Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

Sometimes, I get confused about the title of this movie. Is it, Make Way for Tomorrow or Make Room for Tomorrow. It's easy to verify the answer, because the story isn't about making room or accommodating. It's about pushing things that are inconvenient or not primary to your lifestyle out of the way. The current generation is a bulldozer coming through. Make way, clear a path, you're going down.

I'd never seen the movie until recently. Because an air of soft, droll humor wafted through every scene (a signature wave from director Leo McCarey) and it aired during the holiday season, when a miracle rounds every corner -- whether you're on 34th Street or not -- I was expecting a happy ending. Boy was I surprised. It's heartbreaking really. I don't know if the humor softens the blow, so much as conducts it.

Uncannily, this movie felt more timely today than it would have even five years ago. An elderly couple Barkley and Lucy Cooper, lose their home to foreclosure. They wait until the last minute to tell their children, always hoping that something improbable will happen to correct everything. And that's how the movie really hits home, portraying the denial we often live in, refusing to face facts and accept (or proactively change) the worse, preferring instead to hope we'll win the lottery and all our problems will be solved. As a viewer, I wasn't the only one expecting a happy ending, Lucy and Barkley were waiting for one too. Lucy is ditched at a movie by her granddaughter and later recounts the plot, where just as everything seems blackest, the lovers are reunited. That's the false hope of life.

They call a family meeting just days before they're about to be thrown out onto the street. They have five adult children, but none are willing to take both parents in, so they separate. Barkley goes to one son's home and Lucy to another's. Neither are welcome additions. Barkley is cantankerous and difficult and would try anyone's patience. Lucy, on the other hand, is merely inconvenient and passive-aggressively needy. But the kids promise that within 3 months the parents will be back together. The rich daughter says she will take them in, then. But the truth is, she can't even be bothered to sit her mother for one night, much less the rest of the woman's days. So, inevitably the 3 month promise, the one Lucy and Barkley repeated constantly to ease the pain of being apart, is broken to be replaced by other assurances of reunion that are weaker than the first. It's a great metaphor of an entire life cycle. You start out with expectation and dreams. Then comes disappointment. Then you settle again and again, accepting less every time. A prospect that was once unthinkable eventually becomes desperate refuge. Death is the final betrayal. But you, Lucy and Barkley lie to yourselves and each other, pretending that you don't see it coming.

Taking up residence with her eldest son, Lucy annoys her daughter-in-law, Anita, and granddaughter, Rhoda, simply because she joins in any gatherings they have at the home and distracts the guests. At worst, her comments and remembrances are boring. Generally speaking, they're quaint, perhaps even charming. Yet, the daughter and granddaughter are deeply annoyed by Lucy's intrusion into the social functions where they are accustomed to presiding.

But as bothersome as they are, when strangers are moved by Lucy and Barkley's plight, you'd think there own children would be as well. George's wife teaches bridge and though her pupils were initially irritated by Lucy, when they overhear a (loud) telephone conversation between Lucy and the husband who misses her. She is overcome by their brief exchange, but chides Barkley that he shouldn't have spent money for the call. He could have used it on a warm scarf. Her listeners bow their heads in empathy and compassion fills the room as she totters off to bed earlier than expected. In the heart swell, I half expected the card players to take up a collection for her. Barkley too captures the heart of a shopkeeper who becomes choked up just reading a letter that Lucy wrote to her husband (300 miles away). Touched, the shopkeeper calls to his own wife after Barkley leaves, just wanting to make sure the woman is still there.

I feel that strangers would do more to keep the elderly Coopers together than their family does, but is that how life is? If you live with a nuisance, however small, day in and out does it numb. Do you only feel sympathy at a distance and in big, isolated waves, because up close and ongoing tragedy becomes mundane and less important than the every day grind of living? Young people (and the Cooper children are themselves middle aged) are too caught up in their own comforts to care -- or care enough -- about their parents heartrending plight. It's significant that the movie does not paint the kids as helpless. Not all of them are rich, like daughter Nellie, but three are middle-classed. If they made an attempt, they could devise a plan to pool their resources and support the elder Coopers, if that was a priority for them. But it would take time, attention and concerted effort among the five and they can't spare that. Their suffering matters less than the next generation's ease, a philosophy that can also be more generally applied to the present day fight between those that want the government fund Medicare, health care and social security and those who don't. An unfortunate problem, but it shouldn't be mine to fix.

When Bark's shopkeeper friend suggests that he and Lucy become caretakers of an inn, Barkley scoffs, as if the position would be beneath them. But we see him looking for work. He passes a help wanted sign and asks, because he's lost his glasses, if there's an opening for a bookkeeper. "No," a stranger mutters. "Were you a bookkeeper?" "I am a bookkeeper," Bark declares as he shuffles past in the snow. And this is the seed from which Death of a Salesman might have grown.

This 75 year old movie establishes that the Me Generation wasn't just born. It's always been there, is perhaps endemic to human nature. The self-centered and callous attitude of youth is not new to our era.

Another sign that the more things change the more they stay the same is an exchange between Lucy and granddaughter Rhoda (not yet in college): Rhoda is sneaking out behind her parents' back to date a 35 year old man. Grandma thinks she should meet beaus her own age, plus she says that dating too much will taint Rhoda's image. No man wants a girl who has dated many. Rhoda disagrees: the more you date the more men who wait in line to date you. Lucy says that they don't marry those women. Rhodas counter that she's seen plenty of women who marry after having done everything but commit murder!

Still deeply in love, Barkley and Lucy communicate by letter and phone, but long distance is expensive, so calls must be rationed. Barkley assures Lucy that they will be reunited as soon as he gets a job and can support them again. To a present day audience, his hopes are not entirely delusional. As the Coopers, Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore are made up to look older than they actually are. Even so, considering that both Barkley and Lucy are still spry enough to walk all over the city and keen enough to understand everything that their ungrateful children don't say, it's not hard to believe that Barkley could still be a productive member of any workforce. But everyone, including Lucy, knows it will never be. She simply humors him. Employers don't want him any more than his offspring do. Thus, Bark's optimistic job hunting becomes a more painful prick, each time it is revisited in the script.

Interestingly, this movie was released the very year that Social Security went into effect. United States workers began paying into the system in 1937, but no one received their first monthly check until 1940. I wonder if this movie was made as a bit of propoganda in support of the legislation. Following the depression, many Americans lost their homes to the banks, like Lucy and Barkley did. The unemployment rate was high, as it is today. The brunt of the financial hardships fell on senior citizens who had the least hope of recouping their losses with new jobs, which is why the Old-Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance program came into being, giving birth to the Social Security Act of 1935. Barkley and Lucy seem like poster children for its passage.

At her son's house, Lucy's welcome is wearing even thinner. The granddaughter, Rhoda, is so mortified when Lucy interacts with her guests, that she stops entertaining at home. She eventually ends up staying out all night, much to her mother's horror. Apparently, this gal would rather compromise her virtue and all standing in their cliquish community, than expose her friends to Nana's yammering. It's evident that Rhoda and her mother had few true values to begin with and faced with the slightest imposition, they soon throw the remainder out the window. They are shallow and uncaring and their patriarch George (Lucy's son) is too weak to challenge them. When his wife tells him that Lucy has to go, for Rhoda's sake, George concedes with shame, but little opposition.

I'm not saying that the children's reactions are outrageous. There are many compassionate families that would buckle under the strain of bringing loved but trying relatives into their household. But Lucy faces cruel words that make a painful situation devastating, as when Rhoda angrily tells her to stop indulging Barkley's pipe dream about someday finding a job. The cold barb's rob Lucy of dignity in a way that mere homelessness could not.

When George approaches his mother, to tell her that she is being sent to a nursing home, he can't find the words. Anticipating what he wants to impart, Lucy preemptively tells him that it is she who wants to leave, claiming that she'll actually enjoy the elegant facility. She only asks that Barkley never be told where she is going. He wouldn't understand. Let Barkley think she is still with George, who can forward letters from his mother to father from his home address. Hating his own cowardice, George agrees to this plan, later telling his insensitive wife that she should be very proud of him that day.

Meanwhile, Barkley's daughter is just as tired of having him as a border (though her irritation is more justified than George's family's is) and arranges to have him shipped off to her sister in California. He will be able to have one brief meeting with his beloved wife, during a short interruption in his train trip across the country.

The reunited Coopers get to spend one day together, 5 whole hours, before it's time to part. They make an odyssey of it, revisiting places they went on their honeymoon and recalling moments from the half century they spent together. Lucy says that happiness comes at different times for different people. Some get it all in the end, some get it in the beginning, but theirs was spread across the many decades, so they shouldn't complain if it's over now -- after all they've had so much. As they look in shop windows, Barkley sees a "help wanted" sign and darts in to look for work, trying not to left his wife know and smoothly providing a cover store when he is rejected yet again. One last ditch effort to avoid the inevitable.

At the same hotel they stayed at when their marriage was young, Barkley and Lucy both enjoy a drink, though Lucy does so only hesitantly. After all, in her day women didn't imbibe in public! They share a dance, with the other patrons politely deferring when the band strikes up "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" in the Coopers' honor. The hotel manager graciously listens to the Coopers reminisce. Upon learning that they have 5 children, he says that they must have given Lucy and Barkley much pleasure. Bark dryly notes that the man must never have had children of his own, if he thinks that!

The hours pass, almost as quickly as their life together did. The children are waiting for the elder Coopers at George's apartment, where they were to share one last dinner as a family. Barkley stands them up, closing the door of the phone booth so that Lucy (and the audience) can't hear him telling his son off. Back at the house, the guilty children have no defense. They knew they were miserable wretches for the way they were treating their parents. They just didn't know that Lucy and Barkley knew!

Lucy and Barkley go to the train station alone, having cut the time so short that the children are (thankfully) unable to serenade Barkley before he makes the long journey to California. There is only Lucy to say goodbye. He tells her that he will find a job in California and send for her. They will be together again before she knows it. She pretends to believe him. But just in case -- in case they don't meet again -- perish the silly thought, Lucy wants to know that there is no other man on earth she'd rather have spent her life with. Barkley answers in kind. He cherished every minute they had.

He boards the locomotive and Lucy waves him goodbye, running to catch every last glimpse of him in the moving windows, until he's gone from sight. End credits.

I was stunned. I kept expecting a last minute reprieve. Surely the remorseful children would devise a way to keep Lucy and Barkley together at the last minute. But this isn't the fanciful type of movie where remorse trumps self-interest. There's no happy ending, giving this movie a realism that seems current, no matter how dated the scenery or dialogue. And the lack of melodrama in Lucy and Barkley's parting made it all the more heartbreaking. So often, the most cataclysmic breaches come with a whisper, not a whimper, much less a bang. Your world ends, but the train wheels never brake.

Side notes: I'm not surprised at the number of times Louise Beavers has played a maid, but I had no idea some of them were named Mamie. Here, Mamie, George's housekeeper, resented Lucy's inclusion in the household as much as her mistress did, because it meant she sometimes had to stay late. When it's time for Lucy to leave for the nursing home, Mamie regrets her past behavior, in the face of Lucy's graciousness.

I laughed when George avoided kissing his unpleasant sister by claiming he had a bad cold -- directly after kissing the other one. Somehow, I didn't think they were as aware of the passage of germs through kissing 70 years ago as we are today. I guess bacteria has always proven a pretty handy excuse, for avoiding the undesirable.

After watching Make Way my thoughts were plagued with ideas on how Lucy and Bark could have stayed together, but that would have defeated the writers' purpose. He parted them to drive the hurt home. The point was not to save the characters, but to prompt audience members to go out and make the world better for their real life parents.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The King's Speech (2010)

Charming film with all of the excellent actors at their pinnacle.

With these fictionalized biographies, it's hard to guess what's been purely fictionalized and what moments hold a glimmer of truth. If there was anything real in the relationships depicted in this film, I hope it's not the bond between George VI and his speech therapist Lionel Logue, so much as it is the loving marriage to which is paid quiet tribute in all of Helena Bonham Carter's scenes. As Queen Elizabeth, the unconditional support and love she offers Bertie is enviable. The unwavering affection these two share is more romantic than any passion. I hope it existed in life the way its portrayed on screen.

By the time I was born, the Queen Mother was already a kindly dowager. I never cared to look beyond the sweet grandmother she appeared to be in public appearances. However, due to Carter's handling of the role, I want more "Cake" and look forward to learning if she was as determined and delightful as this movie presents her.

Lionel Logue is an Australian speech therapist and failed actor, called upon to help Prince Albert who has been afflicted with stuttering since childhood. As King George the Fifth's health begins to decline, he looks towards his sons (Albert is second in line to the throne and David is first) to play a greater role in the monarchy.

While volumes have been written regarding the selfish (and hidden) motives behind David's inevitable abdication of the throne, I've seldom seen him portrayed as flip and flighty as he appears here. Guy Pearce is ever-skilled, but the role shallow. To give the leads more depth, Pearce's was left to work with a facile depiction of a complicated historic event.

Logue and Bertie, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, however, were inspiring. Yet, ever since seeing The Miracle Worker as a kid, I've found journeys such as the one they share rather predictable. The haughty defiant pupil, who ultimately gains even more in friendship than he does from the invaluable education he receives. John Brown, Lionel Logue, Anna Leonowens . . . how would the royals ever achieve joy, humanity or enduring success without the guidance of feisty commoners?

However, the fact that George VI's transformation is familiar, does not make it less enjoyable. There were moments that seemed laughably artificial -- such as Guy Pearce's entire performance as King Edward VIII or Logue's suggestion that Bertie use the "F-word". I don't think they actually started calling it that until the 1990s after OJ Simpson's trial made the term "n-word" famous.

Then, there was the needless exposition surrounding Prince John. It was phony to have Bertie explain that his youngest brother suffered from epilepsy and died at the age of 13 when clearly Lionel Logue would have known that already, about the death at least, if not the epilepsy. Indeed, the reason that Logue asks about Johnny is because he knew the kid was dead. So, how very obliging of Bertie to explain that fact to the audience!

Certainly, there are not many psychiatrists who have witnessed the kind of break through that Logue was treated to when, in a single conversation, Bertie illuminates every shadow in his past (mean nanny, domineering father, forced right-handedness to painful leg braces), so that Logue can handily get to the root of his stammering in one fell and simplistic swoop. It would have been better if these factoids had been revealed in more staggered, subtle stages.

Then there's the big dance number -- or dramatic equivalent -- near the end when Bertie discovers that Logue is not a real doctor. After everything the two have forged and accomplished by that point, the threatened fissure seems contrived for Oscar goodness.

Which is not really to say the movie is heavy handed. The characters are rendered with enough deft realism to gloss over any glitches in the script.

My favorite moment was one of the most understated. Logue is at home, glued to the radio with his wife and three sons when it is announced that Britain is at war with Germany. The vast fear that must immobilize the parents of boys (one of military age) in such a moment is fully expressed in just a glance.

Bertie's battle with an obsequious Archbishop is also played with humor that's finer, for its delicacy.

All in all, the King's Speech is a regal offering. I wanted to spend more time with these characters and their real-life counterparts. It left me curious to re-discover all the facts I promptly forgot after finishing my history tests at school (i.e. when did Neville Chamberlain die). Seeing worried citizens gathered around their radios, as nations coalesce to squelch Hitler's rise to power, a universal sense of patriotism swells. We had FDR and this movie suggests that Britain had a man whose stutter was, in the end, inconsequential.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Burlesque (2010)

I wouldn't say Burlesque is a good movie, but the music is fun, solid and performed very well. Traditionally, musicals aren't long on plot, but the dramatic sequences in this one are flimsier than most. This is a story that belongs on the stage, not the screen. Still, Christina Aguilera is great while singing and dancing and sweet and credible in her acting moments. Cher is underserved by the script, which is neither realistic, nor outrageous enough in its lack of realism, to make great entertainment.

Christina Aguilera's Ali leaves a dead-end life in Iowa and heads to "Hollywood," to make it big. Although this movie is set in the present day, the characters have sensibilities that would have seemed phony in a 1940 B-flick. It's one thing to present a formulaic story, but shouldn't the formula be contemporaneous with the period?

Looking for a job, Ali has no luck responding to the ads she finds in Variety. But seeing a costumed woman on a fire escape, she becomes intrigued (why I don't know) and wonders into a small Burlesque club. Once she sees the dancers on the stage, she's instantly mesmerized. Even in its heyday, burlesque had its sordid side. Fast forward 70 years later and the luster has surely worn off. The performers in this particular burlesque aren't even actually singing. They are lipsynching to old classics. We learn that the owner (Tess) doesn't bother with letting them actually sing, because that's not what her patrons are there for. They only want to see the skimpy costumes and suggestive dance moves. So, if Ali has showbiz in her blood, Tess' Burlesque club would not seem to be the ideal place to spill it.

I'm more nostalgic than the next guy, so the thought that a burlesque club like Tess' might actually exist somewhere is actually exciting. Heck, I'd like to think that Club Lingerie where Cher first danced with Sonny on Sunset Blvd. and Wilcox in the sixties was still up and running, but it's not and if it was, in the glare of the 21st century spotlight, we'd quickly see that what we thought was gilt was just chipped lead paint.

Before television, a girl from Iowa might be lured in by the bright lights and sparkly costumes of burlesque, because she'd have nothing to compare it to. But with the advent of tv (not to mention the internet) you don't have to visit a place to know it exists. Having seen Vegas, Monte Carlo, Paris, London and New York on the small screen why would anyone, especially someone as confident in her talent as Ali, set all of her aspirations on getting a gig in a Los Angeles dive?

As soon as she enters the burlesque, our heroine not only sees it as a stepping stone for her ambitions, but as a pinnacle. Ali immediately wants to know who she has to sleep with to get up on that stage. The friendly bartender Jack tells her that Tess, the owner, is the one she should be talking to. When Ali finds Tess she is told to get lost. Resourceful, she refuses to leave, but instead starts waiting tables for free just to be allowed to keep hanging around. Tess is resigned to having her as a waitress, but wants her nowhere near the "talent." Tess' resistance is just as confusing as Ali's determination. Tess is not running a broadway theater. She has not backers to please, no box office to speak of (admission is $20) and the girls working on her stage don't seem to possess an inordinate amount of talent. Ali's pretty enough. Why wouldn't Tess give her a chance or at least let her audition to see if she had anything to offer.
It would take less energy to see Ali in action than it would to keep rebuffing her. I understand that having an overlooked understudy become a breakout star is a tried and true plot, but no one is going to become a star in this dinky burlesque club that time has passed by. The whole idea that Ali is coveting the spotlight in this joint is comical and that Tess' is jealousy guarding it is hysterical.

Tess is not the only obstruction. Kristen Bell plays her familiar shrew, only raven-haired. Her Nikki feels threatened by Ali's emergence.

Ali will not be deterred. When she insists upon dancing for Tess, Tess is charmed, if not blown away, and makes her a back up dancer. Tess' strong maternal instincts quickly draw her to the lonely girl. The inevitable happens. Tess fires her drunken star performer and orders an unprepared Tess to take her place. She doesn't bother to say, "you've going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star," only because she really doesn't think Ali has that much in her. But when the DJ leaves his post and Ali has nothing to lipsynch, she unleashes her masterful voice and enthralls everyone. Tess immediately decides to build the entire show around her.

Meanwhile, Ali has become roommates with the friendly bartender. He's got a girlfriend in NY, which, I guess, is the barrier to their budding love. It's really hard to say. Their romance is not played for passion. Jack thinks she looks good in a short nightshirt, but there's no real sexual tension between them. Indeed, she thought he was gay when they first met. Most Hays Code restricted lovers are far less chaste than these two. The banter they share is mild. The heat non-existent. They do enough to make you smile, but not enough to make you care.

When Tess' loyal assistant Sean advises Jack that Ali is beautiful on the inside, not just on the outside, I began to think that writer/director Steve Antin was mistaken about the meaning of PG-13. He apparently thought that only people 12 and under would be admitted. Hey, I know that Aguilera used to be a Mousketeer, but that was 16 years ago.

Eric Dane plays Marcus, the billionaire who wants to (1) buy Tess' club out from under her and, (2) add Ali to his lists of conquests. Frustrated that Jack has continued his long distance engagement, Ali goes out with Marcus, but being a good girl she is more impressed by a pair of Louboutin shoes she spots on one of his party guests than she is with his car, mansion and vast real estate holdings. In modest movie tradition that must be borrowed from Disney, it's not clear whether they ever consummate their relationship, but let's just say Ali keeps a lot of late nights with Marcus, much to roomie Jack's dismay. Of course, Jack and Ali eventually come together. She is particularly impressed when he holds a Famous Amos box over his bare crotch and asks if she wants some cookies. But that's all torn asunder when his ex-fiance shows up and falsely tells Ali that their engagement was never broken and Jack has been lying to her all that time.

Back at the burlesque, like Daddy Warbuck's, the good-hearted Tess is about to lose everything. She refuses to sell her club to Marcus and is unable to get a loan from the banks. They are going to close down her beloved club in a matter of days. Okay, Tess loved the business. I understand that, but I don’t know why she couldn’t take the $1 million check that Marcus was offering and open a nicer burlesque place somewhere else with it. What meant more to her, her show and the girls or particular piece of real estate? I mean, the club was not like an Italian family restaurant her grandfather handed down to her in 1910. Why not just move someplace else and keep the tradition alive in new digs? We'll never know.

Ali finds out that Marcus wants to tear down Tess' club and build a high rise in its place. She concocts a scheme to beat him at his own game and encourages Tess to sell the airspace over her club, so that no one will be able to build over it. Suddenly flush, Tess remodels the burlesque making it bigger and better than -- well, it was never big or bet in the first place, but you get the picture.

The closing number is hot. If there's anything to recommend the movie it's the songs, so in that sense, it is a "musical." However, I grew up admiring the likes of Gypsy with Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. This movie doesn't even give us the satisfaction of seeing "Baby Louise" transform to "Gypsy Rose Lee." Instead, Ali ends up as basically the same kid she was when boarding the bus in Iowa. Don't give me the dancing numbers, but leave out the drama. I want the anger and betrayal, the hurt and comeuppance, those are what actually give a musical voice. If they're absent, just dub it a "concert" and call it a day.

It makes for a nice family film, especially around the holiday season, but it tells an aged story, while lacking the skills of old.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

I didn't realize that this was a continued imagining of Carroll's story, rather than an adaptation of it. That came as a nice surprise, because the plot made more sense than I'd expected. Instead of isolated encounters with a host of disparate characters, a young adult Alice is aided by an assortment of Wonderland favorites on an Authurian quest to find the sword that will kill the Jabberwocky and free the land from the despotic Red Queen.

Before she falls down the rabbit hole, we learn that Alice is an unconventional young British woman, being pressured into a foppish marriage. Since childhood she has been a recurring nonsensical dream, full of talking animals and smiling cats. She wonders if it means she is mad. Her creative father confirms that she is, but assures her that all the best people are. Thirteen years later, her father has died and her mother and sister insist that she finally stop being so whimsical. Margaret, her older sister advises her to marry the Lord who is primed to propose to her, so as not to be a burden to their mother and because it is expected. It seems that Alice is the last to know about the pending nuptials. Ordered to the gazebo by her intended, he asks for her hand before a crowd of waiting socialites.

Alice's "real life" is almost as surreal as the dream to which she escapes, but it does give us a framework for identifying the people and symbols that confront her in Wonderland (the name she gave the place as a girl, which is now known as Underland in her adult fantasy).

Mia Wasikowska was not known to me prior to this movie, but she inhabits the character of Alice with a grace and command that seems effortless, easily holding her own with veterans Johnny Depp (The Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (the Red Queen). Depp and Carter have played insane and quirky many times too often. Yet, their performances are not cliched. Depp brings an innocence to the Hatter that you would have expected to be lost after Edward Scissorhands.

Carter's quips establish that humor has its own logic, even when part of an incomprehensible plot. You'd think that a joke had to deviate from the norm to get a laugh, but when there is no norm, how does humor find its starting point? Well, it begins with the actor's intonation and delivery, the way he or she creates incongruency, simply by being serious in a wacky world -- or wacky in a serious one!
It's not the special effects, but the acting that holds the audience's attention, when the story (such as it is) would not.

While Carroll's books raised political questions, this movie doesn't give you much to think about. Will a young woman flout society and independently pursue her dreams? We know she will. In Wonderland an uncertain Alice runs to a gazebo, afraid she lacks the courage or inclination to slay the Jabberwocky holding the world hostage. We know that it represents the same gazebo where the insufferable Lord Hamish Ascot awaits Alice's answer to his marriage proposal. Even before Alice successfully lops off the Jabberwocki's head in her dreams, the answer to Hamish's proposal is obvious.

As she realizes that her tendency to imagine 6 impossible things before breakfast (as her father did) is a good trait, not a bad one, it dawns on Alice that what she is experiencing in Wonderland is a memory, not a dream. If she could only recall and retain the lessons she's learned during past visits to Wonderland, she'd never lose sight of her path. If she embraces her own madness and originality rather than balking at it, she will move forward. Then, rather than having the same dream over and over, maybe she'll envision new ones. Alice Through the Looking Glass here we come . . .

Alice wakes up, rejects Hamish, straightens out her family and decides to become an apprentice in her father's business, heading its expansion into new countries.

In the end, the film is not about story or substance, but style and execution. On that level, it succeeds.

Casual Comments: Goodness, the White Queen may have taken a vow not to hurt another living creature, but she sure had no qualms about letting everyone else maim and kill on her behalf.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Everyone said this movie was too "dark" for children. It's actually too clever. It successfully parodies film genres more than 40 years old.

When 17-year old Andy heads off to college, his mother forces him to clean out his room. He must choose what he wants to take with him to school, store in the attic or toss in the garbage. His toys have gone unplayed with for years and this is just the end of a road they saw coming along time ago. Forced to sort his possessions, Andy chooses to take his favorite toy cowboy Woody with him to college and to box all the rest up in the attic. They end up being thrown out by mistake and, along with Woody who tries to help them, escape the City Dump by stowing away in a box donated to the local Day Care.

At first glance, the Day Care looks idyllic and they are shown around the place by a friendly stuffed bear named Lotso, who tells them they'll be staying in the Caterpillar room. It's only after recess is over that they realize that the "Caterpillars" are toddlers who bang, tear, and eat on toys, playing with them within an inch of their lives. When they demand to be moved to a room with older children who know how to play properly, things become sinister. Buzz investigates after hours, busting in on a shady card game where the Day Care toys place their bets and spin a "Speak and Say" like a roulette wheel. He learns there's a dark side to the Day Care operations, where they plot to send the new toys to the toddler room where they'll be destroyed, while the toys in charge, live the good life. It's Animal Farm, by Mattel! The Day Care cartel is happy to let Buzz join their group, but when he insists upon equality for his friends too, he's taken hostage. Lotso and his band of thugs imprison Andy's toys, keeping them on strict lock down.

As they fight Lotso's evil forces, the movie becomes a combination of gangster film noir, prison caper and horror movie. There's Big Baby, a large, old baby doll with a lazy eye, who serves as Lotso's chief enforcer, manhandling the toy prisoners, while gurgling, cooing and toddling along shadowed corridors.

There's Chuckles the Clown who was there when Lotso first turned bad and tells Andy the story of the plush bear's (downfall), in a voice as dead as his frowning face.

There's the tight-jawed telephone toy, who tells Andy how to break out of the daycare joint, even though he thinks that escape is a lost cause.

There's the menacing mechanical monkey who watches all on daycare security cameras and alerts Lotso whenever anyone makes a move.

Toy Story plays on these celluloid cliches to bring us something creative, original and quite comical.

At 1 hour and 43 minutes, I never felt that the movie grabbed until the very end when we got a sequence at the garbage dump that went too long, with the toys eluding destruction one too many times.

Of course, they find freedom in the end. Back home at Andy's, Woody prepares to go off to college with Andy. He believes that it's more important to be there for the boy who has now outgrown him, than to be played with. Meanwhile, the other toys are heading for the attic. But they aren't despairing. After all, they have each other and after their terror time at the Day Care center, they are resigned to the peace and quiet of permanent storage.

At the last minute, Woody writes a note for Andy and leaves it on the box of toys fated for the attic. The note directs Andy to donate his old toys to "Bonnie" a young girl Woody met at Day Care with a wild imagination and fierce love for her toys. Andy obeys the note and takes the toys to a delighted Bonnie. He spends hours "introducing" her to them and making them come alive through play.

What Andy didn't expect when he gifted Bonnie with the box was that his beloved Woody was among the donated toys. Shocked to find the stuffed doll at the bottom of the box, Andy wants to keep him for himself, but Bonnie has played with Andy before. She's pulled his string and memorized his recorded messages. She already loves him, so Andy leaves Woody in good hands. Andy looks back before driving away and the answering stare from Woody's still eyes make tears form in my own. It turns out, Woody is even more emotive when he's inanimate than when he comes alive (outside of the presence of humans). I laughed. I cried. I marveled. I don't know if Toty Story 3 makes a good kids' movie, but it worked for this adult.

Closing concerns: Boy, they sure have regular garbage collection in that town. Day or night, the garbage trucks where Woody lives come by more often than the buses do in Los Angeles.

Hmmm, I was rather sorry when Jessie the stuffed cowgirl fell for Buzz the toy astronaut. After all, I always thought of her as Woody's girl. I suppose the change in her allegiance was ok when I thought that Woody was leaving his toy friends and going off to college with Andy, but now that he's staying, it feels kind of sad to have Woody on the sidelines while Buzz and Jessie tango. He tosses Jessie a rose to clutch in her teeth while she and Buzz sway. Even cowboys can be cuckholded.

I don't know what made Woody change his mind about going with Andy. As Andy packed for school, Woody overheard Andy's mom tell him that she wishes she could always be with him. Andy responds that she will. I guess Woody feels that he'll always be with Andy too, even if they're physically parted. But Andy will see his mother again. Woody may be gone for good. Since the beloved Andy was planning on taking Woody to school, why not go? Did Woody decide that maybe it was better to think of his own future for a change and go with his friend, rather than tagging along with an owner who was no longer a kid. Did Woody finally follow every one's advice and decide to stop hanging onto the past? It wasn't a bad decision on Woody's part, but it came out of left field. Woody had always been so resolute in his determination to stay with Woody. He felt he belonged to him -- after all that was "Andy's" name printed in magic marker on his boot.

I'm not sure what kind of future the toys have now. After all, Bonnie wasn't that young. She was just a little smaller than Molly who had already given up her own old toys (Molly's Barbie doll enjoyed an amusing subplot with Ken from Day Care). It won't be long before Bonnie outgrows the toys herself. Plus, even if she hangs on to some of them for sentimental reasons, surely her first allegiance will be to her original toys and not the ones most recently donated by Andy. Although the immediate future of the toys seems like an active, happy one, it also seems transient, fleeting. Of course, that's how the future is for humans as well. All you can do is live for the moment.

When the toys first realized that Andy might be dumping them, Woody tried to reason in the face of their panic: "We always knew this day was coming." Their answer: "But now it's here." Guess you can't really worry about it until it happens, but knowing that it's coming doesn't make the pain any less, when it arrives.

As someone who once wrote a poem about 'cobwebbed doll eyes watching the days past,' I actually think about neglected toys more than I should. It doesn't help that my mom gave my barbie dolls to a neighbor when I was 12, without bothering to ask me first. Then, within days of me moving to a college dorm, she trashed all the magazines, pictures, books and other mementos I'd spent an adolescence collecting. I have trouble letting go. No wonder I hear Woody's story in my own. No surprise there are 3 dolls in my house that I've owned for 30 years now . . . and counting.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows #1 (2010)

The movies are still not as good as the books, but the leads are as charming as ever and provide an appeal and rooting interest that exist independent of Rowling's pages.

I'm glad that the first installment of Deathly Hallows takes us away from Hogwarts and those endless quidditch games and deeper into Harry, Ron and Hermione's feelings.

As the trio goes on the run from the deatheaters, their surroundings are frequently cold, isolated and gray. To match the environment, Hermione is thinner, almost gaunt. Ron is disheveled and disillusioned. Harry is numb and somber, the accumulation of grief (for his parents, Dumbledore and Mad Dog) having robbed him of his wonder and fun.

The characters love and are in love, but there's no heady or light romance. Their ties are made of weightier stuff, which makes them mean more. When Ginny turns her bare back to Harry and asks him to zip her dress, it's a sensual, adult move. Their subsequent kiss is played for comedy when her jokester brother spies them, but the moment is more sober than diverting, portending the future the pair may never see.

Ron and Hermione's affection is more obvious than ever, but continues unexpressed. It's not Harry meeting Sally, where two pals are oblivious of their romantic feelings. Ron and Hermione both know that they love the other, but continue in a platonic mode which makes them feel less vulnerable. Harry's the third wheel in their relationship, trying to comfort both while acknowledging their covert courtship as little as possible.

When the three impersonate employees and smuggle their way into the Ministry of Magic, they end up at a hearing for a doomed muggle-born woman, accused of stealing a wizard's wand. A befuddled Ron finds that he is disguised as her husband and is expected to support her at the trial. Since that falsely accused woman's fate could be Hermione's some day, I'm surprised that Ron didn't exhibit more compassion for her flight, but that mistaken identity is played more for laughs than pathos.

Once exposed at the ministry, the friends must escape. Hiding out in the wilderness, the three form their own fraternity, setting up camp, tolerating bad habits and temper flares, with Hermione carefully planning every step of their journey (including haircuts and clothing) with endless items from her handy, bottomless bag.

Much of the emotion is captured in unfinished thoughts, as when Harry is annoyed by Ron's constantly blaring radio. He wonders what Ron hopes to hear. Hermione points out that maybe what's more important is what Ron doesn't hear. A good point. Harry's parents are dead. Hermione's muggle parents are mostly protected from the wizard wars (especially now that she has erased herself from their memory). It's only Ron who has a large family to miss and worry about. The dialogue also says a lot with few words when Ron lashes out at Hermione and Harry and says he saw them together. Without an elaborate explanation or denial, an earnest Hermione merely exclaims, "there was nothing!"

Of course, what Ron saw between them was not intimate. It was just Hermione and Harry being familiar, domestic and easy with each other, something that Ron and Hermione can rarely do because unspoken attraction creates tension between them. At one point, when Harry tries to mediate peace between his buddies, Hermione tells Harry that she's always angry with Ron. Of course, the truth is, anger is never the overriding feeling.

For me, the best parts of the film were when Ron, influenced by an evil horcross, imagines that Harry and Hermione are in love and angrily leaves, as Hermione begs him to return. She cries silently in his absence while continuing to put puzzle pieces together that might save the world as they know it. Pain that lingers silently seems more realistic than outbursts and speeches.

Hermione and Harry continue alone on their quest for clues that might stop their enemy Voldemort and, even though they share a dance I find gratuitous, I'm thankful that Rowling made these two friends and nothing more. The movie makers did not want to follow her lead, they would have loved to tease the audience with a commercialicious Harry and Hermione flirtation, but, for me, triangles ruin romance rather than heighten it. Desire between Harry and Hermione would have dilluted both the love they find with others and their own friendship. I like to see members of the opposite sex become and remain nothing more than best friends. I like to see "true love" that is monogamous exist in fiction, since it's so elusive in the real world. I'm glad there are no Team Harry and Team Rons in this series.

Ron's return is sweet and not (too) overdone. After saving Harry and vanquishing his own demons by a frozen pond, Ron is reunited with an angry Hermione. She blasts him for abandoning them. He explains that he wanted to come back immediately, but after leaving, he couldn't retrace his way to their moving camp. So, he was alone for weeks, but on Christmas he used the illuminator gift bequeathed to him by Dumbledore and, from it, Hermione's whisper formed a light that found its way straight to his heart, leading him back to his friends.

Soon enough, the trio is captured by snatchers (bounty hunters) who drag them back to Death Eaters who want to save their own lives by turning them over to Voldemort. The boys are thrown into a dungeon while Hermione is tortured upstairs. I'm a little disappointment that Ron is not quite as tormented by Hermione's screams as he was in the book. Helena Bonham Carter plays the head villainess. Having first seen Carter as a girl in Room with a View, I've been bewildered and somewhat dismayed by her insistence upon taking one maniacal role after the other. I'd like more variety from this actress who is fully capable of emoting without chewing the scenery. Still, she is good in these caricature roles and after a few minutes of Bellatrix, I find myself longing for a dose of Carter's Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, as a kicker.

The movie is not without humor and punchlines, but with muggles being hunted like Jews during the Holocaust, there's a sense of fear even in the comic moments and that's as it should be. The danger is real, not merely allegorical, as evidenced by the propaganda leaflets being continuously printed and distributed throughout the wizard world; the framing, trial and imprisonment of innocents; and the sadistic Bellatrix using her teeth to carve the word "mudblood" into Hermione's skin.

The movie does not build to a climax. There's no cliffhanger, only a pause, but I'm relieved not to be left hanging. Going in, I was afraid that Part 1 would end with Ron still estranged from his friends. Waiting for that rift to mend would be more than I could stand. I'm glad that we leave our heroes embattled, but undivided. Voldemort is growing stronger and so is this franchise. I'm glad to have spent 9 years with these people. The scripts haven't been transcendent, but they've created a world that's become more real than magical and that's a good thing.

It's been a satisfying journey and we're reaching the end. Part 2 of Deathly Hallows will be released next summer. As they return to Hogwarts, I believe Harry, Hermione and Ron are ready for their close ups.

Credits roll at the end, not the beginning. I'm surprised that Rupert Grint gets second billing, before Emma Watson. I suppose that's how their names appeared in the first movie and it hasn't changed since then. Not that I mind. I think Watson is the best actress of the three, but have always been a bit sad that Grint gets less attention than the other two. At least he maintains equal status somewhere.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Separate Lies (2005)

The movie is best described as a polished cross between Unfaithful (2002) and Evelyn Prentice (1934), only it falls short because there's no moral dilemma or rooting love interest.

It starts with a man riding a bike down a lovely, quiet pastoral lane. Then, there's a loud, discordant blast. He's violently thrown from the bike and blood seeps from his chest, leaving a large stain on his white shirt. Cue the opening credits.

Anne is married to the impossible-to-please solicitor James. Tom Wilkinson plays James with a brusque, Nixon-like disapproval that helps one understand why Anne is frustrated in her marriage, but (Bill) the younger man to whom she becomes attached is so thoroughly unlikeable that it's impossible to comprehend her desire for or loyalty to him. She enjoys his disdain, especially when its directed at her husband. When she joins with Bill in ridiculing a picture hanging on their parlor wall -- a picture that she herself hung -- James is livid. He tells her he hates that she has ganged up against him, two against one. He immediately senses that she is using this outsider to stage a quiet rebellion against him that she alone would never have undertaken. His reaction may look like anger, but it feels like pain.

Later, when her affair with Bill is revealed and she finds herself unable to end it, Anne says she doesn't understand the draw to him herself. She wonders if it's lust or love, but concludes it doesn't matter: either way she can't give him up. We never really see Bill and Anne alone together (except when they're spied by James, through a rainy glass) and don't know if there's a soul lurking behind his languid facade. Anne assures her husband that Bill really doesn't care much about her and that that's the pull. He's not meticulous like James. He doesn't have expectations of her, so she can relax with him. That's her excuse for the infatuation, anyway. I began to think she only wanted to hurt James for all of his demands and commands and used Bill as a passive form of revenge that was never acknowledged in the movie. As a result, based on the motivations as I perceived them, I wanted something from the characters that the movie saw no need to deliver. My interest and the movie's plot followed separate lines.

While workaholic James is in London, a tipsy Anne runs down a bicycler, while she's driving Bill's car during a lover's joyride. The cyclist turns out to be the husband of Anne's housekeeper. James notices a dent on Bill's car and suspects he was the hit and run driver. When James confronts Bill and insists that Bill do the right thing, Bill agrees to confess his guilt to the police. It's only after James returns home and tells Anne of Bill's plans that she reveals that she was the one driving the car -- and that she has also been sleeping with Bill. In the movie's best scene, James responds to this news by saying he's sorry and quickly heading outside to vomit. Despite the polite appearances, he's not just apologizing for his nausea, but instantly suspects his own fault, even before assigning any blame to her, feeling that he drove Anne to infidelity. The problem is, although she initially denies James did anything wrong, it's clear that she thinks he's responsible for her problems too and at that point in the movie, Anne becomes just as unlikeable as Bill to me, while James is increasingly sympathetic, though not necessarily in the movie's eyes. He keeps having to pay penance, until the end. Anne doesn't.

Anne is often distressed, so we're supposed to think that she's torn with guilt over having killed her housekeeper's husband. But if she really was, why did she leave the scene of the accident in the first place; then host a party that same evening; pretend to console the cyclist's worried wife at the hospital; remain silent about her own participation when he died; and only declare that she really wanted to admit she was the driver, after James pressed her beloved Bill to confess to the crime?

Although he was merciless when he thought Bill was the driver, faced with his wife culpability, James tells Anne to keep quiet about the accident. She says she's willing to take her punishment, but he counters that she won't be the only one to suffer. His reputation will also be smeared, if his wife is imprisoned. Why is it different now that he knows she's the driver, she asks? Anne points out that James wouldn't have cared if Bill had gone to jail and hurt his family. Why should their family be spared? Seemingly stunned by his hypocrisy, Anne insists that she wishes James wouldn't keep forcing her to remain silent. But she was silent long before James found out. I don't think he's the one forcing her. Moreover, it's rather obvious that although he told her that she should keep silent for his sake, his true concern is for her. It's possible even he does not realize how much he loves her, but his regard is becoming transparent to the audience.

This is reminiscent of the Dedlocks in Bleak House. The depth and unconditional nature of Sir Leicester's love stunned the reader, who'd pegged him as cold and superficial. Similarly, James was cold and curt, but not uncaring; we spend the last half of the movie watching those surface layers fall away. But there were never that many layers to begin with. Maybe it's because his heart was always so close to his sleeve, that he was so persnickety about small things like cuffs. He controlled minutiae, because his emotions could not be reined as easily. This man was never like James Stevens in Remains of the Day. This James was always distant, but never inaccessible.

If James could be compared to Leicester Dedlike, unlike his wife Honoria, there is less to Anne Manning than first meets the eye, not more. Maybe she repressed so much, for so long, that in the end there is little left inside, to hold in or give out. She seems to have a sense of obligation, but not of right and wrong.

Anne lies to the police and lets James lie for her, all while continuing her affair with Bill, which tryst involves them speeding recklessly through the country side in the same car in which they have already killed a man. She has the nerve to object when James lashes out at her, he replies he has only three options: suicide, bitterness or to say he's glad to be rid of her. He says he can't quite bear to do the latter, so bitterness is all he has left. If Anne had ever loved James, this would have been the point where she put him out of his misery either by breaking it off with him completely or finally separating from Bill. Apparently she can do neither. She plans a racing jaunt in Paris with her lover, but also wants to meet up with her husband while there. She seems to be seeking an open marriage. He declines.

While playing the victim, it's clear to the me that Anne always had the upper hand in that marriage. She ran the house the way he wanted, waited on him, catered to him, but was also able to bend him to her will every time she took a stand. Problem is, she took so few of them.

After Anne tearfully tells the cyclist's widow that she was responsible for the accident, she leaves Bill, but it's not because she loves James. Rather, with one weight off of her chest, she wants to free herself completely. She's just tired of feeling guilty and remaining with her husband is the less culpable choice. Somehow, her feelings are always paramount. It becomes tedious having James with this selfish martyr, especially when he has a caring secretary who seems like she'd actually want his company, not suffer it.

By chance, James learns that Bill is dying of cancer. He can keep the news to himself or tell Anne and risk having her run back to Bill, as Bill smugly predicts she will. James can tell her the truth and lose her again. I'm left wondering why all of them, Bill, James and Anne believe that Anne leaving James is any big loss. Faced with the choice of being honest or preserving his complacent marriage, James tells Anne about Bill and she promptly packs to be with her dying lover, but not without a parting shot: demanding to know why James keeps setting tests for her, when he knows she always fails them. Once again, she doesn't take responsibility for her own decision to go. She was forced to in response to James the Brute's domineering nature! Unfortunately, James himself seems to buy this.

Maybe he felt sorry for Bill. Maybe he wanted Anne to be with the man she loved. Maybe it wasn't a test.

In the end, it's easy to believe that Bill truly cared for Anne, since he was willing to confess to a vehicular crime he did not commit to save her and ready to die without her ever knowing he was ill. He told James that she should remain happy in her ignorance. There was probably something selfless behind his cavalier exterior. He loved Anne. She loved Bill, but who loved James? Anne confessed to the hit and run, yet the movie ended with me feeling that no one had ever held her responsible. Emotionally, the bicycle accident was the least of her crimes.

Open Question: The reason that the housekeeper, Maggie, was able to forgive Anne for lying about her husband's death is that Anne hired her when no one else would. Maggie had been convicted of theft and had not worked for 8 years. When Bill returns to his home town after years working in New York, we learn that he and Maggie are not strangers. She used to work for his family. Still later, we learn that Bill was the witness against her in the theft trial. Yet, when they first met, it was Bill who looked evasive and guilty, not Maggie. One sensed her dislike of Bill, but not shame, not even anger. I kept waiting to learn that Bill had falsely accused Maggie. Maybe he'd stolen from his own family to support his debauchery and then blamed the missing items on the maid. The movie never says this is the case, but Maggie never admits to stealing either. She talks about her conviction, not the crime. Moreover, if there is distrust between Maggie and Bill, it is on her side, not his. But what can she do? Class divide is not a theme in the movie, but it's not absent from it. This is evident when the police inspector vents at Maggie, for protecting Anne and changing her story about whose car struck down her husband. He pleads with her not to lie for them, because they wouldn't do it for her. In the end, her graditude towards Anne seems misplaced.

Side note: I shrieked a little when I saw John Neville's name in the opening credits. He played Bill's doting father. Oh, it's been 12 years since I've seen my beloved "Well Manicured Man" and I've missed him like crazy. Don't think that seeing him in an English country house with his grandchildren didn't remind me of a certain scene in Fight the Future . . .

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inception (2010)

Forget the fine Batman catalog, if forty year old Christoper Nolan had absolutely nothing else to his credit except Memento and this film, he'd still qualify for legend status.

The action meant little to me. The crumbling buildings; the sideways, gravity-defying hotel machinations, I'll forget. What will remain is the same cognisance of memory, loss, guilt, and self-delusion that Memento explored.

We often long for moments past, wishing we could have them back. But Nolan's movies reveal that even when time can be shuffled and rearranged like a deck of cards, pulling the past forward, bringing it back, causes more pain than it heals. And the funny thing is, the happy memories hurt just as much as the sad ones, when all they do is remind you of their inaccessibility.

Inception played into a long-running obsession of mine with the novel Time Traveler's Wife. I've spent hours wondering how, wondering if, Henry and Claire could have met again after his death and before hers. They met in her past. Could he have found a path into her future? I reasoned that because time passed slower when Henry was time-traveling. If he disappeared for 2 months in "real time" he could have been time-traveling in the future (with his mourning widow) for up to 10 years. I used this fantasy to give myself the happy ending that the book itself denied me.

So, I was immediately fascinated with the idea that the dreamers in Inception, could spend years in a dream, while a mere hour passed in the wakened world. Of course, there's always a price to pay for the time you lose here and gain elsewhere, as anyone from Jack Finney to Daphne Du Maurier (The House on the Strand) can tell you.

As the movie began, switching from one dream to another, I was afraid it would be another Mulholland Drive or Vanilla Sky, where excessive fantasy minimized your interest in the "real" characters, to the extent they even existed. However, in Inception, even if you don't know much about their lives, these people have defined personalities, concerns and motivations which remain static, even if everything around them constantly changes. Even if you lose sight of the physics, the emotion keeps you grounded and gripped.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb. He has mastered the art of extraction, the practice of entering someone's dream and stealing their deepest secrets. It was a technique first developed by the military, but it now used in the private realm for more opportunistic purposes. Cobb organizes teams for his dream heists. They design a dream to be inhabited by their victim's subconscious projections. While an architect can design the building and places in a dream, the dreamer is the one responsible for creating the people who populate it, through his subconscious imagination.

Once the dream thieves enter the subject's dream, share it, playing roles to dupe the dreamer into divulging his deepest hopes and fears. It's a class con, not unlike what you'd expect from David Mamet. It simplty takes place in the psychedelic realm.

After a job goes bad, the company that hires Cobb puts a hit out on him. But that's the least of his worries. He was already a wanted man. He had to escape the United States, after being charged with the murder of his wife Mal (yes the "bad" connotation is intended). He went on the lam to France, leaving his two small children in their grandparents' care. He longs to return to them. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a shady businessman who actually thwarted Cobb's most recent mind theft attempt, was nonetheless impressed. He offers Cobb the chance to return home. He asks Cobb to reverse his extraction talents. Instead of taking information from someone's dream, plant an idea, create the seed of thought. Commit inception.

Cobb's right-hand man Arthur (Jordon Gordon-Levitt, making anyone who watched him for years on 3rd Rock from the Sun immensely proud of his career growth) immediately declares that inception's impossible. It can't be done. Cobb knows it can. He's done it before. Once.

Saito promises that if Cobb's successful in doing it again, he'll pull strings, make the criminal charges disappear and leave the customs door open for Cobb to return to his family. Despite its enormity, Cobb accepts the assignment. All he has to do is use a dream to implant the idea into the brain of Saito's competitor (Robert Fischer, Jr., playing by Batman's Cillian Murphy) that Fischer should sell off the company that he inherited from his father, rather than continuing the family empire.

Cobb and Arthur get to work assembling their dream team. Cobb is not as nimble as he once was. Recently there have been psychic stumbles. He's haunted by his dead wife, who plagues his thoughts (and thereby every dream he has, enters or shares with others) and methodically sabotages all of his dream schemes. Consequently, Cobb can no longer design dreams himself, because everything he knows about the dream environment, Mal (in his subconscious) also knows and she will use that information to destroy the dream world and alert Cobb's would-be victim to the intended theft.

Cobb needs an outside architect and goes to his father-in-law Miles, a professor, to find one. Miles selects a architectural student who is even more advanced than Cobb was at her age, Ariadne. On their very first trip into dreams together, Ariadne discovers that Cobb has as little control of his dreams as he does over his life. As they share a dream, Mal enters and immediately tries to kill Ariadne. Usually being killed in a dream only wakes the dreamer up. So, Ariadne was not in mortal danger from Mal, but she quickly realizes that anyone who dreams with Cobb (literally and figuratively) is at risk and tells him she wants no part of the Inception.

But Cobb knows that the lure of the dream world is addictive. Now that Ariadne has been exposed to it, she won't be able to stay away. He is proven right. Ariadne joins Arthur as part of Cobb's dream team. First job is to make a totem for herself. It's the definitive "pinch me, tell me I'm not dreaming." After all, dreams feel real when you're in them, right? How do you tell the difference? How do you identify reality? You use a totem. An object that Ariadne knows inside out, texture, weight, dimension. An item that she can feel in her dream, test for substance and detail. If it feels false in any way, she'll know she's dreaming. Cobb's totem is a metal spinning top. In a dream it will spin indefinitely. When it topples over, he knows that he's awake, in his real life. You aren't supposed to let anyone else handle your totem, because that defeats the purpose, doesn't it. Cobb uses his dead wife's totem. Our question is, will always be, whether that makes it a less accurate totem for him or not.

Ariadne fashions a chess piece as her totem. She is a PAWN.

Ariadne's choice of totem suggests that Cobb has used her from the beginning, not for the Inception job, but to design a dream that is so real, he won't be able to distinguish it from reality. The ones he creates himself are too familiar to serve this purpose.

Next, Cobb finds a chemist who can make a drug strong enough to produce the ultimate hat trick: three dreams in one. Cobb wants to use a dream within a dream within a dream to get deep enough inside of Fischer's psyche to make Fischer think the idea of selling his father's company originated from so deeply within, he'll never suspect that it was the product of dreamwork. Cobb recruits Eames to act in the dream with him and Arthur (whom Eames deems unimaginative). Finally, Saito himself insists on joining the band of con artists, because he wants to make sure his job succeeds smoothly.

The quintet then devises 3 complex dreams to share with Fischer, all to further a new form of corporate espionage: changing your rival's mind. Cobb's inception techniques are not like brainwashing. You don't indoctrinate or train. You use what's there already. The need and insecurity. The Freudian desires. Instead of exploiting, you satisfy them. Instead of breaking Fischer mentally, you build him, patch up the broken pieces. Fischer's relationship with his father was troubled. He never had dad's approval. Cobb aims to make Fischer think he will somehow gain that approval, the affection he craved, by selling his deceased father's company. It could be argued that the dream team is not stealing from Fischer, so much as giving to him.

Before they embark on the dream plot together, Ariadne insists that Cobb be honest with her. Why does he use drugs to dream, even after working hours. Why is Mal, his subconscious, out to kill him? He and Mal went dreamtripping together once and they got trapped in the dream, for what seemed like 50 years. Who wants to be in a dream for 50 years, Ariadne wonders?

Cobb explains that he discovered that she had a secret she wanted to escape. Something she'd repressed. When they finally emerged back into reality, Mal didn't believe it, didn't want to face it. She thought reality was the dream and she wanted to awaken from it (to escape back into the world of dreams and repression). She wanted to kill herself, to end the life she perceived as a "dream" and she wanted Cobb to join her. He refused. He tried to convince her that by killing herself, she would be ending her life, not ending a dream. She'd be leaving him and their children. She didn't accept it. She killed herself, but framed Cobb for the crime, so that, facing life in prison, he would choose to kill himself too and they could then return to their dream world together. Cobb did not follow her in death. He continued to live a life haunted by her and that's why she terrorizes him in his dreams. Mal is his guilt. She's the part of him that refused to die when she did.

Ariadne is determined to stay with Cobb, throughout their schemes on Fischer, to protect him and everyone who shares the dreams with him, from the violence his mind projects as Mal. She gives Cobb an ultimatum. Either she stays with him or he has to share with the others, everything he's told her. Apparently, Cobb is not willing to do this. So, he allows Ariadne to stay by his side. Yet, I'm not convinced that Arthur doesn't know everything already. He's been working with Cobb a long time. He's been in Cobb's dreams when they've turned violent, invaded by a Malicious Mal. In fact, Arthur has suffered as a result. Although, when you die in a dream, it only causes you to wake up, when you're hurt in a dream, you feel pain in the dream, just as you do in real life. Arthur was physically tortured when Mal broke into Cobb's last dream scheme. Arthur suffered because of her. Yet, he continues to work with Cobb. Why?

Arthur's totem, the symbol he has chosen to identify his reality, is one loaded DIE.

Our band of six merry men (and woman) assembled, when Robert Fischer boards a plane to travel to America for his father's funeral, they are on it with him. In fact, Saito has purchased the entire airline, so they can easily impersonate fellow passengers. Once the flight takes off, Cobb deftly drugs Fischer's drink and the dreams begin.

In the first dream, the team kidnaps Fischer. However, Fischer is not a stranger to extraction. It was Arthur's job to conduct all of the background research, but he somehow failed to discover that Fischer is not your average dreamer. He's a veteran. He received military training on the extraction technique and his mind knows how to defend against it. His subconscious wages an attack on the people who have invaded his dream and Saito is injured in the gunfire that results.

At first, the team doesn''t think Saito's wound is significant. After all, if he dies, all that will happen is that he'll awake from his dream, right? Wrong. Apparently, the drug that Cobb has used for this plot is so unusually strong, that if you die in your dream, you're too far under to wake up. Instead, you enter a dream limbo. You can remain there for years, decades. That's where Cobb resided with Mal for 50 years. Once you finally do wake up, even though only a few hours have passed in reality, your brain is so scrambled from all of the time that you spent in the dream realm that you lose sight of reality. You go insane as Mal did -- as Cobb may be.

If Saito dies in this dream, his body may live on, but his brain will be dead when the dream is over.

The others wonder why Cobb and the chemist did not tell them that there was the risk of being trapped in a dream limbo for a life time. Cobb retorts that he didn't think there was any chance of them dying in the dream, so he had no reason to tell them about limbo. After all, Cobb didn't know that Fischer's defense projections would be shooting at them in the dream. It had been Arthur's job to find out everything about Fischer and Arthur failed. The danger they're in can't be blamed on Cobb, can it?

The team fears they'lll all be killed by Fischer's psyche, but Cobb decides to outsmart it. Using a maneuver that has failed before, Cobb plays "Mr. Charles" a character who alerts Fischer to the fact that he is indeed in a dream. Charles convinces Fischer that his god father (played by Tom Berenger) is the enemy trying to learn the combination to the Fischer family safe. The god father has hired extractors to steal that information from Fischer's brain. But what is inside the safe, Fischer wonders? Fischer himself has no idea.

Fischer isn't consciously aware of possessing secret information, but Cobb promises to help him uncover it. Essentially, by assuring Fischer that he is on his side against the bad guys who would steal his secrets, Cobb (Mr. Charles) convinces Fischer to join the dream team and to actually help them to get inside of Fischer's subconscious. Id, ego, superego? They'll lift the layers of Fischer's mind together, delving deeper into his subconscious, until they find the combination to his safe -- the key unlocking Fischer's troubled relationship with his father.

The team works against time (or the drug that will wear off and wake Fischer before Inception has been completed), to get Fischer to the point in his dream where he will "sponataneously" come to the conclusion that he should sell his father's company. The players are scrambling through 3 levels of dreams simultaneously. They all encompass the same time span, but it moves at different paces per dream. Two minutes = 20 minues = 2 hours. The farther you sink into a dream, the more time it seems has passed.

Arthur's efforts to synchronize the equilibrium trigger (sense of falling) that will force them all to awake from each of the 3 dream levels, is visually arresting, as he works without gravity. But if you've seen Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, you've seen this. To me, the film's action elegantly decorates the drama, but is not what propels it.

As they rush to beat the awakening, Ariadne demands to know the basis for the guilt that spurs his subconscious Mal to continue tormenting him. Why did a train appear out of nowhere in the dream they were sharing and threaten to crush them to death?

Cobb confesses that he's succeeded with Inception once before. He succeeded with Mal. There was a secret from her past that she repressed. When it was uncovered, she didn't want to face it. Reality was too much. To help soothe her, he is the one that convinced her that their dream was a reality. He thought it was just a coping mechanism. They killed themselves in their dream. They lay on a train track and as the locomotive approached them, he told her that it didn't matter which rain the train was headed, the destination was unimportant as long as they were together. The train then ran over them, but death didn't make them wake up. They were too heavily drugged for that. So, death in the dream left them in a dream limbo that lasted for 50 years. They grew old in that dream together, an old couple walking down an empty world, hand in hand. When the drugs finally wore off and they returned to reality, after decades in the dream, Mal had lost her grip on sanity. Because of him, because he told her the dream was real. She killed herself to keep from returning to the waking world as a result.

After revealing the truth to Ariadne, Cobb faces the Mal of his subconscious. He tells her he loves her and misses her more than words can say, but he won't join her in death, because he owes their children more. She has already abandoned them. He will not. Mal won't accept this. She struggles with Cobb. He stabs her, killing the wife of his dreams. Does he kill the guilt that has crippled him along with her?
Ariadne believes he has. She thinks Cobb will be fine now. He has stared down his demons.

Meanwhile, Fischer has opened the safe. He has found the combination that will unlock the relationship with his father. In the safe are a will and a wheel. The will states that Fischer should sell his father's company and chart his own life, rather than being imprisoned by his father's legacy. The wheel is a pinwheel, a souvenir from the one happy moment that Fischer spent with his father in childhood. His father saved that pinwheel all of that time, just as Kane saved Rosebud. This proves to Fischer that his father loved him. Loved him and wanted him to sell the company. Inception has succeeded.

Mission accomplished we return to the plane, where everyone on the team is prepared to awake. But first the flashback that opened the film is repeated. Cobb is at a table with a lonely old man, full of regret. He raises his ancient head to look at Cobb and it reminds him of someone from his past. Someone he knew as a young man. Someone who was an expert at extraction . . . Cobb recognizes the old man too. It's Saito. Saito has been stuck in dream limbo for decades. It is Cobb's job to rescue him, by making Saito realize it's a dream and giving him the means to wake himself. The old man reaches for a gun and kills himself, allowing Saito to return to reality and wake up on the plane with the others, mind intact.

Saito is so relieved that Cobb returned to help him escape from ages of dream limbo, that his mercenary scheme to have Fischer sell his company seems irrelevant at this point. Saito hurriedly picks up the phone, pulling all strings necessary to allow Cobb to return to the United States with the threat of criminal prosecution no longer over his head.

They all enter the airport. Cobb nervously submits his passport to customs. He is cleared, "Welcome back, Mr. Cobb," the agent murmurs. Cobb's father-in-law is waiting for him at baggage claims. They go home. As they enter the house, Cobb reaches for his totem. He spins it to make sure it topples over, to make sure he is awake, but then he sees his children. He calls out to them. They turn and he sees their face. Something he never lets himself see in dreams, because he doesn't want to get lost in the illusion. He runs to them, leaving his totem spinning on the table. It does not stop. Fade to black.

The opening credits fill the screen, crowning such a cinematic accomplishment that you want to stand and applaud, as you do when the cast takes its final bow in a play.

Was Cobb dreaming? I think so, because his kids happened to be wearing the same clothes that they wore in his dreams. The same clothes that he wore before escaping to Europe to avoid prison. He broke his own rule. He used his own memories to build his dreams and that's why he was able to so fully lose his grasp on what was real and what was illusion. He may even have done this on purpose.

So, yes the reunion at the end was a dream, but does it matter? Not if Cobb had finally found peace, not if he could live in that dream happiness for another 50 years. If a dream is as real as life, but without the stress and sadness, then why should we ever try to leave them?

Ariadne had Cobb convinced that he had faced his guilt over Mal's death. But maybe the guilt he conquered was that caused by the thought of leaving his children. Maybe he finally let himself abandon them to a fatherless reality, so that he could succumb to the dream in which Mal was still alive and they were raising their family together.

Of course, that begs the question: why did Mal need to run in the first place? What was in her past that she did not want to face? It had do with her childhood, because the secret resided in a dollhouse, because when Cobb and Ariadne passed the house where Mal grew up in a dream, he quickly, curtly assured Ariadne that Mal would not be in it. What happened to Mal when she was a girl and did it involve Miles, her kindly father (Michael Caine)? Or was it related to Mal's mother, someone who is never seen in the dream, but only heard in the background of a phone conversation, after which she abruptly cuts off Cobb's call with his children.

Was the real crime that Cobb committed leaving the children in the care of the same parents who may have permanently scarred their mother?

Guilt and its nature, it's origiin. The questions persist. Could Cobb have been more directly responsible for Mal's death than he told Ariadne. He stabbed her in his dream? Could he have killed her in reality? After all, that's what he was accused of, that's why he was a fugitive from justice. Cobb told Ariadne he was accused of killing his wife and then thanks her for not asking if he did. But we should ask.

Oh, Cobb takes us back to the same place where Leonard left off in Memento. It's Nolan's infinite loop. Ten years between the two movies, but we end up at the same place. Memory, dreams. Cobb and Leonard may be lying to themselves more than to anyone else. Yet, where subjectivity and perception exist, there can never be one truth anyway.

Truth is an illusion and reality . . . is everything we see and seem, but a dream within a dream? Once you remove consciousness of time and space, everything you've been, are and will be, exists at once. Everything lost is restored (Cobb) -- or lost repeatedly (Leonard). The choice is yours.

Monday, July 12, 2010

It's Complicated (2009)

I would say that this was one of the better romcoms of late, especially in terms of the dialogue which sounded natural and insightful, without being predictable. Time and time again, the characters voiced a thought that had me nodding in affirmation, a stark departure from most Hollywood comedies which trade on the characters' stupidity. So often movies that involve divorced couples recreate The War of the Roses. This pair displays more respect towards each other than revenge.

Meryl Streep was likable, if giggly, as Jane Adler, a pleasant, warm version of Martha Stewart. Jane's ex-husband Jake is, by now, a stock character for Alec Baldwin, half charm, half smarm.

The Adlers have spent their 10 years of divorce in a cold war, maintaining a polite, but formal distance. But they find themselves booked at the same hotel for their son's graduation, imbibe at the lobby bar, share memories, then a dance floor and wind up in bed.

Feeling foolish after the rendezvous, Jane does her best to avoid the amorous Jake, but he is persistent, constantly cornering her. Since the audience has been told that the Adler marriage ended when Jake (now 58) cheated on Jane with a woman in her thirties (his current wife Agnes), one wonders why she would allow herself to be reeled in. He seems to be using her now as much as he did back then, since -- at first -- he doesn't broach the subject of a reconciliation with Jane but seems content to cheat, stimulated by the subterfuge. Even if he is willing to dump the domineering Agnes and her demon spawn (Jake's obnoxious 6 year old stepson), why should Jane be willing to rescue him from the "my wife doesn't understand me" dilemma, when he has painted her as the intolerable wife in the past? Why indulge someone who is constantly questing for the other side's greener grass?

Finding herself "the other woman" for the first time, Jane is torn between doubt and desire and discusses her indecision with her perennial trio of friends. This notion of the social quartet, the group of four friends who constantly share all of their ups, downs, and adventures during coffee (or cosmoplitans) and conversations is a purely fictional construct. It exists only in movies and tv. After high school, no one hangs out regularly in friendly groups of four -- unless they're playing bridge. Still Jane confides in her de rigueur BFFs and is told to go for it.

More surprisingly, Jane's psychologist also tells her to proceed with the affair, deciding that it can't hurt anything. What?! Sleeping with an ex-husband who is now married to someone else, raising a 6 year old boy and actively trying to conceive another child, could potentially hurt many things, Jane, her children, and Jake's new family, not least of all. If Jane has been counseled by this quack for the last 8 years, it sounds like she has a strong claim for medical malpractice.

Spurred by this bad advice, Jane casts hesitation aside and rushes headlong into Jake's waiting tryst. It's only when he stands her up that she decides to end it. She then starts dating Steve Martin's, Adam, a fellow divorcee who is also her architect.

In the movie's most forced and contrived scenes, Adam and Jane decide to smoke pot before attending her son's graduation party. As they stumble around high and silly, hijinks are supposed to ensue, but actually don't. It's after the party, when the marijuana has them looking for munchies, that Jane and Adam share their most enjoyable moments, baking chocolate croissants in her closed bakery. It's a sensual exchange, but not in the 9 and a 1/2 weeks food frenzy sense. Rather the simple intimacy of the two people, flour and fingers rolling together, fumbling to find the oven rack, unveiling the finished pastries and finally consuming what they've created together is the perfect metaphor for a relationship's evolution.

Warming to this new romance, Jane confesses to Adam that she had been seeing someone, but promises that it's over.

The next day, Jake shows up at Jane's door, saying he's ended his marriage to Agnes and needs a place to stay. Although Jane surmises that Jake was probably kicked out and didn't leave Agnes on his own, her children are moved by his feigned loneliness and insist that Jake be allowed to spend the night at their house. Although Jane repeatedly rebuffs Jake, he refuses to take "no" for an answer, easily his most obnoxious character trait. However, what's even more aggravating is that, until now, Jane has never meant "no" when she's said it. She's always let Jake change her mind, so quickly that even he wonders why she feels the need to perfunctorily reject him at first, when they both know she doesn't mean it. He wonders if she thinks that he'll stop respecting her if she just says yes the first time. Given the fact that her resolve has repeatedly folded like a house of cards, Jake's arrogance is almost forgivable. Almost.

Things come to a head when Jake disrobes and slips naked behind Jane's computer, not realizing that she'd been using it to webcam with Adam. Adam gets the full Monty on his computer screen. Jane comes in and screens, the kids are alerted and soon everyone knows about Jake and Jane's short-lived affair. Even though Jane quickly tells the kids (all adults) that she has no plans to reunite with their father, they react hysterically and end up huddled in bed together, crying like orphans. With grown kids as psychotic as these, Jane's love life suddenly seems to be the least of her problems. She tells them that she has to do what's right for herself and, after telling Jake it's definitely over, tries to make amends with Adam.

While the movie had some major missteps, its saving grace were that -- aside from suporting players like Alice and Pedro -- no one was a caricature. Yes, Jake was a smooth talking jerk, but he was also a fount of weary wisdom. well aware of his own flaws and frequently willing to admit them in a manner that was sincere, rather than manipulative. Yes, he tried to pull a few fast ones, but Jane was intelligent enough to see through them. So no harm, no foul. When they both admit that although they may have wanted their fling to mean something, there was something artificial and forced about it, Jane notes that their efforts at reunion might have worked better if he hadn't been married. Jake answers that if he hadn't been married, there might not have been a fling at all. He knows better than anyone that it's his displeasure with his present life that made the one he left behind years ago seem more attractive. Yet, when he compliments Jane, his words seem earnest and not just an attempt to get her into bed. This is especially true when he points out his own physical shortcomings.

In one nice exchange, Jake wonders why Jane has taken to calling him "Big Guy." Is it because he's tall or is it because he's gotten fat? It sounds like a joke, but it's played for honesty, not a punch line. Jane softly reflects that she doesn't know why she started using that nickname, but she'll stop since it bothers him. These really feel like two people who have known each other for 30 years and have often hurt each other in that time . . . but don't do it deliberately.

Jane acknowledges that it wasn't Jake's infidelity alone that broke them up. She bore some responsibility too, but the affair made it easier to assign all the blame to him. But such revelations don't just come at the end of the movie, in time for its happy ending. Jane and Jake have been insightful throughout. Their consistent thoughtfulness made the film's quiet humor far sharper than the (marijuana fueled) gags. As Jane's new suitor, Adam wasn't Ralph Bellamy to Jake's Cary Grant. Adam was precise, without being nerdy. Jake was suave, without being perfect. All three managed to swerve around the expected stereotypes, steering clear of the Philadelphia Story/ High Society endings that have now become cliched.

Some of the movie's screwball moments felt contrived. Indeed, the segment where the Adler's son-in-law-to-be discovers their affair, but scrambles to hide it from their daughter, smacks of the type of antics last scene in California Suite. But coming from talented actors who play it low key, rather than comedians who hit you over the head, even wacky works.

In the end, you're left with pretty nice character pieces. Complicated? Maybe not, but frequently compelling.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Iron Man (2008)

Just getting around to seeing this one. Downey's wry, eloquent Iron Man wry, seems like a less (obviously) inebriated version of his Sherlock Holmes.

I don't think I've ever seen a film where the Superhero took an hour just to become the title character. It's also unique that Iron Man's first feats take place in the Middle East, making him a truly global hero. Although this movie is no more realistic than other comic book films, because Iron Man's power comes from a manmade suit and not the paranormal and because his initial enemies are ripped from the headlines and not the Marvel pages, he seems somehow less cartoonish than Superman, Batman and Spiderman.

When Tony Stark is captured while touring with troops, having him seized and hooded calls those Taliban beheading clips to closely to mind. Later he is waterboarded and, clearly the act is one of torture, not an interview technique. Upon his escape, this wealthy defense manufacturer realizes that he has prospered by supplying arms that are being used to kill Americans. Grounding the story in a plain Gulf War (I)/Haliburton context that makes allegory unnecessary.

Before the movie descends into a battle between machines (Stark's and a larger "Iron Man" inhabited by Jeff Bridges), it is distinguished by its talk and tone, more than its toys.

Of course Stark, an inventor and designer, has futuristic technology at his fingertips. But we get the most fun hearing him banter conversationally with his robots, who have obviously been programmed with his own dry wit. He treats them as part friend/part pet.

Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is his trusted assistant. Where friendship and trust exist, it seems immaterial whether they connect romantically and so their flirtation seems almost perfunctory, but never unpleasant. While being a womanizer is par for Stark's playboy course, I'm not sure why he also has to treat his conquests so shabbily, making it a point not to see or remember them after a dalliance. Pepper assists him with the ditching or, as she calls it, "taking out the trash." This seems especially harsh when the woman to whom the taunt was directed happened to be a conscientious, investigative reporter who pressured Tony into ending his company's wrongs. While the Brown graduate displayed little intelligence in sleeping with Stark, in doing so, she was hardly more trashy than he.

The little moments that gave me the most laughs were a tv clip with a histrionic Jim Cramer telling a Mad Money audience to dump Stark stock and Tony giving a quick hello to an elderly Hugh Hefner.

The movie ended on a befitting note of quirkiness, which both set up the sequel and emphasized Tony Stark's appealing blend of ego and ethos. He does the unexpected and publicly admits to being Iron Man because: (1) he was told not to, (2) he wanted the credit, and (3) he didn't want to lie. Not necessarily in that order.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Despicable Me (2010)

This movie is neither feast, nor fowl. Not enchanting enough for children or sophisticated enough for adults.

While the simplistic story fits a younger audience, visually the animation and action wouldn't be enough to hold and capture their attention -- except for the minions! Steve Carrell is the voice for Gru, a washed up villain who is being usurped by younger evil doers. In fact, one upstart just stole The Pyramids right from under Egypt's nose and if Gru doesn't want to lose his reputation entirely, he's got to surpass that feat. He comes up with the idea to steal the moon, but realizes that is a costly endeavor that will take a large bank loan.

Seeking financing, Gru goes to Evil Bank ("formerly Lehman Brothers"). That was the best line in the movie and clearly geared towards mature audience members, but that's about the only sight gag the film offers. You won't need to rewind this one to catch speeding subtleties as they whizz by, because basically what you see is what you get and what you get is cute, but not memorable.

To execute his plan to steal the moon, Gru must nab a shrink ray gun from his arch rival Vector. Vector has a penchant for coconut girl scout cookies and so Gru adopts three orphans, hoping to gain access to Vector's fortress through their cookie solicitations. The girls are occasionally amusing, but by no means precocious, clever or endearing enough to steal anyone's heart but, inevitably, Gru's.

Gru is assisted in his devious schemes by a gruff inventor and hundreds of minions: yellow, chirpy little pranksters who live in Gru's mansion and assist and sabotage his operations. Since costumed minions bustled around the Nokia theater charming audience members before the movie started, the producers have clearly placed all their merchandising hopes in their tiny yellow hands. Many of the movie's laughs came from the minions' practical jokes and they may well delight some younger viewers. Once I saw them, I could never believe that Gru was that bad of a guy, because he knew each one of his little helpers by name. Ogres don't pay that much attention to others, especially those that work for them. Obviously, there was always a heart of gold lurking behind Gru's scowl.

Carrell is a talented mimic, but he could have done this voice over in his sleep. The 3-D effects are pleasant, but not eye-dropping. Ultimately, this movie is far from despicable, but less than distinctive and never dazzling.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Eclipse (2010)

This might be the best of the three movies in the Twilight Saga, reviving some of the romance and mood that was present in the first, combined with more credible action scenes than that presented in the second. Certainly, the latest movie has more humor than the other installments, the frequent laughs derived from both one liners and small gestures which lend the characters fresh charm.

Pattinson and Lautner seemed to have improved and the supporting characters were fleshed out a bit more. My favorite Cullen clan member, Jasper (played by Jackson Rathbone) got to sparkle a bit and I think Nikki Reed as Rosalie may quiet those who have never warmed to her before, because she was too unlike her counterpart in the book. Rosalie will play a larger role in the last Twilight movie and Reed got a chance to hint that she will be up to the challenge. New cast member, Xavier Samuel(Riley) had much more to do in the film than in the book and the scenes with Bree and the newborns from Riley's perspective, almost made me think that Summit is might be planning a spinoff movie franchise with those characters. But first things first . . .

While Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) may not have been as experienced a director as Chris Weitz (New Moon) she used touches I found visually arresting. Her slow motion and fast action sequences showcased the vampires' gleeful power (the baseball game) and graceful menace (the murderous Laurent, James and Victoria). Girding for battle, the characters move in sync or freeze in model poses. Concerted action, heightening the drama. I thought those little flourishes were overshadowed by the clumsy clashing of (bad) CGI wolves in New Moon. The newest director, David Slade, has a more delicate hand, shaping the fight scenes into something sleek and stylish, while subtly turning up the tender edges of love scenes.

One of the best visuals featured the newborn army marching rhythmically underwater towards their targets. Of course, it would have been quicker to swim, but not as chic, and they have reputations to maintain! Besides, having them submerged, then walk stealthily upwards towards shore emphasized the fact that the newborns belong more to Hades' world than ours.

I must admit that I was so frustrated by the romantic "triangle" in the book (the subject of my nearly endless rant on Good Reads , that I spent most of my time comparing the movie to the novel, trying to decide which medium made Bella and Jacob more annoying. It's rather a wash. I found that the movie omitted moments I found important, but mercifully glossed over some I'd found most annoying. I guess I can say that, overall, the film did not make a bad situation worse. I was so obsessed with that aspect of the story, however, that I spent more time parsing over the interaction among the trio than anything else. So, my observations are top heavy on that subject. In truth, I can't really judge the movie fairly, as I didn't approach it as something complete unto itself, but was more interested in how it would succeed or fail in bringing the pages to life. I can hardly pretend that I judged the movie on its own merits. With that rather skewered perspective in mind, rather than giving what is actually a review, I'd like to simply note the most signicant differences that struck me between book and film, some appreciated, some not.

1. The movie opened with Riley. In the book, I never even noticed this guy until the fight scene with Edward and Victoria. While the parallel between Jasper/Maria (Jasper's maker) and Riley/Victoria was certainly in the book, I guess it did not jump out at me there as it did in the movie. That was quite effective. Even though Riley was evil, you could still see that in a way he was just as much a victim as Bree.

2. Due to Kristen's dispassionate, downplayed take on the character, in the early scenes it almost looked as if Bella was bored with Edward, indifferent. Certainly, in the book, he was smothering. To the point where he himself made the decision to back off, realizing that his overprotectiveness could push her away. In the movie, it's Bella who is pushing back. She doesn't ask for permission, which is a healthy thing, given the young girl's who may be influenced by the character. Bella's more independent and less doting (towards Edward at least) on celloloid than on parchment. It may be just as well in the end. While book Bella constantly said she was concerned with Edward's feelings, she often did not act it. At least in the movie, she's not running around vowing never to let him see her cry over Jacob again -- only to do it a 1000 more times). Still, because Edward's devotion to Bella is so singleminded (maybe even stalkerish), the fact that her love for him is less tunnel-visioned, sometimes makes Edward's passion seem one-sided or, at the very least, lop-sided.

3. In the book, Edward tricked Bella into visiting her mother. He does so in the movie as well, but she is not as reluctant to leave or resentful of his ploy. She simply says it's a great idea, as long as Edward comes too -- which he had every intention of doing anyway, in the book. It's not as obvious that he brought the matter up in front of Charlie, just to trap Bella. Charlie doesn't take the bait and doesn't resist Bella leaving on the visit either. I missed the funny scene from the book where she argues with him about concealing things from her. She tells him there's danger everywhere so he shouldn't have tried to get her to leave her home. She points out that their plane could have crashed and she could have died just as easily that way. In the book, before apologizing, Edward tells Bella if the plane crashed he would just jump out before it hit the ground and carry her to safety. I missed that exchange. In the movie, Bella faults Edward for lying to her, tells him to trust her and then leaves on a motorcycle with a cocky Jake.

They kept the scene from the book where she declares that she's Switzerland. When you're in love with one guy who is hated by the other who is constantly making a play for you in a bid to make your "true love" jealous and irate; when the rival and his pack want the death and extinction of your loved one and his family, I really don't think you can afford to be Switzerland. There's no room for neutrality. My whole problem with Bella, (book and film) is that she never took a strong enough stand against Jacob and, in the movie especially, she saddles Edward with a "deal with it" attitude that he would never use towards her.

4. I heard Nikki Reed discuss a scene where Rosalie got her heart broken and felt jilted on the red carpet. That scene was not in the movie I saw, if it referred to Edward rejecting Rosalie as his mate after she was first changed, as explained in the book. If the interviewer was talking about Rosalie's attack by a group of drunken, vicious men then he should be bull-whipped for referring to it as getting "jilted."

5. The movie added a valedictorian speech that told the students to experiment, make mistakes and not to commit to their futures too soon. In the book, Bella was certainly frightened about what she would become once changed and the ties she would have to break in doing so, but the movie hinted that she had more doubt about whether she actually wanted to be converted or not.

6. The awful scene where Jake forces the kiss on Bella is mitigated in the movie a bit, because he takes her more by surprise than anything else. In the book, she is described as struggling against him. He ignores her, refusing to accept "no" as "no," in a move that made the character nearly irredeemable in my eyes. He was bad enough, but when they got home and Charlie laughed about the incident, I was livid. It's not as harsh in the movie, because Bella isn't really resisting Jacob, so much as she is shocked. He asks her to choose him over Edward and she protests that there's no choice to make, that she just does't feel "that way" about him. He insists that she does but won't admit it to herself. He tells her that Edward probably can't even kiss her without hurting how, while he, Jacob, is flesh and warmth, grabbing her in a kiss to prove it. She punches him once she gets her bearings. So, it's more like he stole a kiss, whereas in the book he forced one on her. Given, "your lips say no, but your heart says yes" and "I know what you really need," mentality, it's still an unsavory scene, but not as unforgivable, as it was on the page.

7. Bella's dreams were often prescient in the books, but she had a brand new one in the movie, when a conversation with Jasper makes her realize that it is Victoria behind the army of newborns that have been created. She is the first one to make the connection. The movie is determined to give her a less passive role in the combat, whereas the book used her weakness in the Eclipse fight against Victoria to make a stark contrast to the strength and leadership she would play in Breaking Dawn. She begins to blossom into heroism earlier on screen than she did on paper.

8. When Bella gets Edward not to fight, she doesn't do so by laying a guilt trip on him and saying that she's been insane once and can't bear to go through that again. Instead, she simply tells him that they're more vulnerable when they're apart and wonders how many different times he has to learn that. He concedes her point and promises not to fight. Actually, I think this is an effective way of quietly highlighting their partnership. It gives them more parity as a couple. She doesn't say, "I'll go crazy worrying about you. I can't stand it." She says, "we'll be worried about each other. We'll both be distracted. It's best if we stay together." It's sound reasoning, giving their relationship balance. Later, as she leaves drops of blood in the woods to trick Victoria into following the wrong trail, Edward tells her that he is no longer has to resist the urge to feed, when he exposed to her blood. Since when she wonders. Since he went through 24 hours thinking she was dead he tells her solemnly. A nice moment, conveying that the thought of having lost her forever killed any physical urges he once had to take her life quite concisely.

9. Making abstinence sexy, Edward causes gasps in the movie audience when he tells Bella he wants to be married to her before sleeping together, so as not to endanger her eternal soul. The engagement scene may actually be more romantic than in the book, because she seems generally happy, not like it's something she's doing just because he promised to sleep with her. When he tells her how he would have proposed 100 years ago, she is moved and seems to accept his offer of marriage on its own terms and not part of a bargain.

I may be jaded, but I think the camera lingered on the engagement ring and charm bracelet that Bella wore for reasons having more to do with movie merchandising than character sentiment.

10. In the book, she takes the ring off, because being married at 17 simply grosses her out. In the movie she takes it off, because she doesn't want Jacob to know. She claims she simply doesn't want to distract him, before the fight. In the book, I liked the fact that much as she obsessed over Jacob, she was more worried about Edward being hurt than she was for even Jacob. It seemed vital to book Bella that Edward not fight and she only became crazed about Jacob not fighting at the moment of the kiss scene. In the movie, she seems a lot less desperate about Edward's safety.

11. The tent scene is less obnoxious, because when Bella is huddled up against Jacob for warmth in the movie, she really seems fully asleep. In the book, she is half asleep, for narrative purposes, because Stephenie Meyer couldn't relate the scene if the protagonist wasn't present for it. The movie has no such limitations and can depict events that happened outside of Bella's presence. In the book, since Bella heard part of what Jacob and Edward said, it was maddening that she was not more sensitive to Edward's pain and uncertainty, as he spoke of stepping aside if that's what she wanted. I always wished she'd reassured him the next morning and she never did. At least in the movie, she never heard him. After Jacob points out to Edward that a chilly Bella could get sick and it will be on his head, Edward allows Jacob to join Bella under the blanket and keep her warm. As Jacob leers, taunts and finally gets Edward to divulge his willingness to give her up, if that's what she wants, Bella sleeps, apparently deaf to the conversation.

11. But for every two steps forward, there are two steps back. In the book, Bella and Edward don't talk start listing their favorite times together. Instead, Edwards jumps straight to mentioning their engagement. Gloating, he calls her "Mrs. Cullen" and she points out that in this modern era, she no longer has to change her surname. When Bella discovers that he spoke about coming nuptials knowing that Jacob was listening, she is furious. She runs to Jacob and when Edward tries to detain her, she jerks her hand away, yelling, "Don't!" After everything she has forgiven Jacob for (beginning when he didn't give her phone, leading Edward to assume she was dead in Book 2) and the endless way he taunts Edward every chance he gets, I don't know how Bella can be angry with Edward for telling Jacob they're engaged. I never understood why Jacob's pain is so much more troubling to her than Edward's. She pleads with Jacob, begging him not to enter battle and they have their extended kiss. When she finally turns around, it's only to find Edward looking straight at her, they exchange dialogue that is similar to the book's, in which she acknowledges that she loves Jacob but lamely tells Edward that she loves Edward more. Yeah, but not that much more, from what I can see. In the book, Edward justified her being torn between the 2 men, by sayin that he left her torn and bleeding and Jacob helped heal her. That rationale isn't mentioned here and Bella seems a lot less agonized about having betrayed Edward with that kiss than she did in the book.

By contrast to the book. we don't learn that Jacob tricked her into the kiss by suggesting that he was prepared to march to his death without her love.

12. When Seth, Edward, and Bella are confronted by Riley and Victoria, once Riley is dispatched Victoria retreats, but Edward calls her back and provokes her, in a way that the book Edward would not have done while Bella was in harm's reach. After Victoria is killed, Bella doesn't freak out and make Edward think he has alienated her with his inhuman violence, but she also doesn't run, jump on him and kiss him in relief either. They probably want to keep us in doubt about the status of her feelings, but her extended lack of emotion towards Edward after the big scene with Jacob makes her seem oblivious to Edward's feelings (and not for the first time. There's a nice gesture where Edward picks up her arm (which she cut herself, to distract Victoria, with her blood) and thoughtfully binds her wound with a strip of cloth from her own shirt. In the movie, Bella really did save the day. Seth wasn't faking his injury as he was in the book. Bella's intervention was actually necessary to save Edward.

13. In the book, Edward and Bella are not present when Jacob is injured. Edward hears about it telepathically and when Bella learns that Jacob is hurt, she faints. Well, in the movie, she is there when Jacob is attacked and, though frantic over him, she holds her own and stays with the Cullens to face the Volturri while Jacob is taken away for medical treatment. When Jane notes that Bella is still human, Bella tells her that the date has already been set for her conversion.

14. When Bella goes to Jake's bedside later, at least I don't have to hear her saying how she saw their life together and wanted it all so badly, thorns I had to suffer when reading these passages. She doesn't have a vision of their two little children (which was nauseating to read). She also doesn't go home and cry all night about him, while a helpless Edward watches over her. Instead, after leaving Jacob, we next see her in the meadow with Edward and she tells him she has set August 13 as their wedding date. She'll let Alice plan the whole thing, including the invitations (in the book, she was hesitant about letting Alice invite Jacob). Edward asks if she is sure and tells her she should stop giving up so much to please everyone else and she says that she never had to make a choice between him and Jacob in reality. The choice was between the safe life and doing what was expected of her, what was easiest. She says she was always clumsy before, always had to be so careful, but being around the vampires, she has never felt stronger and more sure of herself. She's faced the danger and stared it down, not run away. Becoming one of them is the right choice and it is for her. Edward laughs, "then it's not all about me then" and she tells him it's not. Jacob had reminded her that she wouldn't have to give up her family to be with him. He'd be safe. Being with him would be easy, like breathing. She chose to do what was harder, but more exhilarating than just breathing.

This take on things is definitely derived from passages in the book, but it gives them a different spin, so that we arrive at the same place, but via a slightly different route. In the book, it wasn't really a choice between lifestyles. It may not have been a stark choice between Edward and Jacob, but Bella was certainly battling the pain she would cause Jacob. It was her overriding love for Edward which made her confront that pain. In the movie, I guess it was surviving Victoria which convinced her she not only wanted the vampire life, but was cut out for it. I don't think book Bella came to this realization until after she was a vampire. So, she wasn't joking. It really wasn't as much about Edward as it had been in the novel. In the book she tells him she wants to marry before consummating their relationship, because saving his soul is as important as he thinks saving hers is. In the movie, she simply says she wants to bind herself to him in every possible way.

Actually, Bella's motivations as presented in the movie, do remind one of Wuthering Heights and the path not taken by Catherine. It was easier for Catherine to choose Edgar over Heathcliff socially, but not emotionally. Unfortunately, Bella's feelings for Jacob were stronger than Catherine's for Edgar. As a result, her love for Edward often lacked the consuming, ear-ripping passion that made Wuthering Heights a classic. Meyer (and then the movie's) affection for Jacob (and Taylor Lautner) undermined the couple at the heart of the story. But Heathcliff and Catherine don't surface in the movie, as they do in the book. There's no "I can't live without you" talk from Bella. It's a more realistic, reasoned romance, but still heartwarming, as she tells him she's going to need that engagement ring again and, united, they start off to see Charlie.

Thankfully, the movie ends there and not with Jacob the wolf, running off howling into the wilderness.

I don't know how this film will play to those who didn't read the book, but I think it may actually fair better, standing on its own shoulders, than its predecessors did. As an Eclipse reader, there were things I would have changed, but I wasn't ashamed being a moviegoer. That certainly can't be said for all book to film translations.