Despicable is a very colorful movie full of interesting characters. Young children will love it. I didn’t.

First of all, those yellow minions are cute, but don’t seem to have any real purpose other than to get kids to like them so that parents will buy toy copies of them which will be dug out of the couch cushions before the year is up. The minions don’t have personality, they talk gibberish, and they make photocopies of their bottoms.

Secondly, the villain’s name is Gru and he has a thick Russian accent. Of course we know that the GRU is the Russian military spy organization, which distracted me and kept me wondering whether those so-called spies who were recently arrested were just clever marketing by the makers of the summer movies.

I have recently been reading quite a number of books in which the GRU is prominently mentioned, which is why this slapped me in the face. Perhaps others would not notice. Still,  I think we should be done with the old Cold War Evil-Empire thing by now. On the other hand, since having a turbaned Jihadist as someone trying to be the world greatest villain would be too scary, the Ruskies are going to have to take the parts.  We wouldn’t want to have an Evil Genius who looks like the people we are actually afraid of.  It would give the parents the heebie-jeebies, and cause children to ask really embarrassing questions like, “Well then, why don’t we go after the Saudis?” 

Sadly, Gru is not original. He is copy-catted from Goob in Meet the Robinsons, in that he is emotionally-starved, intent on making up for his abandonment, and has spaghetti-thin legs. While Goob stole inventions so he could ruin Lewis’s life, Gru steals inventions so he can become the worst villain ever.  He decides to steal the Shrink Ray owned by another villain whose name is Vector. Vector is the spoiled son of  the President of the Bank of Evil, “formerly known as Lehman Brothers,” which I laughed at, but which isn’t really funny. It is unclear why the BoE would want to fund Gru’s and Vector’s escapades at all–what can one do with the Great Pyramid, anyway? (In the movie, it is a gigantic yard decoration, making no money whatever for the BoE, who presumably financed its heist.)

Without the Shrink Ray, Gru will fall into the netherworld of evil has-beens, so he comes up with a despicable plot–to “adopt” three little girls, send them to Vector’s house to sell him cookies, and while they are inside, some of the cookies will be turn out to be  Robot Cookies, will scurry around and steal the Shrink Ray by remote control. The cookie-bots have little hats–again, like the evil Doris hats in Robinsons, although these hats are little blue Russian military hats, which caused me to actually groan out loud. (In a throw-away scene, Dr. Nefario–Gru’s in-house inventor of evil gadgets–misunderstands Gru and makes a set of boogie robots instead of cookie robots.  To be fair, others in the theater thought this was the funniest thing Hollywood has ever done. And, relying on body-inspired humor, the boogie-bots have boobs, which, again, others thought amusing.)

Once the Moon is his, Gru will have no more use for the girls and will return them to Miss Hattie’s orphanage which looks exactly like the orphanage in Robinsons, with the addition of Boxes of Shame.

The girls, however, are determined not to be sent back to the vile Miss Hattie who looks as though she was pumped up with a bicycle pump.  In fact, for reasons not clear they decide they love Gru and want him to be their Daddy. There is a very neat roller coaster scene, which I couldn’t actually watch fully because I am afraid of riding roller coasters, whether they are real or not.  We  learn that children will love you and want to stay with you forever if you take them on rides and blow up carnival attractions to get them stuffed animals, which might possibly be true, who knows?

Gru gets the Shrink Ray and steals the Moon. There is a teeny-tiny scene of a surfer losing the tide, which is  shame, because how great would it have been if the world had been in a tideless  turmoil, Gru had been declared the Winner in the Evil Contest and been  given everything he ever wanted….and then come into the bedroom to see the girls weeping because Mr. Moon wasn’t hanging in the sky so beautifully?  None of that happens, alas, and we don’t know what he intends to do with the Moon, or if anyone cares that he has it.

It turns out that the Shrink Ray’s powers are not permanent, so we are faced with the interesting idea that the Moon, as it grows back to its ordinary size, is also able to hurl itself back out of Earth orbit, pushed by the smallest amount of left-over rocket fuel. And, although we saw in a previous scene that a minion sent out of orbit will continue to float outward forever in the frictionlessness of space, the Moon knows exactly where to stop. 

Strangely, the movie is not funny at all. What laughs it gets are mostly potty humor.  And it’s slow.  And there are scenes that don’t advance the plot. I feel harsh here, but I felt worse at the movie saying, “Okay, can we get on with the plot advancement?” and wishing I had bought popcorn. I didn’t, because a self-respecting woman of my age cannot buy popcorn for a pre-lunch matinee.

Well, as expected, Gru ends up loving the girls and saving them from Certain Death at the hands of Vector.

The most unfulfilling part of the movie is that Gru–although he lovingly  incorporates the girls into his life, and even seemingly reconciles with his cruel mother–does not repent of being a bad guy. He doesn’t turn to a life of good deeds or even give back the things he had stolen before. The only reason he doesn’t have the Moon is that the Moon got too big and went back home.  For all this movie’s failings, had it come around to a fulfilling moral conclusion, I would have liked it.

Netflix: A Very Long Engagement (French)

A Very Long Engagement is an exquisite French-language movie for the adult audience.  It is available on Netflix as a Play-Now offering with English subtitles.

Immediately post-WWI, young Mathilde receives word that her fiance, Manet, has been killed. She is certain in her heart that he cannot be dead: “If he were dead, I would know it.”

Mathilde embarks on a painstaking, expensive, sometimes heart-breaking search to find out the truth about his death. Along the way, she uncovers the story of Manet’s last day in combat.

It turns out that Manet was one of a group of five French soldiers condemned to die for the treasonable acts of making themselves unfit for combat. The  film follows Mathilde’s discovery of what happened to each of the five men. Part-way through the movie, you will be surprised to see Jodie Foster. Ms. Foster plays a woman whose husband has begged her to be unfaithful to him. His logic is compelling.   

This is one of those movies where all the motivations are correct: everyone is doing what he would be doing in such a situation, and the reason for doing each thing is clearly articulated.   

Engagement shows war in its horror, love at its most enduring. It is populated with fascinating characters: a man with a wooden hand, a vengeful murderess, a fat-and-happy farmwife, a corrupt official. You meet men and women broken by war, impelled by self-sacrifice, impassioned for their homelands. Some are driven by hate, some by love.

The movie ends as it should:  poignantly. With hope.  

(Not for children: graphic war scenes, a couple of   love-making scenes)

INCEPTION, starring Leonardo DiCaprio

July 29, 2010

Before reading another word, check your movie listings. If you can get to the next showing of Inception without breaking the speed limit or leaving your children unsupervised, get there. This is the best movie I have seen in a long time.

(Note: do not bring your children. They will not understand it, nor will you, because you will have to spend all your time telling them to be quiet, and saying: “I’ll explain it later.” This movie requires attention all the way through. There are no superfluous scenes, or even lines.)

I arrived at the theater for the 3:15 showing, determined to hate this movie, because A) I had left my young children at home with their father and thus had Mommy Guilt, and B) I had read that Inception is a great-if-incomprehensible movie. Like staring at one of those splash-art paintings at the museum, where you stand there and say, “Excellent. Classic,” and then walk out shaking your head. Why, I asked myself, would I want to spend $15.50 (one ticket, popcorn, water) on this if I was not going to understand it? Hence, I was disgruntled before I walked in.

The reviewers are wrong. This movie is not like the splotchy, multi-colored pseudo-Spirograph art at the museum. You can follow it. Yes, you have to focus. No, you may not leave for a minute or you will lose track of the action. But if you give the movie the attention it deserves, you will, I believe, agree with me that here is a work of beautiful, original art.

This movie is a love story, an artfully-told love story (not one of those on-the-surface frothy things that leaves you staring at your husband saying, “And where are my roses, huh, Buster?”). It is full to the brim with loss, regret, sacrifice, and guilt. It is the story of a father’s love for his children, and his agonized regret over the loss of his wife with whom he lived a strange, yet fulfilling life for many years.

This story is about longing for deep, satisfying relationships.

Cobb, played by the amazing Leonardo DiCaprio, is an expert in “extractions,” inhabiting the dreams of his subject so that he can root around in the subject’s subconscious and pull out secrets. The science of extraction is an advanced technique in the world of Inception. Cobb is not the only adept–there are many others. Some of the experts work security detail in the shared dream: fighting off what I will call subconscious mental antibodies who want to kick the extractor out of the dream before he can cull the secrets he is after. Other experts–the “architects”–are in set design, constructing the dream world that the extractors and their subject will inhabit in the shared dream.

Given extraction as a relatively simple science, enter Saito (Ken Watanabe) with a business deal. He wants Cobb to perform something far more delicate, far more risky: an Inception. That is, instead of extracting a secret, Saito wants Cobb to insert an idea into the subject’s subconscious in such a way that the idea will root down, grow, flower. It’s a tricky problem, because you can’t just throw ideas at people, even in their dreams. The subject has to believe that the idea is his own idea. It has to grow out of his own felt experience.

The techniques to be used are dangerous to the subject and to the dream experts who will share the dream. Some might not be able to return from dreamland at all. Herein lies the tale, and it is constructed in a lovely, artful way. Three–then four–levels of dream are introduced, each more fragile, more dangerous than the last, but all necessary to arrive at the center of the subject’s subconscious where The Idea will be introduced in a powerful, poignant way.

The fascinating thing is that each dream level runs on a different time speed. That is, we have been taught that what seems like hours in a dream probably takes only a few minutes in real time. Here, Dream Level One is said to run at 20 times regular speed.

Thus the beauty of the plan. The team has 10 real-time hours (in the first-class compartment of a 747) to complete the project. Those on Dream Level One therefore have 200 hours, those on level 2 have 20 times more time, or 4000 hours, those on level 3 have 20 times more than that, so that while things move very quickly in level one time, there is more time to move around on level 2, and much more time–they could take years if needed–on level 3 where things seem to go very slowly indeed. This seems confusing, but really isn’t.

You have to watch the movie carefully and remember where you are–the action switches between dream levels–so that you don’t get lost, but the action can be followed. Pay attention. Don’t leave the theater.

We each approach our lives from our own vantage points, and I could not watch this without thinking how the love of a father for his children will compel a man to risk almost anything to be with them. That is Cobb’s motivation. He is asked, “Do you want to go home to your children, or become an old man and die alone?” The reason why Cobb is separated from his children unfolds through the movie. Your heart will hurt for him.

Saito’s motivation for wanting to place The Idea in the subject’s subconscious is equally enormous and believable. In fact, for the world at large, it is vitally important that the subject (Mr. Fischer, heir to half the world’s energy output) take hold of The Idea and allow it to define him.

The movie ends as it should. Compelling resolution with a whisper of uncertainty.

This is a lovely movie. You should see it on the big screen, rather than waiting for Netflix, because of the scenery, the intense foot-chase-through-crowded-streets scene, and the big explosions. And, if you can, see it as I did in a D-Box seat. The seat moves along with the action, so that when there are explosions, you get knocked around a little bit. I thought this would be distracting or that it might make me a little seasick, but it wasn’t and didn’t.

Stay for the credits to hear the wonderful Edith Piaf song at the end.

(Moral tone: there is no skin in this movie. The Lord’s name is taken in vain twice, but the situation is deeply intense, and a mere “darn it” would not have sufficed. No, I’m not condoning blasphemy, simply explaining the movie, blast it! There is no other language at all.)

Are you still reading this? You should be at the movies.

Salt, starring Angelina Jolie

July 28, 2010

I still can’t get out of my head the opening scene of the currently-showing Salt, starring Angelina Jolie. There our hero lays, at full-length in her undergarments, in a North Korean prison. We know she’s been there for a long time, because her boyfriend–a vacant sort of German spider-man: “I’m an arachnologist” (or whatever)–has had enough time to convince the CIA and the North Koreans that a trade must be made.

The odd thing about the fully-extended CIA operative is that her legs and underarms are completely hairless. Yes, I noticed this, and found it odd, almost comic, and actually laughed.

Yeah, yeah, I know, women wax and do other painful things that last longer than your ordinary shave, but still. It takes a long time to organize prisoner exchanges. The Russians are one thing. The North Koreans? That’s a different story.

Well, on to the story. A Russian, Orlov, comes into the CIA to defect and finger none other than Agent Salt, now married to the Spider Guy and fully recovered of the North Korean-inflicted torture. He says she’s going to kill the Russian President! She runs!

She can run faster than all the CIA agents! She runs faster than their cars! While barefoot. It’s really amazing, and should do a lot for the current barefoot running devotees. Then–this woman who recently produced three babies for Mr. Pitt–jumps from an overpass onto a semi-truck. The math required to drop at the right instant is certainly inspiring, but what mostly got me is that she didn’t seem to have any bladder issues here, which is a dead give-away that all the babies were C-sectioned, although you’d have to check the Inquirer or other respectable source for verification of that. Then again, a woman who doesn’t have body hair after months in torture cells can probably also control little things like her bladder.

We later learn that she loves Orlov, has always loved Orlov, and will follow him through a collapsing building, will do anything. Until he shoots Spider Guy (I can’t remember his name). Then, the game is up and Evelyn Salt (with quivering chin) becomes the Terminator and shoots everyone.

Oh, here’s a great part: she disguises herself by (wait for it) dyeing her hair black. The funny thing is, when I dye my hair, everyone still recognizes me! Even to the extent of saying, “Why did you do that?” But for Evelyn Salt (“Ev” to Mr. Schreiber, whose character is trying to kill her), it is an effective disguise.

She later disguises herself as a man, but — ha ha– is RECOGNIZED under a full face mask and short hair. She looks really good in the man get-up, does a lot of mayhem in the basement of the White House and at the very last minute…SAVES THE ENTIRE WORLD from being destroyed by angry Muslims. It seems that if the US blows up Mecca, the Muslims might get mad. You think?

Motivation Problems: one is left with nagging questions. For example, why would a kick-ass CIA/Russian double-agent fall for an almost mute, plain-looking, uncharming scientist? Fall for him to such a profound depth that his death would launch her into a full-blown killing machine against everyone she had passionately believed in all her days? That’s question 1.

Question 2: Why does the CIA not recognize Orlov when he comes in to defect? A long time passes before a photo of him standing next to Brezhnev (Andropov? Chernenko? I can’t remember who it was.) at some patriotic event. Now, we know from Sum of All Fears that those guys at CIA know their stuff! They would have recognized this guy–he uses his real name, for crying out loud.

Question 3: Why does Liev Schreiber’s character (I totally cannot remember it, which is no slam on Mr. Schreiber’s greatness, but perhaps on my age.) want her to die? He’s jealous of the spider guy! Huh? Calculating, cold double-agents who have lived their lives for the Fatherland/Motherland will kill and destroy because their flirtations were not noticed? Well, why not. It’s 2010.

Then there’s the constant feeling that you’ve seen this movie before. “Mr. President: You’ve got to decide to go to DEFCON 3…NOW!” reminiscent of every Cold War movie you’ve ever seen. And how about this one: “I’m the National Security Advisor!” which moment we saw (better done) in Air Force One. There’s more, of course. This whole thing has been done before. The addition of Angelina Jolie is neato, and she does a great job in the part, but it’s not enough to make a great movie.

I wish they had worked a little harder on the plot and script as these are great actors and it cost me $15.50 (2 for the matinee) plus popcorn and a $4 water.