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.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009)

This movie would have fared better as a social commentary on the way that lies and puffery dominate our lives, than it does as a romance. Invention shares some of the same flaws as Gervais' Ghost Town, from the year before, venturing into sentimental territory that is ill-fitted to the moments of sharp wit that mark the film at its best. To the extent that I excused Gervais for responsibility for Ghost Town's failings, because he didn't write it, this time around, there's no out. Gervais co-wrote and co-directed Lying and now I have to accept that it was probably his vision that led Ghost Town down the romantic treacle path as well.

Logic would suggest that it's mankind's ability to lie that makes us phony and shallow. But in the world where this movie is set, the complete lack of lies (big and small, black or white, kind or cruel) makes it an even more superficial place than the one we really live in. The characters cannot deceive, flatter or embellish at all. They don't even have words for the unknown concept of lying, nor do they have a word for "truth," since everything is true. When they invariably say exactly what is on their minds, it is usually demeaning to those around them.

Gervais' Mark Bellison is a writer for Lecture Films, where movie scripts are simply dry recitations of historical fact. It's when he loses his thankless job and is faced with eviction from his apartment that desperation prompts him to lie to a bank teller, to secure the money needed to pay his rent. When the lie works, he makes a career of it and that's when the movie takes a wrong turn.

The first 30 minutes humorously explore how ingrained lies are in every aspect of our social interaction, from Coke commercials to dating. Eliminate them and you're left with a shocking candor that's actually as refreshing as it is alarming. People readily admit their crimes, sloth and disdain. The honesty is wearisome for Mark, but at least he knows where he stands at work, in love and in life. He's universally hailed as a loser, so often that he's more resigned to the namecalling than hurt. This changes the more attached he becomes to the attractive Anna McDoogle (Jennifer Garner) a cheerful beauty who likes Mark, but declares him out of her league. She is looking for a genetic match, so that she can bare attractive children, not little fat ones with snub noses -- the only kind Mark could father.

While the movie's premise is often amusing, it's not clear why truthfulness trumps subjectivity. Just because everyone is consigned to tell the truth at all times, doesn't mean that everyone must see the same truth. Bias creates its own truth. Love begets a type of dishonesty that has nothing to do with actual lying. A doting mother won't see an unattractive loser in her own child, even if the rest of the world does. The movie envisions a world of lies and truth, but overlooks the line that perception can draw between them. Both veracity and mendacity are in the eyes of the beholder.

Once Mark discovers that he is the only person in the world who can lie, he first uses this power to improve his own lot, but then employs it helping others, making them feel less afraid, unsure and rejected. Here, the movie takes an almost spiritual turn that is not only boring, but unnatural, striving for a sincerity that has no place in the artificial world posited. Mark assumes the role of guardian angel, when he's more appealing as wry observer.

Halo firmly affixed, when Mark's mother lays fearful on her death bed, he assuages her anxiety by telling her of a world beyond death, where she'll be rich, happy and reunited with her loved ones forever. Given this knowledge, she dies at peace. The hospital attendants who heard Mark's descriptions of the afterlife demand to know more, as does everyone else.

With the masses dependent on his knowledge and guidance, Mark becomes a modern day Moses and, with no tablets handy, he scribbles his own ten commandments on Pizza Hut box tops. He tells the people about the "Man in the Sky" who controls everything, good and bad. Knowing that Gervais is an atheist, I appreciated his take on the origin of religion. Yes, to him it may all be a lie, but at least it was one started for charitable reasons, to offer hope, conscience and restraint to those who would stray governless without it.

After 30 minutes of meandering, I think the movie regains its focus as Mark goes from being haloed savior to hapless victim of his own falsehoods. He answers petty questions about the Pizza Hut commandments with glib rejoinders, allowing us to leave the sappy and return to the realm of dry comedy at which Gervais is most effective.

Civilization is briefly buoyed by Mark's revelation of life after death, but because their new faith results in no tangible changes to their day to day life, they soon return to the jaded norm, resenting Mark for telling them about the "Man in the Sky" who possesses all the control that they still lack. Some even decide to give up on life, since death and the eternal happiness it will bring them, now seems much more promising.

The film's last 15 minutes are concerned with Anna's slooooow realization that she'd be happier with Mark than with the handsome but callous Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe), even if it means becoming the mother to fat kids with snub noses. The fact that it takes Anna so long to grasp this concept makes one wonder why Mark thinks her the sweetest woman he's ever met! Still, Garner gives an expressive performance that puts the heart beneath Anna's plastic surface. You do root for them as a couple.

Gervais' deadpan asides are as graceful and compelling here as they are in his podcasts. Speaking of which, it was delightful to see Stephen Merchant make a cameo appearance as a burglary target. Indeed, the cameos come fast and furious and are as fun to look for as the written gags involving advertising slogans, tombstone epitaphs, nursing home names and church placards. I wish Louis C. K. had been confined to a walk own role, rather than supporting, because he added very little as Mark's sodden best friend.

This movie was pleasant and Gervais is always a welcome sight, but in the end involved more lying than invention.