Finally, the summer movie party graces us with its presence.

Christopher Nolan's knock-you-out-of-your-seat "Inception" is the blockbuster we've all been thirsting for, a sleek brain twister that makes the other 2010 mainstream releases look puny, drab and empty-headed in comparison.

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As he did with "The Dark Knight," Nolan crafts a brilliant piece of slick, tantalizing entertainment _ a cinematic chess match that demands focus and smarts from an audience that's been jonesing for the same kind of mind-blowing film experience since the we first got with "Matrix."

That wish comes true with "Inception."

From a trippy opening dream sequence to a pulse-pounding finale that's a delirious mash-up of a James Bond flick and a Philip K. Dick novel, the sci-fi thriller seductively holds you in its clutches. Not since James Cameron's "Avatar," have I been in a theater where an audience so thoroughly surrendered itself to what was transpiring on-screen. Not one white light flared up to signal a text in progress. Not one person rudely transformed into a blabbermouth. You could barely even hear an intake of air.

But "Inception" is a better film than "Avatar." While it's stunning visually, "Inception" dazzles us not with technology, but with smarts, immersing us deep, deep into the dreamscapes craftily manufactured by Nolan and his cast of rich characters. Fans of his "Memento" _ one of the best film noir films ever made _ should expect to find their brain cells revved into overdrive.

Blithely summarized, "Inception's" plot would seem confusing and impenetrable. Confusing? No doubt, and that what makes the film so enjoyable, as we try to tease and puzzle out what is really going on. Impenetrable? Hardly. Always a master showman, Nolan guides us through his dizzying maze and demands that we pay attention. For our efforts, he rewards us with a visually sumptuous world filled with intense, seamlessly executed chase scenes and layer upon layer of trippy dream sequences.

I won't delve too far into the plot since giving away bits and pieces robs you of the fun. So here's a cursory overview: A team of dream raiders for hire led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) attempt the risky proposition of planting an idea into the subconscious of an business empire heir (Cillian Murphy, the Scarecrow in "Batman Begins"). The team includes: the haunted extractor (DiCaprio), an ace at invading a target's dreams and stealing their secrets; the calm point man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of "500 Days of Summer"), a model planner whose feathers rarely get ruffled; the architect (Ellen Page of "Juno"), the upstart new recruit who draws up the visuals of dreams and seeks to find out what makes Cobb tick; the tourist (Ken Watanabe of "The Last Samurai") who bankrolls the endeavor and wants to be involved in the process; the forger (Tom Hardy of "RocknRolla), who can assume the identity of others in dreams; and the chemist (Dileep Rao), who sedates the team and serves as their driver.

The cast is impeccable, with DiCaprio, who proves with each movie that he's matured into one of our finest actors. We know early on that Dom has secrets to spare _ especially a wife (a mesmerizing Marion Cotillard) who haunts his subconscious. DiCaprio shrewdly reveals the extent of his guilt and desperation as the story evolves. Page gives a refreshing and different performance, not relying on wisecracks as a means to create a character. And Gordon-Levitt again shows his versatility, playing his character as strong-willed and stoic.

Beyond the acting, every other detail is also right in "Inception." The dramatic music by Hans Zimmer, the sexy designer duds the cast wears and the special effects that never, ever once, overwhelm the story, merely complement it.

Simply put, mainstream moviemaking just doesn't get any better than "Inception."



Grade: A

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy and Michael Caine

Director-writer: Christopher Nolan

Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and action throughout).