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Sunday, July 25, 2010




Anyone who knows me has heard me lament how much I miss the Cold War. Not in real life so much, but at the movies. I grew up on a steady diet of James Bond foiling Russian plans to destroy the West, Rocky Balboa going 15 rounds with Ivan Drago in Moscow, and the Red October being hijacked by its defector captain with the Scottish accent Sean Connery. One of the great pleasures of Salt is that the Russians are back with a vengeance as The Bad Guys. What's more, instead of a suave British secret agent or even an American spy, the only person standing between evil Russians and worldwide Armageddon is a Russian-born double agent working for the CIA, Evelyn Salt, played by a totally gung ho Angelina Jolie.

Salt mines just about all the tried and true tropes of secret agent action movies. The story is utterly preposterous, unbelievable, and makes no rational sense, but apply secret agent action movie logic and it makes a tremendous amount of sense: We first meet Evelyn Salt as a POW in a North Korean gulag (no horrible Madonna music while she's tortured - that's one up Salt has on Mr. Bond). Salt insists over and over she's not a spy, but she is. She's rescued by the CIA via the efforts of her husband August Diehl, a German-born archanologist and the only man who loves her regardless of who or what she is. Salt's devotion to her husband is the reason behind virtually everything she does for the rest of the movie.

One day, an old Soviet spy walks into CIA headquarters with a wild knee-slapper of a story about Russian sleeper assassins trained from childhood to infiltrate the United States. (A backstory strikingly reminiscent of Project Manticore in James Cameron's TV series Dark Angel, only without the sci-fi elements that made Jessica Alba a transgenic super soldier.) One of these Russian assassins in particular was extra special - the daughter born to Russia's champion wrestler and its greatest chess player. This child had such exceptional parentage that she was stolen as a baby to be raised with a special mission: she would live in deep cover in the US and ultimately murder the President of Russia before triggering nuclear war. This assassin who will kill the Russian President is named Evelyn Salt.

So of course Salt runs. To do what? Clear her name? Save her husband? Stop the evil plan? Or actually kill the Russian President?  The audience must play a guessing game throughout Salt, trying to reason out what Salt is actually doing, who she is, and what she really wants. The sheer movie star charisma of Angelina Jolie and the empathy she creates holds the audience's favor towards Evelyn Salt, even in moments where she seems to be the bad guy she's accused of being, especially when she seemingly makes good on assassinating the Russian President and then reunites with Orlov and her childhood "family".  A minted A-list action heroine from her turns in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and Wanted, Jolie dives headlong into all the physicality Salt requires of her. She flashes her radiant smile at key moments, sometimes genuinely, but more often strategically before she strikes, be it with guns, grenades, her own fists, or a homemade rocket launcher.

Salt's absurdities would be maddening in lesser hands, but director Phillip Noyce and his filmmaking team deliver one blisteringly entertaining action sequence after another, putting Salt through the wringer as she outwits, outruns, and outfights all of the federal agents under the command of Mr. Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Salt's CIA boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber). Salt evades capture in Washington in a thrilling chase by vaulting herself off of freeway ramps from one semi-truck to another, but that's nothing compared to the gambit she pulls in New York City to "assassinate" the Russian President in a way no Secret Service protocol could ever anticipate. Salt even dips into Ethan Hunt's bag of tricks with prosthetic faces. Salt's execution of the real villain is one of the coolest kill scenes I've ever seen, with an incredible lingering shot of Jolie really performing the stunt. No matter what anyone tries, they just can't lick Salt.

The third act reveal of who else is a Russian double agent trying to murder the President and launch nukes at the Middle East (to piss them off and make them destroy America) is satisfying, but the final scenes between Salt and Mr. Peabody take the cake. Somehow, Ejiofor sells one of the screwiest Trademark Changes of Heart ever when he decides to believe that there are more Russian sleepers hiding out there and the only one who can stop them all is Evelyn Salt.  Salt doesn't even get a chance to thank Mr. Peabody for setting her free to kick ass in a sequel, but Mr. Peabody getting to be in such a sequel ought to be thanks enough.  One can't help but imagine Jason Bourne watching Salt and shaking his head aghast at the impossible scrapes Salt manages to overcome. Why, watching Salt, Bourne might even fall in love.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse


"From now on, I'm Switzerland, okay?!"

The Twilight Saga has introduced the world to sparkly emo vampires and chiseled Native American werewolves, but Eclipse, the third cinematic entry in the franchise, brings forth a creature the world truly may not have been ready for: a "good" Twilight movie. "Good" being a subjective term, of course. Perhaps "entertaining" may be a more apt compliment. Or simply, "not horrible" if we must be unkind. Regardless, compared to the two previous movies in The Twilight Saga, Catherine Hardwicke's blue-tinged eye roller Twilight and Chris Weitz's gold-tinged dreary dreck New Moon, David Slade's efficient, action-packed Eclipse is the belle of the ball. If one must watch a Twilight movie for whatever reason, Eclipse is the one to see.

Slade, the director of the vampire action-horror gorefest 30 Days of Night, reportedly made some unkind comments towards the Twilight franchise before agreeing to helm Eclipse. If so, it seems his outsider's perspective towards the material really helped the finished product. (Any disdain Slade may have for Twilight was perhaps most visible in the opening title "Eclipse", which was curiously not preceded by "The Twilight Saga".)  Overwrought teen drama between the three lead characters comes with the territory - it's the heart and soul, stock and trade of the Twilight Saga -  but Slade kept a surprisingly light touch in those many scenes, keeping them moving and staking an undercurrent of humor in even the sappiest moments instead of wallowing in it all to the point of misery like Chris Weitz did. (Bella breaking her hand punching Jacob in the face, and Jacob's explanation to Bella's father were comedic highlights.) Slade also ramped up the action to a satisfying degree, with a horde of vampire "Newborns" attacking the combined forces of the Cullen family and werewolves in Eclipse's climactic confrontations. Vampire on vampire violence, vampire on werewolf violence, dismemberments, decapitations, Slade successfully goes for broke when the carnage starts.

New Moon took the questionable position that Everybody Loves Bella (Kristen Stewart). In Eclipse, Bella Swan's choices have narrowed down to two, although in her mind, heart, and her secret womanly places no man or monster has yet plumbed the depths of, there's really only her one true love, the vampire Edward Cullen (Rob Pattinson). And yet, out there howling at the moon and peeing in the bushes, is her other suitor, the noble werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Jacob had long since narrowed the field of Bella boyfriend wanna bes, having cock blocked Bella's classmate who wanted to date her in one of the only amusing moments in New Moon. By Eclipse, it's just down to him and Edward for Bella's affections.

Eclipse is bookended with a couple of lovey-dovey rolling around in the sunlit grass scenes between Edward and Bella that would make Anakin and Amidala vomit, but these moments are a big step forward for everyone's favorite couple. Finally, they seem generally comfortable and happy around each other (or as happy as that sullen mope Bella seems to get), compared to how outright miserable they seemed in each others' presence in the previous films. Edward has chilled out, seriously. Gone are his wild mood swings and various guilt complexes. The remaining sources of stress in Edward's otherwise ideal eternal life are the vampires coming to kill Bella and Bella continually badgering him about turning her into a vampire. Edward's curious solution is to keep asking Bella to marry him, which Bella finally agrees to when Edward describes the old-timey way he'd propose if he were still alive and if it was still the 19th century.

High school graduation is coming. ("After all, how many times do we get to graduate high school?" is an in-joke at lunch only the Cullens and Bella get.) Bella's uncool classmates have made it to the cool Cullen table and get invited to the cool Cullen house parties via Bella, with Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick as the valedictorian of their senior class. In her commencement address, Kendrick is just one of several characters who speechify directly and indirectly to Bella regarding her potential life choices. "Now is the time for us to make mistakes," Kendrick muses. You know, the kind of mistakes young people make that aren't permanent, that they can regret but learn and improve from.

Bella misses the point entirely, singularly focused on her obsession with becoming a vampire and never wavering from this madness, despite Edward's surprisingly rational and poor, lovelorn Jacob's multiple attempts to talk her out of it. The same conversation gets repeated over and over throughout Eclipse between the three; essentially: "Bella, don't become a vampire." "Nope, I'm gonna do it." Jacob has more than a few temper tantrums and scenes where he storms off from Bella stonewalling him. Finally, this culminates in the aforementioned second sunlit rolling around in the grass scene where Bella makes her final, resolute "I am woman, hear me state unequivocally I'm becoming a vampire" speech to Edward, preceded by her logic that she never felt she fit in anywhere in the world until she found solace and kindred spirits in the company of the sexy undead. The musical score cues soar to meet Bella's declaration with "rah rah" hilarity, as if the movie is telling the audience it agrees that this dumb girl's fierce determination to die and become a blood sucking monster is the best life choice she could make for herself.

The rivalry between Jacob and Edward is a source of endless humor. They just don't like each other, those two. (Edward does have a point about Jacob needing to put on a shirt.) Their constant shouting matches, insult trading (complete with digs at how bad each other smells), and nose-to-nose snarling stare downs makes one wonder if it's really the vampire and werewolf in love with each other and they're just passing Bella back and forth between them. Seriously, you two, just kiss already. Jacob and Edward finally reach a detente in a pitched tent (any subtext there?) when Jacob cuddles with a freezing Bella to keep her warm, which Edward takes great umbrage to initially. (This comes complete with Jacob's shameless line "After all, I am hotter than you.") But after some straight talk between vampire and werewolf, each monster sees that the other monster isn't such a bad guy after all.

In the end, Jacob and Edward are united in their desire to keep Bella safe from killer Newborn vampires, even though Bella ultimately chooses Edward, as she must. You can't blame Jacob for trying, though maybe you could point out that Jacob insists Bella is in love with him despite any real indication that this is so, besides her wide-eyed gasps whenever he takes his shirt off. Maybe it's the way she pets him in wolf form that has Jacob so convinced. I gotta say, Jacob's final plea to Bella, "You belong with me. It would be as easy as breathing" is where wolf boy blew it. Dude, you're 17. Girls don't want easy reliability at your age. They want a little danger. Jacob's a good boy, maybe too good a boy. But here's a perk: in wolf form, he can always lick his own balls.

All right, enough about those three. There's other stuff going on in Eclipse: The main villain from the whole Twilight Saga, the redheaded vampire Victoria (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard as more petulant than menacing) has been trying to kill Bella for three movies now. This time, she and her new loverboy vampire assemble an army of Newborns to attack the unsuspecting town of Forks. This causes great consternation among the Cullen family, who get to show a lot more personality and are rewarded with a lot more screen time in this movie, including some amusing flashbacks to how some of them became vampires. I liked the revelation that the blond Cullen who always had a rod up his ass is a strategic genius and has a Texan accent. Who knew? I also liked the female Cullen who always hated Bella and who isn't Ashley Greene's story of how she was turned vampire and that she basically became the Bloofer Lady from Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The Cullens and their usual mortal enemies, the Earthy pack of denim shorts-clad Never Nude Native American werewolves, form an alliance and train together to fight the Newborns; this is perhaps a curious tactical error for the vampires as they basically gave the wolves a download on all of their fighting techniques. Jacob also brings Bella to a werewolf bonfire pow wow, where their chief tells them the story of the first time the werewolves met a vampire and what sparked their war, complete with Foreshadowing from the story of how a Native American princess sacrificed her life that gives Bella the idea of how distract Victoria so Edward can kill her. (But not to the point of Bella sacrificing her life.)  The entertaining carnage that ensues between the Newborns, Cullens, and werewolves also draws the attention of everybody's favorite vampire dandy fops, the Volturi, lead by Dakota Fanning. The Volturi are a sore thumb in this movie, with their faux-Shakespearian dialogue delivered with all of the skill of a high school drama club.

That there will be two more movies made from the final, and from what I've been told by my lady friends, the least enjoyed and rather reviled book, "Breaking Dawn", casts a dark shadow on Eclipse. Frankly, Eclipse provided a perfectly fine cinematic ending for The Twilight Saga. It concluded all the main plot threads, including Bella's arch enemy Victoria literally beside herself before Edward burned her to ash, the vampires and werewolves getting along, and Bella choosing to marry Edward and become a bloodsucking, unholy creature of the night instead of being a normal, well-adjusted person. Seems like everything wrapped up nicely. But when there are so many dump trucks full of money to be made from Twilight, there's just no chance of going out of a high note, is there?  I guess if I'm curious about anything, it's how Bella's good guy father, Charlie the Sheriff, will take it when he finds out his daughter isn't just getting married, but will soon become a monster breathing men would kill. And just when he was starting to like Edward Cullen too.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception: The IMAX Experience



Hollywood scuttlebutt is that Christopher Nolan spent ten years conceiving Inception. He began not long after The Matrix came out, I wager. With Inception, Nolan takes on the The Matrix at its own game, freed from the juvenile comic book and chop socky kung fu inspirations of the Wachowski Brothers. Nolan dreams his visually dazzling dreams strictly for grown ups. He concocts a mature and sophisticated but sometimes difficult adventure tome about guilt, love and redemption, using the blurred lines between reality and dreams as its proving ground.

Leonardo DiCaprio leads a stellar cast, some of whom are culled from Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight - Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine. The newcomers to Nolan's company of players are DiCaprio as an Extractor of information within dreams. Working for a shadowy corporation, DiCaprio's shadowy job is to invade people's dreams and steal whatever shadowy secrets they're hiding. Jason Gordon-Levitt is his staunch ally, while Tom Hardy is a Forger, a shapeshifter within the dreams. Dileep Rao is the Chemist who induces people to dream. Ellen Page is the newest recruit, the Architect of dreams, able to create and manipulate the reality of a dreamer's dreamscape. How Page is able to do what she does is never explained, but how can you "explain" such awesome sights as an entire addrondissement of Paris inverting upon itself until it's upside down?

Watanabe, their target at the start of the movie, comes to them with a proposal: to plant an idea in the mind of Murphy, his business competitor. ("An idea," DiCaprio informs us," is the greatest virus known to man.") Watanabe wants this idea to be for Murphy to dismantle the business empire he stands to inherit from his dying father, Pete Postlethwaite, lest Murphy's company control 50% of the world's energy and become its own superpower. This would be very bad, Watanabe insists. This process of planting an idea into a dreamer's mind is called "inception".  They say it can't be done, but DiCaprio knows it can. He's done it before. It didn't go so well then, but he'll do it again quid pro quo if Watanabe uses his far-reaching, shadowy connections to allow DiCaprio - a fugitive ex-pat - to return to the US and his children.

With that set up, DiCaprio and his team go after Murphy to commit inception and to extract a secret in a high-tech vault buried deep within Murphy's subconsciousness. To accomplish this, they engage in an elaborate subterfuge to take Murphy not just within a dream, or a dream within a dream, but into a dream within a dream within a dream.  Three layers of dreams, from which they all must wake and survive attacks from Projections, depicted as assault teams from Murphy's mind trained to defend and protect him within the dreams.  There is also a dreaded fourth layer, Limbo, where a dreamer can be lost for decades. DiCaprio knows about Limbo all too well.

DiCaprio's work with Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island) has enabled him to master portraying tortured characters suffering from deep emotional wounds, unsure of their own reality, desperately grasping at tenuous threads to maintain their sanity. In Inception, DiCaprio is haunted, literally in the dream worlds, by his wife Marion Cotillard. Page is the audience's link to understanding DiCaprio's gradual, emotional unraveling. Without Page asking questions, prodding him, and occasionally betraying his wishes within the dreams, we'd never understand why he can't bear to see his children's faces (an amazing device Nolan employs) and why Cotillard waits for DiCaprio in a shambles of a penthouse suite or in the kitchen of their home, chef's knife in hand.

Even more affecting to me than DiCaprio's torment over his wife and his inability in the real world to return to the United States and see his children without being arrested and imprisoned for his wife's death was Murphy's relationship with his father. Assuming the identity in dreams of Postlethwaite's consigliere Tom Berenger (Principal Skinner thinks Bart Simpson would love this movie; it has Tom Berenger), Hardy is the means for the audience to delve deep into Murphy's issues with Postlethwaite's "disappointment" with him as his son and heir. Murphy turns out to be the most sympathetic person in Inception; he is simply a son coping with his father's expectations and lack of affection, while struggling to be his own man.  Our "heroes" spend the entire movie kidnapping, manipulating, and emotionally mindfucking Murphy. Though he comes out of Inception with "inception", he also finds the personal strength to become the man his father knew he could be.

Nolan expects the audience to side with DiCaprio, Page, Gordon-Levitt, Hardy, Rao, and Watanabe (poor Ken spends half the movie slowly dying from a bullet hole in his chest) in their gambit against Murphy, but they are all actually scoundrels. They're likable and charming together; Hardy is a terrific commando and I liked Gordon-Levitt's flirtation with Page and his tricking her into kissing him. To be clear, they're all the real bad guys here. They willingly and purposely invade an innocent man's dreams under questionable circumstances (would it really be so bad if Murphy, who seems like a good man, controlled half the world's energy supply?) and nearly get him and themselves killed.

It's very easy to become lost in the maze of Nolan's dreamscape. His ambitions sometimes extend his reach, especially in the chaotic and action-packed dream within a dream within a dream sequences that comprise the second half of Inception. Nolan does maintain a visual clarity for each dream level: the first, rainy Los Angeles, the second, a luxury hotel, and the third, snowy mountains with a forbidding fortress. Inception's fascinating first half involves DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt explaining the rules of manipulating the dreamworlds to the inquisitive Page, but when the action kicks in, Nolan keeps it purposefully relentless, perhaps necessarily, so that there's no time for the audience to question the logic or reality of what they're seeing. When Nolan pauses the action and spectacle, his dialogue repeats in rhythms, but he also tends to have his characters over-explain their motivations and actions.

Inception's spectacle is truly awe-inspiring. Even when not in the dream world, Nolan shoots all around the world in Paris, Kyoto, and Los Angeles, using the scope of IMAX to present their real life city scapes in breathtaking fashion. Within dreams, Nolan masterfully uses CGI to create wonders like DiCaprio's personal dream world of decaying skyscrapers cliffside on a breaking beach, and stairwells that become a never-ending maze. Inception also presents us with the longest slow motion van-drives-off-a-bride-and-falls-into-the-water sequence in the history of film.

Nolan's homages to his favorite films are fun to spot. He once again milks his love for Michael Mann's Heat, staging his own version of the famous machine gun shootout on the streets of Los Angeles, this time with rain machines pounding the actors.  An assault on a snowy mountaintop fortress complete with snowmobiles, machine gun ski chases, and an avalanche seems to be Nolan's tribute to James Bond and On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  Gordon-Levitt has the best action scene in the whole shebang: a spectacular, physics-defying fight with Projections in a hotel hallway  that's jaw-droppingly convincing. (It ends, in a sly nod to WWE, with Gordon-Levitt applying the Million Dollar Dream sleeperhold!) When Murphy sees his dying father one last time in the dream within the dream within the dream, Postlethwaithe's room looks suspiciously like a holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Inception's ending leaves us with a dangling question, all determined by whether or not DiCaprio's dream "totem" continued spinning forever or whether it stopped and toppled. Nolan leaves us in mid-spin, implying that DiCaprio never left Limbo and gained his heart's desire there.  I'd like to hope that the totem eventually stopped spinning, that DiCaprio really did return to reality and his children, but I believe Watanabe made good on his promise to DiCaprio in Limbo. The sudden appearance of Michael Caine waiting for DiCaprio at LAX indicates that DiCaprio never woke up from the dream and remains trapped in Limbo. For DiCaprio, the ending of "it was all just a dream" is exactly the kick he was always searching for.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice



In The Sorcerer's Apprentice, one vital event that happened a long time ago to each main character directly impacts everything their lives. For immortal Sorcerer Nicolas Cage, the tragic events of over a thousand years ago where his master Merlin(!) is killed by Morgana Le Fey (Alice Krige, forever The Borg Queen), caused him lose his fellow Apprentice and his one true love Monica Bellucci. Merlin's dying wish is for Cage to search the world for all time until he finds Merlin's next successor, "the Prime Merlinian". For Jay Baruchel, who is unwittingly the Prime Merlinian, it was the day he met Cage when he was ten and encountered Cage's arch enemy Alfred Molina. On this same day, he was humiliated in front of his class and the girl he likes, which turned him from a cool little kid into an insecure loser.

Ten years later ("to the day"), Baruchel is an awkward NYU physics nerd with low self-esteem who runs into the very same girl again; she's now the fully grown knockout Teresa Palmer. But then Cage and Molina come back into his life and Baruchel takes his first step into a larger world, becoming Cage's Apprentice and learning to become a Sorcerer. (In what is The Sorcerer's Apprentice's weirdest magic trick, ten year old Baruchel has a white fat best friend, but when the movie flash forwards to him being twenty, he now has a fat black best friend.)  

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a fun, visually imaginative, but loud and very busy special effects spectacle. Director Jon Turteltaub channels the manic, anything-goes tone of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels more than his own National Treasure movies. The Sorcerer's Apprentice hurtles like a runaway locomotive as Cage and Baruchel try to keep Molina and his evil Apprentice from capturing the MacGuffan, a Russian doll that contains the imprisoned spirit of Morgana. Molina plans to set Morgana free so she can perform The Rising - a spell that will raise an army of the dead to conquer the world, not the Bruce Springsteen song.

In between dashing across New York City fighting CGI dragons and monsters, often on a metal eagle animated from the Chrysler Building, Barcuhel (understandably) prioritizes trying to win Palmer's heart, and he does a damn good job of it too. The Sorcerer's Apprentice breaks its own momentum in the second act with a clunky live-action tribute to the Mickey Mouse Sorcerer's Apprentice segment of Fantasia. Then Baruchel up and quits on Cage for a little bit, more as a plot device than anything else. When Palmer, who spends the movie gazing at Baruchel with wide-eyed incredulity, is kidnapped and finally clued in on the magical end of the world about to happen, she's very game to pitch in. She even gets to singlehandedly foil Morganna's evil spell.

As Sorcerer and Apprentice, Cage and Baruchel share an easy rapport; the movie deliberately points out the parallels to Luke/Obi-Wan and Luke/Yoda in Star Wars. Baruchel is a likeable hero, and he draws genuine laughs with some of his line readings and jumpy reactions. Molina always makes a damn fine heavy, turning from polite civility to fiery-eyed menace on a dime. Cage earns the biggest laugh when he tells ten year old Baruchel "I can read minds!"  

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is filled to the bursting point with magic spells and magical rules - I liked how the movie explained the relationship between magic and science and the way Arthurian legend is woven into story - but it still feels slight on substance and inconsequential. All the ideas and characters become swallowed up by the requisite CGI action. Fighting as a Sorcerer seems to mainly involve being able to hurl blue energy bolts and survive a lot of blunt force trauma.

Baruchel spends the whole movie barely in control of his powers, or powerless in general, but comes into full power and full mastery of them much too easily at the end. It's not clear whether Baruchel still has to be Cage's Apprentice when he seems to be as powerful, if not more powerful, than Cage after Morgana is defeated. Baruchel didn't stick around to find out; he was (understandably) way more interested in flying Palmer to Paris on Cage's magical metal eagle. All in all, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is an entertaining and enjoyable ride, even if you end up not quite believing in its magic.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Despicable Me



Despicable Me is a crowd-pleasing winner about a diabolical fiend who finds a heart. Call it The Taming of the Shrew-pervillain. Or The Taming of the Gru. (I'm sorry. Those puns are despicable.) Gru (Steve Carell) is a supervillain cross between the physical looks of Danny Devito as The Penguin and the criminal mastermind of Lex Luthor, only much less competent. And he has some mommy issues, but only a little. (Gru's mom is voiced by Julie Andrews!) Gru inhabits a curious world where supervillains exist, are financed by The Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers), and are constantly committing unspeakable crimes like stealing the Great Pyramid of Giza or snatching the Statue of Liberty (the small one from Vegas), but there are no heroes to oppose them. There aren't even any police officers, apparently. The supervillains live in normal suburban neighborhoods, albeit in forbidding fortresses, and cruise around in behemoth tanks more obvious than the Batmobile, yet no one seems to want to arrest them. Into Gru's life arrive three orphan girls, whom he adopts just so he can use them to deliver robotic girl scout cookies into the lair of his rival villain, Vector (Jason Segel). But the girls melt his heart and he eventually learns his instant family is more important to him than his lifelong dream of owning the moon. The voice acting, specifically by Carell, is superb, and Miranda Cosgrove from iCarly is also really good as the oldest of the three girls, especially when she affects Gru's accent to mock him. Anyone who has spent time with young children can relate to Gru's frustrations of trying to wrangle them or get them to go to bed; Gru's outrage at the bedtime story he has to read them is spot on. ("You like this? You call this literature? This is terrible!") The scenes of Gru half-ass parenting the girls are a lot of fun. Gru is also suitably awesome in the third act when he comes after Vector for kidnapping his daughters. (No one lays a hand on the three girls Gru adopted in order to sneak robot cookies into a rival's fortress!) Despicable Me utilizes 3D very well, especially in the fun sight gags over the closing credits when Gru's lovable Minions play with the depth of the 3D, competing over who can get closest to the audience. Despicable Me isn't quite in the league of Pixar's Toy Story 3 or Up as classic animated entertainment, but it has plenty of action, visual imagination, humor, and a welcome amount of heart.

Couple of further thoughts: I thought the utilization of 3D in Despicable Me was superior to how 3D was used in Toy Story 3. Also, there's a throwaway sight gag at the very end that cracked me up: Gru uses a Gru-ray disc player. I don't know why but I found that hilarious.

Saturday, July 10, 2010




What made the original Predator work and endure, in my opinion, wasn't the (very) basic story of a group of heavily-armed roughnecks being hunted in the jungle by an extra-terrestrial warrior. What made Predator work was seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger, the greatest action hero of his era, take on this otherworldly beast mano e mano. (That it turned out the original Predator suit was worn by Jean-Claude Van Damme, another action icon, was a bonus.) Remove Arnold from the Predator equation and the material becomes mired in B-movie quicksand, where it remains to this day, movie after movie, cash grab after cash grab. Sadly, there are no great mainstream action heroes anymore (and virtually all of the old guard are banded together in The Expendables). Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson could have been an action god but he has opted to goof around for Disney kids. Had The Rock ascended to Arnold's throne like he should have, it would have added that extra special something to see him face a Predator. Since Arnold defeated the original Predator, there have been three more (baaad) movies starring Predators, and now three Predators are featured in Predators, in which Adrien Brody leads a motley crew of killers through an alien world, which is a Predator game preserve. Once again, Predators hunt the deadliest game of all - man. And once again, the Predators get their asses kicked! And yet, they keep on hunting man, this time going through the time, hassle and expense of kidnapping humans and bringing them across the galaxy only to have a human beat them at their own game. Think about that. Predators are idiots! A chiseled, gravel-voiced Brody makes an unlikely yet effective action hero, but he's no Arnold. In the original Predator, it took everything Arnold, the greatest action hero of the era, had to defeat the Predator. Now, Adrien Brody can do it. (And he did it using Arnold's strategies of coating himself with mud to hide his heat signature.) Predators actually stops the story halfway through so all of the characters can gather around Alice Braga as she summarizes the plot of the original film - "Guatemala '87". Naturally, it made me wish I was watching the original Predator instead. Topher Grace's presence in the movie is like a big sore thumb until the "shocking" third act reveal, yet his survival into the third act makes no sense whatsoever if you think about it. Lawrence Fishburne chews scenery in a cameo as a man who has survived in the Predators' preserve for "ten seasons". Whatever he's been eating during those ten seasons sure has packed on the pounds. The "classic" Predator is depicted as a big bitch, an inferior class hunted by an even bigger, uglier Predator. There are also Predator dogs; Predators' best friends.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

When In Rome


A long time ago, Kristen Bell and I used to be friends (not true) but I haven't thought much of her recent movie choices lately at all. It does seem like only Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas knows how to properly harness Bell's talent, including her two episode guest spot on Party Down. In When in Rome - a Mark Steven Johnson film (Daredevil, Ghost Rider) - Bell is a workaholic museum curator who attends her sister Alexis Dziena's impromptu wedding in Rome, where she meets Josh Duhamel. Is there even a fraction of doubt that they'll end up together at the end? No. But the movie leaps through hoop after flaming hoop to keep them apart until the last possible moment. When in Rome portrays Italians pretty much the exact same way The Simpsons did when the family went to Italy a few seasons ago. During a misunderstanding after Bell and Duhamel's meet-cute, the movie's primary gimmick kicks in: Bell plucks five coins from a mountain which magically makes the five men (no women throw coins in the fountain wishing for amore?) who wished from the fountain fall in love with her. The five, including Will Arnett, Jon Heder, and Dax Shephard, are gross stereotypes of increasing obnoxiousness; a street painter, a street magician, and a male model. All of them improbably follow Bell back to New York and try to woo her with over-the-top slapstick. Meanwhile, Bell and Duhamel fall in love, except she thinks he also threw in a coin so she's afraid he's also under the spell of the Italian fountain magic.  If it were up to me, Bell would have ended up with the fifth man, Danny Devito. He never gets the girl in the movies, and his presents to her, baskets of delicious cured meats, would have won my heart.

Youth in Revolt



"I wonder if she likes intelligent boys?"

Early in the rather excellent Youth in Revolt, Michael Cera tries to impress a girl at school with his choice of 1960's art films, because "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous" was already rented out. That one line was a savvy commentary on Youth in Revolt's existence as a welcome antidote to typical Hollywood pablum. A sort of weird, modern hipster spin on Bonnie and Clyde, Youth in Revolt centers around Michael Cera as a preternaturally intelligent 17 year old virgin who meets  the equally preternaturally intelligent Portia Doubleday, a beautiful, challenging girl in all ways his ideal match. To win her heart, Cera decides he has to eschew his normal timid behavior - he has to be bad. Cera invents an "alternate persona": a mustachioed French rebel named "Francois Dillinger", to perform the misdeeds Cera can't being himself to do. The alternate persona gimmick, shades of Fight Club, brings up logistical questions that are best left ignored. Cera and Doubleday's conversations are cleverer and more textured with feints and irony than most adult conversations in movies or in real life. It's incredibly refreshing and enjoyable to simply listen to the witty dialogue in Youth in Revolt. My favorite sequences involve Cera meeting a new, equally intelligent Indian friend Adhir Kalyan and the two of them deciding to invade the all-French-speaking boarding school Doubleday attends in order to have sex with Doubleday and her promiscuous roommate Rooney Mara. Zach Galifianakis, Steve Buchemi, and Ray Liotta have fun comic turns but they never come close to overshadowing Cera, with or without a mustache.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Men Who Stare At Goats


Based on events "more true than you'd think", The Men Who Stare At Goats is a fitfully funny story of the Jedi. Not those Jedi, although the fact that it stars Ewan McGregor is a tremendous bit of meta-casting that pays off continually for snickers. The Jedi of The Men Who Stare At Goats are the "super soldiers" of the New Earth Army, the US Military's attempt at psychic operations in the 1970's and 1980s. (The US, the movie explains, began research into psi ops because the Russians heard rumors the US was researching psi ops, which they weren't, but the Russians started researching psi ops because of the rumors. So now the US had to research psi ops because the Russians were doing it, because they heard the US was.) George Clooney is the last of the Jedi after bad egg Kevin Spacey ruined the Jedi program, while Jeff Bridges channels and older, more far-out version of The Dude as the Jedi's founder. Clooney is in entertaining gonzo comedy mode; this is a slightly more subdued turn than his performance in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Clooney's return to a Middle East setting brings back fond memories of Three Kings. The running jokes of Clooney explaining his "powers" to McGregor and McGregor's incredulity at everything Clooney says about the Jedi didn't get old. Trouble is, the story doesn't actually end up going anywhere interesting. Also, most of the Jedi were really just a bunch of hippies. I hate hippies. Finally, I spent the whole movie wondering when the hell Matt Damon was showing up. I didn't realize until the movie was over I was confusing The Men Who Stare At Goats with The Informant! The soundtrack is great; it's is just about every song in the 1960's and 1970's listing in Rock Band. The Men Who Stare At Goats offers an amusing explanation for the origin of the US Army's slogan "Be All That You Can Be".