobb will lead their mark; like her previous roles as Juno and Kitty Pryde, she again bends physics and mixes compassion and cynicism with ease. The consummate professional who keeps everything running is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who can now add action hero to his resume along with romantic lead (‘500 Days of Summer’) and evil scientist (‘G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’). An adorably smirking Tom Hardy brings the big guns, literally, and should definitely be short-listed for whichever Marvel hero is next up for a franchise. And Dileep Rao provides the chemical components to keep the team and its mark unconscious for hours, even days if need be.

Two ‘Batman Begins’ alumni also stand out in the cast: Ken Watanabe as an ambitious businessman who offers Cobb a chance to go home in exchange for that one last job, and Cillian Murphy (with a spot-on American accent) as the heir to an industrial empire who becomes Cobb’s mark. Marion Cotillard is both lovely and lethal as the wife that Cobb can’t get out of his head, an ever-present danger to himself and his colleagues.

Mesmerizing from beginning to end, ‘Inception’ is a psychological rollercoaster ride that you’ll want to take again and again. After all, that’s what summers are for.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bassoon with a View

This one time at band camp, I got an invitation to go to Europe. Fifteen years ago, in a July as uncomfortably warm as this one, I joined 70-odd high school students in a band called the American Musical Ambassadors. We had a few days of rehearsal in DC before hopping on a plane to Amsterdam, and touring seven countries in 21 days. An exhausting yet exhilarating venture.

When I question my bravery or whether I achieved anything of import, I think back to those three weeks. No tour guide or travel show could have prepared me for the world that lay outside those double doors of Schiphol Airport. Of course, there were the big things -- touring the canals of Amsterdam and Venice, standing in the Austrian throne room of Maria Theresa, viewing a sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower, dodging raindrops in Piccadilly Circus. But the moments that I still treasure from that trip are seemingly small ones. Watching a dubbed episode of "Rescue 911" with our host family in Ede, Holland; dancing to an oompah band in a village in southern Germany; eating the best chocolate cake ever in a riverside cafe in Innsbruck; shopping for lunch in a Swiss grocery store; being within arm's reach of one of my favorite comedians, Jim Sweeney, at a London Improv show. I also got very good at doing laundry in a sink.

I'm so grateful to have had that experience, and I feel sad for people that don't (or won't) take the opportunity to travel. Maybe you don't have that wanderlust. Maybe everything you need in life is right there within your county lines. And if so, I'm incredibly jealous. Because now I always wonder what else is out there. What haven't I seen, who haven't I met, what foods haven't I tasted. As Americans, we should be looking outward and learning from others. Not locking the door, turning off the light and saying "No Vacancy."

The Fourth of July has now come and gone. And it was an enjoyable holiday spent with my sister, her husband and their cat. We watched the specials on TV and the fireworks from their Silver Spring balcony. But as for patriotic moments, there's not much that can beat a summer afternoon fifteen years ago in Paris' Luxembourg Gardens, where French children spun and smiled with contagious joy as our band played "Stars and Stripes." A whole big world in one little gazebo, with liberty and justice for all.