July 31, 2010

MOVIES: Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud, 2010)

A few cute moments, but they're spread too thin.

Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is a would-be supervillain whose schemes haven't been going well, and lately, he's being upstaged by a young upstart named Vector (Jason Segel). Gru thinks he has the answer -- an elaborate plot to steal the moon -- but he's in such a slump that he can't even get financing from the Bank of Evil ("formerly Lehman Brothers") anymore. As part of his plotting to get even with Vector, Gru reluctantly adopts a trio of orphaned sisters, who -- surprise, surprise -- melt his heart and bring out his softer side. Unexpectedly, the gooey sentimental half of the movie works better than the action-comedy supervillain stuff.

Which isn't to say that any of it actually does work, mind you. It's bland and uninspired, with voice casting that never quite takes off. Part of that is due to strange casting choices; given that Carell's doing Gru with an indefinable, vaguely eastern European accent, why would you cast Julie Andrews as his mother? Accents aren't her strong suit, and while she gets a few laughs -- she can sling a disapprovingly maternal "meh" as well as anyone -- her attempt to recreate Carell's accent falls flat. And while Segel as Vector at least understands that voice acting requires a different type of energy than on-screen acting, his performance is only manic, with none of the subtlety or emotional depth that might make the character interesting.

Carell is the best thing about the movie; his punchlines are perfectly timed, and there's a genuine sweetness in his relationship with the little girls. But the writing doesn't give him much to do, and the movie's visual style isn't memorable. The bar for quality animation has been raised awfully high these days, and in a year that's given us How to Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3, a movie like this simply doesn't cut it.

MOVIES: Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

A thinking man's popcorn movie.

By now, everyone's probably already seen it, or at least has some idea what it's about. Leonardo DiCaprio is the world's greatest "extractor," a thief who steals ideas from your mind by building dreamspaces. He's asked by a powerful tycoon (Ken Watanabe) to pull off the more difficult feat of inception -- planting a new idea in someone's mind. And so off goes Leo to assemble, as in Ocean's Eleven and every heist movie you've ever seen, the team of experts that can help him pull off this supposedly impossible feat.

It's a very good movie, but not the masterpiece that some are calling it. The wintry Bond-esque section of the movie drags on a bit too long, and it's not always precisely clear who's doing what, if only because everyone is dressed in virtually identical white snowsuits. And some of the set-up exposition in the first twenty minutes is less clear than it could be, mostly because Watanabe's accent is quite thick and sometimes difficult to understand.

Aside from those two relatively small problems, though, I have been perplexed by the number of people who say they find the story difficult to follow. Sure, there are multiple threads of dream/story taking place simultaneously, but Nolan does an impeccable job of differentiating them visually; whenever we cut from one level of dream to another, it's always instantly clear which level we're in. He's aided immensely by Lee Smith's editing, which is a spectacular tour de force, particularly in the last 45 minutes of the movie.

It's not a movie that calls for dizzying feats of acting, but the cast gives us some fine moments. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, as two of DiCaprio's team members, have a nice bickering rivalry; and Ellen Page, as the newest member of the team, is saddled with the thankless task of delivering lots of exposition, which she handles with more grace than you might expect. I was less impressed by Marion Cotillard, as the wife who haunts DiCaprio's dreams; I still don't find her a terribly convincing actress in English. (To be sure, there are reasons within the story for her character to be somewhat flat and two-dimensional, so maybe I'm being too harsh on her.)

And visually, the movie is stunning. The zero-gravity fight scenes, the origami folding of a Paris neighborhood onto itself, the crumbing cliffsides of DiCaprio's deepest subconscious -- gorgeous images. Throw in a top-notch Hans Zimmer score (occasionally blared at us much louder than it needs to be, but that's not his fault), and you've got a smart, thoughtful piece of entertainment that gives you all the thrills of a good summer popcorn flick without making you feel stupider for having sat through it.

BOOKS: Faithful Place, Tana French (2010)

Third in French's series of loosely linked novels about the Dublin police. (My comments on the first two: In the Woods and The Likeness.)

In 1985, Frank Mackey and Rosie Daly were 19, and couldn't wait to get away from Faithful Place, a dismal run-down little street in Dublin whose residents barely cling to working-class status; they'd arranged to meet and run away to London together. Rosie never showed up. A broken heart didn't stop Frank from running himself, though. He never got as far as London, but he did become a successful member of the undercover unit of the Dublin police.

Now, 22 years have passed, and Frank hasn't been back to the Place since; he's had only occasional contact with one of his sisters, and hasn't seen the rest of the family. But when Rosie's suitcase is found hidden in the abandoned building where she and Frank were supposed to meet all those years ago, he finds himself sucked back into the neighborhood and into the spectacular dysfunction of his family.

What's interesting about this book is that it really isn't primarily a crime novel. Yes, the mystery of what happened to Rosie is what propels the action forward, and we do get a well-plotted and satisfying answer to that mystery, but all of that plays out nearly in the background. The real drama here is the story of the Mackey family -- the long-buried resentments, the sibling rivalries and jealousies, the toxic mix of love and hate that comes from living with abusive parents.

As always, French delivers intensely vivid characterizations. The complicated relationships among Frank's family are precisely drawn, and we understand precisely the distinctive nature of the relationship between each pair of siblings, or between each child and the Mackey parents. Even relatively minor characters -- Rosie, who is seen only in brief flashbacks, or Frank's ex-wife -- are so richly detailed that they feel more alive than some novelists' protagonists.

A recurring theme in French's novels is how strongly we are shaped by, and how damned hard it can be to escape from, our past. Frank's struggle to break free of his family's cycle is often painful to watch, never more so than when he realizes that his young daughter may already be more of a Mackey than he'd have hoped.

Three novels from Tana French, three spectacular successes. She's the real thing, folks, and if you haven't been reading her all along, you should. Each novel stands perfectly well on its own, but since the protagonist of each is a minor character in the preceding volumes, I'd recommend starting at the beginning. (If French continues that pattern, it'll be interesting to see which character from Faithful Place takes center stage in the next book; I'm sort of hoping it'll be the ambitious young detective Stephen Moran.) Go. Read the book already.

July 14, 2010

BOOKS: Blue Boy, Rakesh Satyal (2009)

It's not easy being Kiran Sharma. Being a 12-year-old Indian-American in Cincinnati in 1992 would be bad enough, but that's hardly the only thing that sets Kiran apart from his classmates. There's his preference for ballet over basketball, for one thing, not to mention his fondness for Strawberry Shortcake dolls or his habit of sneaking into his mother's bathroom to play with her makeup. Kirin has begun to think that he will never fit in anywhere when he has an epiphany: He must be the long-awaited tenth incarnation of the Hindu god Krishna.

Satyal's novel is a marvelous entertainment that does a lot of things well. It's a sharp portrait of a tight-knit community of recent immigrant families, a viciously accurate look at elementary school social dynamics, and above all, a compassionate story about a boy learning to find strength in his difference. Kiran is an unforgettable character, and his frustration and confusion about a world that seems to have no place for him could be heartbreaking; that pain is leavened, though, by Satyal's wit and warmth, and by Kiran's own resilience and his refusal to give up on himself.

I have only one real reservation about the book, and that's the narrative voice. Kiran narrates, in the present tense, but this is not the voice of any 12-year-old who's ever lived. Take this passage, in which Kiran explains his love of ballet:

I want you to see the world the way that I see it. I want you to feel the lift of my body when I see the beauty of a pirouette or the ecstatic fact of a swishing sari. I want you to see the beauty in locking your face in colorful makeup and the beauty in twirling around and puckering your lips. I want you to know the meaning of dance, the things you do when no one is home, when you grab your ballet slippers and slap them on your feet and fly around the house, leaping over footrests and spinning around the island in the kitchen. I want you to understand the joy of pulling out several sheets from a paper towel roll and running around the empty house with it trailing behind you, then letting it go, letting yourself fall to the ground, and then letting the white streamer float onto you. I want you to understand how fluent my feet are, how they kiss the linoleum, the carpet, the kitchen table, armchairs, desks, beds. I want you to understand that this is the world, this is the acceptance, this is the big bear hug and the gold-star sticker. There is such beauty in the world, despite all of the harsh realities about it, and they are contained here for me. They are contained in a pliƩ, in a rond de jambe. I have my own language. I am my own language.

Now that's nice writing -- spectacular writing, even. But it's not the voice of a 12-year-old boy from suburban Cincinnati. I found myself too often yanked out of the story by passages like that, which just don't suit the character.

Still, Blue Boy is a delightful novel, and all the more impressive for being Satyal's first. Can't wait to see what he brings us next.

July 12, 2010

BOOKS: Insignificant Others, Stephen McCauley (2010)

What I like about Stephen McCauley's novels is that his characters are fundamentally decent people. They may hurt one another, as we all occasionally do, but it's never deliberate; McCauley isn't interested in writing about cruelty or dramatic unkindness. Or "dramatic" anything, for that matter; his novels are decidedly low-key, without a lot of huge earth-shattering plot points. Instead, McCauley tends to show us relatively ordinary moments in people's lives, and to surprise us with how fascinating the small things can be.

Insignificant Others, for instance, begins when Richard finds evidence that his partner Conrad has been having an affair. He's not terribly surprised by this; they have an unspoken understanding that physical monogamy is less important in their relationship than emotional fidelity, and Richard has an "insignificant other" of his own. Still, knowing is different than suspecting or imagining, and Richard begins to wonder if his life isn't quite so well-ordered as he'd believed.

Some of the symbolism of Richard's work life -- he works in the personnel department of a software company that assists corporations with video conferencing and the like -- is a touch heavy-handed (oh, he helps people communicate! how ironic...), but that's a small flaw when compared with the novel's strengths. McCauley's characters are vivid and endearing; even minor characters like Richard's personal trainer are given more depth than you'd expect from the comic relief. The constantly shifting relationships between Richard and the other principal characters are always convincing, and McCauley's story has an emotional depth that's a bit surprising in what initially seems to be just a light, fluffy comedy.

July 11, 2010

MOVIES: The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)

The critical buzz has been overwhelming on this one ever since Sundance. Unfortunately, I didn't think the movie came anywhere near living up to the hype.

Julianne Moore and Annette Bening star as a couple whose lives are thrown into turmoil when their teenaged kids locate their sperm donor father (Mark Ruffalo). Moore and Bening aren't remotely convincing as a longterm couple, in part because they refuse to communicate with one another. Instead, they spout treacly new age psychobabble that sounds like communication, but really amounts to nothing more than passive-aggressive hostility. (Typical conversation: "That's not how I feel!" "Of course it is. Maybe those feelings just haven't risen to the level of consciousness yet.")

As for Ruffalo, he's playing the character he always plays -- the lovably irresponsible, irresistibly charming rascal -- and we're not given a new character so much as a greatest hits reel. It's a performance that Ruffalo could give in his sleep, and it often feels as if he did; it's shamefully lazy.

Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska play the kids, and they give the movie's only good performances. Wasikowska is particularly good as the daughter who uses her father's presence as the opportunity for her first real acts of rebellion against her mothers.

There's an interesting story wanting to be told here, but it gets lost in Cholodenko's smirking contempt for her characters. The biggest disappointment of the year.

July 06, 2010

MOVIES: Timer (Zac Schaeffer, 2010)

How would our romantic lives change if science could tell us the precise day on which we'd meed our soulmate? That's the premise of Timer, a charming SF-meets-romcom indie.

You get the Timer implanted on your wrist any time after you hit puberty, and it counts down the days until you meet The One. So long, that is, as The One is also wearing a Timer, which Oona's apparently is not. She's about to turn 30, and her Timer is still blinking zeros like a defective VCR. She's been dragging every Timerless guy she meets to have his implant, in the hopes that he's The One, but that's getting awfully frustrating. When she meets a cute young drummer with 4 months to go on his own Timer, she decides that for once, she's going to have a cheap short-term fling and enjoy it.

Writer-director Zac Schaeffer does a nice job of putting her characters in a variety of Timer situations that allow exploration of the many philosophical possibilities. Which would be worse, finding out at age 13 that you won't meet The One for 30 years, or finding out that she's due in 3 days? Does knowing when you'll meet your soulmate make you more inclined to save yourself for him, or to sow a ton of wild oats while you wait?

The cast is mostly made up of relative unknowns, though the supporting cast has that odd mix of B-stars and ex-stars you often find in indie films (JoBeth Williams and Tom Irwin play Oona's mom and stepdad). Emma Caulfield stars as Oona, and her years on Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped to sharpen her comic timing, which is top-notch here; she's immensely charming and likable. Michelle Borth does a nice variation on the lovably trashy sister, and John Patrick Amedori as Mikey the drummer has you rooting for him (despite a terribly awkward first scene that does not present the character in a good way).

You'll see some of the plot twists coming well in advance, though there are a few surprises, and happily many of them come in the final act, which doesn't play out at all the way I'd expected. But even the more obvious moments are handled nicely, and Schaeffer has thought through a lot of the Timer's interesting implications. One detail I loved comes in the first scene, when Oona has hauled yet another beau into the Timer offices for an implant; we see the new Timer on his arm, then cut to her wrist, and the 15-year-old model she's wearing is larger and clunkier than his, clearly an earlier version. Timer is an impressive first film that should get Schaffer the chance to play with a bigger budget, and I'm curious to see what she'll do with it.

MOVIES: Knight and Day (James Mangold, 2010)

This movie doesn't deserve to be bombing at the box office as badly as it is. It's an entertaining popcorn flick, an old-fashioned light caper movie with a few pretty European settings (Salzburg, Seville), some well-done chase and fight scenes, and a pair of charismatic stars cast solidly in the middle in their comfort zone.

Tom Cruise is Roy, a charming, cocky spy, and there's no one better at this sort of strutting confidence. Cameron Diaz is June, the woman who gets caught up in his latest mission. One of the movie's pleasant surprises is that June isn't just a clueless airhead; she gets more confident as the movie goes on, and by the end, she's an equal partner in the action.

The plot is pretty much beside the point, as is customary for this type of movie; there's a McGuffin that everyone is chasing, and that's really all you need to know. The chase scenes are both exciting and funny -- I particularly enjoyed watching Cruise clinging calmly to the hood of a speeding car, repeatedly asking Diaz to open the door for him -- and the fight scenes are staged so that you can tell what's happening, which is something of a novelty these days.

I liked the running gag that has chunks of the story being presented in 4- or 5-second snippets as one character or another drifts in and out of consciousness after having been shot or drugged or otherwise taken out of commission. There's a solid supporting cast -- Viola Davis, Celia Weston, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano -- and while this certainly isn't a movie that's placing any great acting demands on them, they're all doing entertaining work with none of the "just here for the paycheck" that sometimes slips through when talented actors do light entertainment.

Knight and Day isn't great art, and no one involved needs to be preparing an Oscar speech, but it's a lot of fun, and better than most of the drivel we've been given this summer.

July 02, 2010

BOOKS: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Stieg Larsson (2007/US 2010)

Third and final volume in the ridiculously successful trilogy of crime novels.

And this one makes it abundantly clear that this really was a trilogy. The first two volumes may have had their mysteries to keep us occupied, but what the series has really been about is the life of Lisbeth Salander, Larsson's prickly young computer hacker.

It continues to be a marvel that Larsson can not only make a heroine out of a character who's this antisocial and damaged, but make her the protagonist of a thriller even when she spends much of the book kept out of the action. Lisbeth spends more than two-thirds of Hornet's Nest in the hospital, recuperating from the wounds she suffered at the end of the previous book.

When the stories of the three novels are as tightly wound as they are here, it's a little difficult to say much about #3 that won't spoil #1 and #2 for those who haven't read them yet, but this one makes it clear that Salander isn't nearly as paranoid as her enemies portray her, and that the crimes against her have been going on for a very long time, and have been authorized at a surprisingly high level. High enough, actually, that a fairly hefty suspension of disbelief is required; the involved conspiracy that Larsson has concocted here is wildly implausible, and he gets away with it only because of his immense skill at keeping the story moving briskly ahead.

How he does that is beyond me, because he's guilty of some clunky writing along the way. Every outfit and every bit of food someone eats is described in great detail -- they get more attention than a lot of the characters do -- and he has the terrible habit of maintaining suspense by keeping us ignorant in a very showy way; there are far too many scenes that start with a bit of small talk, then end with something like, "Mikael sat down and explained his plan." ("But I'm not going to tell you silly readers what the plan is, so there, nyah nyah nyah!")

And yet, Salander is so fascinating a character, and her battle against overwhelming forces is so compelling, that I couldn't stop reading; I zipped through the book in two days. Larsson had reportedly planned a ten-volume series before his death (I hope his publishers will have the decency not to foist any uncompleted manuscripts on us, or, even worse, hire some hack to "finish" them), and it's a shame that we won't get to see what he had in mind. But on their own, the three books we've been given are a remarkable accomplishment.