Dave on film: A couple of cool summer movies

This week I have two great summer movies, one of which I suspect is going to be in the running for best picture. First up, Chris Nolan’s amazing – and amazingly complicated – Inception, which has Leonardo DiCaprio as a dream thief. ‘nuf said about that. Keep reading, though, because I also offer up a second terrific action film, Predators, Robert Rodriguez’ reboot of a tired franchise with a hunted-humans film reduced to its essence, a non-stop action adventure. Either way, don’t forget that movie theaters have air conditioning too, so it’s a doubly-nice place to spend a few hours being entertained.

Review: Inception

Inception is one of the most complicated stories I have ever seen on the big screen, but if you can figure out what’s going on, it’s an amazing movie filled with mind-boggling visuals and an intriguing exploration of how our minds work and the subconscious. It might also be the best movie of the summer, if not 2010.

The story takes place in a near future where companies send agents to steal secrets from within people’s dreams and the military are trained in artificially constructed dream worlds where they feel pain, worlds indistinguishable from reality, but from which they wake up if, in the dream, they die or are killed.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a rogue dream extractor who believes that in addition to exploring other people’s dreams, it should be possible to plant ideas in their subconscious too. Called “inception”, it’s highly controversial, if even possible.

He’s hired by Japanese industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe) and assembles a team to plant an idea in the mind of competitor and troubled conglomerate heir Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Cobb brings together an unlikely group: Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young “architect” who creates the dream worlds, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his point man and long-time collaborator, Eames (Tom Hardy), a likable, sarcastic forger and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) as a chemist.

Cobb has troubles of his own, though. His wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) constantly appears in his dreams, along with his two adorable tow-headed children. We learn more about why she haunts his dreams from his father-in-law Miles (a nice Michael Caine cameo) and it’s, well, complicated.

By the way, Inception works better if you have no pre-conceived notions about the story, so it’s a bit tricky to write this review without spilling the beans. I’d go as far as to suggest you skip previews and trailers too, going in and letting director Chris Nolan tell the story will maximize your enjoyment of this intricately plotted movie.

Like the best heist films (I’m thinking in particular of the amazing NineQueens, which warrants a frame-by-frame examination of the last three minutes of the movie), as Inception proceeds, seemingly random scenes from the beginning of the film fit neatly into the puzzle and even the somewhat baffling opening scene suddenly makes complete sense in the story.

As Cobb explains to Ariadne in the film, the fascinating thing about dreams is that “we create and perceive our world simultaneously”, though time passes far more quickly: an hour of dream time transpires in five minutes, and when there’s a dream within a dream, time passes even faster.

Watching a film is inherently a deceit where we, as the audience, are complicit in the voyeuristic world projected on screen. Most films studiously avoid examining this dilemma, where questions like “whose point of view does the camera represent?” are critical. Alfred Hitchcock reveled in this with his sly masterpiece Rear Window, and Nolan has again brought it to the cinema with Inception. Whose dream are we watching, anyway?

Inception also has one of the most satisfyingly ambiguous endings of any film I can remember, and certainly offers a far more powerful “wow. damn.” wrap-up than the cliché diluted ending of DiCaprio’s previous film outing, Shutter Island.

With its eye-popping visual effects, Byzantine story line, splendid performances from the entire cast (notably DiCaprio, who has matured into a superb actor) and thought-provoking world, I can’t speak highly enough about Inception. Go see it on the big screen – or look for an IMAX screening – and be prepared to be stunned by this amazing movie.

Review: Predators

The 1987 film Predator inspired a number of spinoffs from the inane (Alien vs. Predator) to the ghastly (Predator 2), and it was definitely time for a reboot before the titular hunter became a tedious cliché. I’m not a huge Robert Rodriguez fan, but this is one time where he’s assembled the perfect team for the job, and Predators is a non-stop thrill ride of an action film, laced with satisfying violence, exotic weapons and vulgarity.

Predators immediately jumps into the action with Royce (a terrific, pumped up Adrien Brody) in freefall without having a clue how he got there. He deploys his parachute at the last possible second and slams into the earth. When he rises, he finds he’s been dropped into the jungle with a cast of killers including Central American guerilla fighter Isabelle (Alice Braga), Russian Spetsnaz soldier Nokolai (Oleg Taktarov), Mexican enforcer Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), Sierra Leon death squad soldier Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), escaped death-row convict Stans (Walton Goggins) and odd-man-out doctor Edwin (Topher Grace).

After evading some vicious traps and an attack from strange and unknown boar-like creatures, they realize that they’re not on Earth at all, but instead have been transported to an alien game preserve with strange, alien creatures seeking to hunt and kill them, purely as sport.

There are hundreds of films based on a group of different people being dropped into a situation where they need to band together to survive a threat. It’s perhaps one of the most common themes in cinema and is the heart of just about every war movie too. Predators takes this same core dramatic concept and spins it just enough to be interesting: the majority of the humans never do learn to trust each other, begrudgingly cooperating just enough to mitigate the immediate threat.

It’s up to Royce (Brody) to come up with a strategy, a solution to the problem. But as we’d expect with a tough mercenary, his strategy is to get himself off the planet, not to rescue everyone else, a group that has few redeeming qualities anyway.

When rebooting a film franchise, it’s important to find a balance that recalls the best of the original film but creates a new visual style and storyline. With Predators the basic hunters have the same hulking, barrel-chested look and tentacle-framed faces, along with the slightly-faulty camouflage. What I enjoyed was that when there were Predator point-of-view shots, their infrared heat-sensitive view with a vertical sound analysis ribbon on the left was right out of the original. Homage, but not slavish devotion to the original source material.

Having said all of this, the film still had lots of logical flaws and was a bit too formulaic to be a great movie. When you’re stranded on a hostile planet, food and ammunition are both going to be an issue, but the former is completely ignored and while at one point Royce says “let’s do a shell count, we need to conserve ammunition”, in the very next scene they’ve all barrels firing at a creature, ammo be damned.

Predators might be a parable about morality and destiny too: there’s a certain symmetry to the humans all being killers taken out of their natural element and hunted by a far more formidable killer. Indeed, early in the film Mombasa suggests “this place is hell”. The ending certainly makes sense in this context, and, yes, there’s the possibility of a sequel and Rodriguez has already gone on record saying that they’re exploring scripts for a “Predators 2” movie.

Director Nimród Antal also did something I really appreciate in monster films: he left us hanging for a very long time before the Predator actually showed up on screen. In fact, the creature doesn’t show up in the film for almost 45 minutes, a smart move that lets Antal explore our fear of the unknown, even as the on-screen Predator is fairly terrifying, powerful, seemingly invulnerable and big.

As I said at the beginning, I really enjoyed Predators and think it’ll be a hit with its target demographic of 18-25 men. If you like this genre of tough guys forced to work together to overcome a terrifying obstacle or simple miss those great monster films of the late 80s, I will wholeheartedly recommend this film. I also look forward to a sequel, something I don’t say very often.

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