The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Since the birth of Louise Brown -- the world's first "test tube baby" -- the creation of families has become ever more medically, ethically, and emotionally complicated. Scant attention has been paid in movies to the complexities, and the inherent drama and comedy of truly modern families. The Kids Are All Right does it -- it's a funny, honest, affecting portrayal of a family, of a couple, and of kids spreading their wings. It is, among other things, about a completely ordinary family in which the kids were conceived with a little help from an anonymous sperm donor. Joni (Mia Wasikowski) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) are teenagers. She's about to leave home for college, and he's spending more time with his bullying, knuckleheaded friend Clay (Eddie Hassell) than his moms would like. The kids' moms, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are, like lots of couples married a long time, engaged in a constant renegotiation and reassessment of their lives together. They drive a Volvo. They worry about their kids like devoted helicopter parents do. They are starting to fret over the emptying of their nest. What their kids think about is a bit of a surprise to them: Joni and Laser want to know about their donor dad, and secretly arrange to meet him.

Donor dad is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a scruffy, charming bachelor restauranteur and organic farmer. Joni's wildly impressed by his locavore-organico cred; Laser's not so sure, although Paul's motorcycle might win him over. Paul's existence as a freewheeling and sympathetic outsider -- more like a cool older cousin than a father -- and his sudden presence in the family's settled, comfortable and routine life, is an instant and potentially troublesome disruption. Complications ensue.

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (who co-wrote it with Stuart Blumberg), The Kids Are All Right is more than all right. The script is insightful, heartfelt, and funny, and casually and nimbly navigates emotionally complex and occasionally uncomfortable terrain. The Kids Are All Right effectively plops the audience into the midst of a family in progress, and manages to tap into the underlying comedy of everyday existence. Cholodenko and Blumberg perfectly capture the way that, in a longterm relationship, conversations flow from a source far removed, part of an ongoing river of dialogical interaction fed by many streams (and occasionally tumbling through rough waters).

The characters are people you wouldn't mind spending more time with, which sets them apart from the usual loudly dysfunctional families portrayed in movies. Nic is an OB-Gyn, and the family breadwinner, and she can be a bit caustic, while Jules is a kind of New Agey, flaky project starter who is still trying to find herself. They don't communicate perfectly with each other or with their kids. Moore and Bening are superbly attuned to their characters quirks and rough callouses, their sensitivities and vulnerabilities, and their inherent goodness. Their portrayals are honest, sympathetic, and unadorned. (And while we're on the subject of honesty, it's nice to see two middle aged actresses not only acting their age, but looking it, and looking absolutely lovely.)

The plot complications occasionally veer towards the predictable, yet the characters are so real and engaging, and the portrayals so honestly casual, that the movie's novelty -- a lesbian couple with two kids conceived with donated sperm -- all but evaporates. It's not just that families like this are no longer that unusual. There is really nothing unusual about the family in The Kids Are All Right. They struggle with the same kinds of problems -- boredom, routine, miscommunication, kids who don't listen, parents who don't understand -- that every family contends with. This is surely by design. There is no point at which it is a social or political issue for anyone in the movie that Nic and Jules are a couple, or that they have kids. If gay marriage is a contentious political or moral issue anywhere, it is not the issue in The Kids Are All Right, which is instead concerned with the drama and comedy of family life, the chafing irritations of the ties that bind, and the soothing, healing balm that those same ties provide.

Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan supposedly started writing Inception a decade ago, when he was making Memento. I can see how it would take a long time to write. The labyrinthine, dream within a dream within a dream structure of Inception would have made rewrites confoundingly difficult. And in between, Nolan was writing and directing other complex films like The Prestige and The Dark Knight. Nolan has a real knack for reinventing fundamental genre films, whether its superhero movies or detective stories or, in the case of Inception, espionage films.

The plot of Inception is simplicity itself; the execution is mind-bogglingly complex. A corporate spy/con artist named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) steals secrets from people. He's also in trouble with the law, and separated from his young children, whom he desperately wants to see again. The reason for Cobb's troubles has to do with his methods for extracting information from his marks: he infiltrates their minds, and steals the ideas he finds therein. This involves a complicated process requiring sedatives, some kind of mind-linking machine, and a dream architect who builds the subconscious landscapes in which Cobb and his team do their spy work. These dreamscapes tend to be pretty pedestrian, and so are the actions in the dreams. Foot chases, unexpected plot twists, and familiar faces all turn up. And this is also true -- in a dream, you don't know that you're dreaming -- that was Descartes' argument, anyway -- so Cobb's victims never realize they've been robbed. Cobb knows when he's dreaming and when he isn't -- although it may be the case that he's losing his mooring in reality, tripping on the dream-reality line. Some Cartesian skeptical confusion plays a key role in complicating Cobb's life, and is embodied (in his dreams) by his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who, for reasons I won't divulge, tends to turn up at the most inopportune times while he's at work.

Cobb's latest assignment is one that almost everyone thinks is impossible: inception, or implanting an idea in another person's mind. A powerful Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb to implant an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to a vast business empire. Saito wants Fischer to break up his corporation -- Cobb's role is to plant the germ of an idea that will grow so organically that Fischer will think he thought of it himself. Inception is far more complicated and dangerous than just swiping information, and Cobb knows the dangers first-hand -- it's an unpredictable process because once an idea takes hold, it takes on a life of its own. He takes the job because Saito promises to fix his problem so that he can be with his kids once more.

And so, in true con movie style, Cobb assembles a team: there's Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his right-hand man; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger who's good at being someone else; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a creative pharmacist; and Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architect who is good at creating spaces. Cobb auditions the new recruit Ariadne -- named after the Ariadne who helped Theseus escape the Minotaur's labyrinth? -- by asking her to design a maze. 

Nolan designs a complicated multi-level labyrinth with Inception, with interlinked layers all operating in their own separate dreamspace and dreamtime. What happens in one subconscious layer affects what happens in the layers above and below it -- the dreams within the dreams unfold independently, but with their gears linked so that when one turns, so does another. But reality (such as it is) slips in too -- it's a running gag in the movie that one character's full bladder means a torrential downpour for the duration of the dream. Something that can infiltrate every layer simultaneously -- providing a kind of constant and signal for the dreamers -- is music. (Edith Piaf music, to be precise, bringing to mind Cotillard's best-known role).

Cinematographer Wally Pfister (who's been behind the camera for all of Nolan's features since Memento) does exceptional work in Inception, in a vast array of spaces -- bright beaches and crumbling cities, hotel rooms, elevator shafts, warehouses, the inside of a van during that torrential downpour. What Inception doesn't do is trade in fanciful, surreal, irrational dreamscapes of the sort that only exist in movies -- those, Cobb tells Ariadne, can tip off the dreamer-target, triggering the mind's rational defenses. The movie-goer's too. Part of what makes Inception work so well is that the dreams are mostly so ordinary, as most dreams are. They are anchored in reality, but also infiltrated by movies. This makes sense, given how dreamlike movies have always been, but also how movielike dreams (or at least my dreams) can be.  The stuff that happens to Cobb and Co. is the stuff that happens in, say, James Bond movies -- shoot 'em ups in the Alps, crazy cool car chases -- but also Matrix-y stuff like zero-gravity fight scenes (how do you pound a guy when there's no gravity?). The story manages to integrate, in a logical way, some pretty cool special effects too -- like a city that folds over on itself, and an Escherian infinite staircase.

Inception is an entertaning puzzle -- the dream within a dream (movie within a movie) multi-layer structure is demanding. Teasing apart the layers, keeping the whole tangled web straight requires more attention than your run-of-the-mill industrial espionage caper. Inception is smart and original, a nonderivative, non-remake, non-sequel, brand new thing that's constructed out of familiar pieces assembled in an uncommonly imaginative way.

Despicable Me (2010)

Supervillains, as everyone knows, are indispensable. Without them, superheroes wouldn't have much to do, except maybe wait around for random natural disasters to occur. Without supervillains, superhero and spy movies would be kind of boring. Just imagine Batman without the Joker, or Spider-Man without Doctor Octopus or James Bond without Goldfinger. As it turns out, however, superheroes are not indispensable, at least not in Despicable Me, a movie that pits supervillain against supervillain in a battle to be baddest. 

The Me in Despicable Me would be Gru, a meanie with a long, pointy nose and no forehead. He wears turtlenecks and speaks (via funnyman Steve Carell) with a vaguely Eastern European accent. His underground lair is in the sub-basement of his suburban home. Gru has Mommy issues, thanks to his disapproving mother (Julie Andrews), who never thought he would amount to much. "Ehhhhh" she says, no matter what he does. Gru's minions, however, worship him. They're little yellow guys who look like supersized jellybeans, with blue overalls and either one or two eyes. They chirp and twitter and manage to goof up whatever task they've been assigned, which does not help Gru with his plans to be numero uno evil mastermind. Neither does he get much assistance from his partner in crime, the ancient Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand). What really gets his knickers in a twist, though, is when a newbie supervillain named Vector (Jason Segel) steals the Great Pyramid of Giza, thereby becoming the world's greatest villain. Gru's plan to retake the mantle of villainy is to steal something even bigger: the moon.

His plan is excessively complicated, as supervillain plans frequently are, and involves adopting three adorable orphans. Why? Because they sell the cookies that Vector can't resist, of course (and blah blah robots, blah blah shrink ray, blah blah...). The moppets are Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), the smart one, Edith (Dana Gaier), the tomboy, and little Agnes (Elsie Fisher), who loves unicorns like crazy. They live in a Dickensian orphanage run by Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), so they're pretty happy to be adopted, even if it's by a persnickety, curmudgeonly weirdo like Gru. Will these cute girls melt Gru's hard ol' villainous heart and turn him into a superdad? Faster than you can say 3-D rollercoaster ride.

Despicable Me is the first feature film from animation house Illumination Entertainment, and was helmed by a pair of French directors, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud. It's a kitchen sink production -- everything is in there. Cute kids. Slapstick minions. Sharks, nerds, ray guns, rockets, amusement parks, orphans, sight gags, funny accents, funny voices, elderly people, some heartstring plucking, all in glorious 3D. Well, the 3D is no more glorious than usual, except for that rollercoaster ride, which is almost authentic enough to make  your stomach flip flop. There's surely an untapped market for 3D Imax movies of rollercoaster rides -- perfect for those who want the thrills without the long lines and death defying. I'd like a 3D surfing movie too, please.

Despicable Me is perfect for those who want a movie with a little bit of everything, but not a lot of anything. It's hectic and colorful, intermittently cute and fitfully funny, and it works really, really hard to please. It's passably entertaining, but doesn't leave a lasting impression. Gru's mom would surely give it an "Ehhhhh."

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

The Twilight Saga isn't shy about drawing literary parallels. In New Moon, the second movie in this apparently unstoppable franchise based on Stephanie Meyer's best-selling books, it was Romeo and Juliet. Hey, if you're gonna aim, might as well aim high, right? Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the 109 year old teenage vampire, and his beloved Bella (Kristen Stewart) watch Romeo and Juliet in their English Lit class. Later Edward tries to kill himself when he thinks Bella is dead. But she isn't. And then he isn't. Well, technically he is, but apparently there's dead and there's really dead when you're a vampire. But if you're gonna go all Shakespearean, you'd better be willing to kill off your heroes and heroines (even the undead ones), which is one thing The Twilight Saga will not (at least not yet) do. Romeo and Juliet might have ended tragically, but New Moon was a bummer from start to finish. The major crisis was instigated by Bella getting a paper cut. (I'll admit that's pretty original. Shakespeare never used the paper cut as plot device.) Never has love made so many so unhappy for so long. Never have paper cuts been so deadly. (Twilight the first, on the other hand, was a hoot -- even if it was unintentionally funny.)

Which brings us to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, in which Edward and Bella continue to be desperately in love, and Bella remains wary of sharp envelopes. (No, not really. Not the envelope part.) But Bella's getting more desperate by the minute, weary, perhaps, of this extended exercise in delayed gratification. Even if Edward is immune to teenage hormones (an apparent perk of being undead), Bella is still human, so she isn't. Such is Bella's love (and lust) for Edward that she wishes to be made a vampire. Such is Edward's love for Bella, that he wants her to be spared from undead immortality. Methinks the boy's got a point.

Part of Bella's problem might be that teen wolf pal of hers, Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Jacob is desperately in love with Bella, so much so that he has apparently misplaced all of his shirts. He's tan and buff and warmblooded. Edward is pale and sparkly and cold as the grave, but fully clothed. Poor Bella -- so many choices. Which is why she is reciting Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" to Edward as the movie begins. In a sunny meadow filled with wildflowers. With Edward wearing a shirt and sparkling in the sunlight as vampires do in Twilight world. I'd bet good money Frost never imagined his poem being read in quite those circumstances.

In addition to practicing abstinence (if that's something one can actually practice), Twilight steadfastly hews to the law of narrative economy -- there are no Macguffins in Twilight, no poem is recited and no Native American legend is recounted that will not figure later in the movie. And so, bitter rivals Jacob and Edward (aka Fire and Ice) face some choices in Eclipse too, for someone has raised up a vampire army to slay Bella. The vampire army is made up of "newborns," newly-minted vampires who are the most vicious and bloodthirsty vampires of all. Bella must be saved, for if Twilight is anything, it is an old-fashioned damsel in distress story, and Bella is the damsel, and she's in distress... again. She's in all kinds of distress, of course, because what Bella wants most is what is most dangerous of all: sex. That her two would-be beaus are both monsters who must suppress their wild natures and appetites for the sake of love is the simmering subtext behind everything that happens in The Twilight Saga, and, I suspect, its main appeal. Twilight is all about the safe sex, which is no sex at all. (Edward refuses, being the courtly, marriage-minded guy that he is, telling Bella, vaguely, that it is too dangerous.) And yet Bella is, it becomes quite clear, a tease. There's a word for the particular type of tease she is, and I bet that word never appears in the chaste Twilight books. 

The two rivals for Bella's undying affection must join forces to protect her from the crazy killer baby vampires, which makes Eclipse the best Twilight movie ever. Which may be damning with faint praise, but it's really not bad. 

Direrctor David Slade (who made the fast and furious vampire movie 30 Days of Night), has taken the mopey, morose, swoony Twilight Saga and given it a lusty, vital shot in the arm with competent, energetic directing. There's a lot more action, a lot more romantic comedy, and the characters actually show some personality, all of which is good. Fun, fighting, people doing stuff, vampires doing stuff, personality -- all good things in a movie. There's more violence, more feeling, and for the first time, a sense of what is at stake for Bella -- not just what she hopes to gain by her transformation into Edward's eternal one and only, but also all that she stands to lose. In making that more manifest, the movie also (finally!) starts to account for the devotion between Edward and Bella. It was just a given before, but the two of them were always so miserable (although admittedly more miserable apart than together) that it was never clear why their romance was worth the candle. There's still a fair bit of trademark Twilight silliness in Eclipse too -- strike a pose, you vampy vampires! -- although it feels a bit more like the cast are in on the joke this time around. At any rate, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is a movie that actually aims to entertain, and it mostly succeeds.


Knight and Day (2010)

Why is this movie called Knight and Day? The knight part makes sense -- it's the real name of superspy Roy Miller (Tom Cruise), who, early in the movie, picks up a knight figurine from an airport gift shop. And Miller is a kind of a knight in body armor to June (Cameron Diaz). That's June Haven. Nobody in the movie is called Day. And while a goodly portion of the movie takes place in daylight, and on assorted days, the same is true of many movies that do *not* have Day (or Knight) in the title. The only logical explanation is that someone was taken with the punny possibilities of calling a movie Knight and Day, and forgot to include a Day. But Hard Day's Knight, or Knight Moves, or several other possibilities would have made more sense. The porn movie based on Knight and Day will probably be called Long Day's Journey into Knight. You heard it here first.

Maybe the nonsensical title is meant to be a MacGuffin, but once you get past thinking about who the heck Day is, Knight and Day is rather fun and enjoyable. The movie aims to combine the contemporary action-spy film and the romantic thriller-mystery movies of the forties and fifties. Sort of. It more or less succeeds, although the romantic part never convincingly gets off the ground, and the thriller-mystery stuff takes a back seat to the cars-flying, bullets-flying, helicopter-and-jetliner-flying, bulls-runnning action. Lots of things fly in Knight and Day, and lots of things crash too. The movie, in true spy movie fashion, hops the globe, and lands in Pamplona just as those bulls start a-running. It also goes to Austria, Boston, California, and the Azores via various motorized conveyances. The body count is quite high, although the movie is generally bloodless, and most of the casualties involve various anonymous peons of various bad guys.

Roy may or may not be a rogue spy, and he may or may not be crazy. Cruise, for all that he lacks as a thespian, does crazy pretty well, with manic eyes and a toothy grin that immediately set him apart as the go-to guy for crazy-but-competent running about and carrying on. He even says, at one point in the movie, "I'm the guy." Yes, he's the guy. Roy bumps into June -- she's the gal -- in Wichita, where she is trying to catch a plane home to Boston for her sister's wedding. June restores vintage American cars, for what it's worth. Several dead bodies and a plane crash later, June is being pursued by either the CIA or an arms dealer, or both, and also by Roy, who may or may not be a good guy who is trying to protect her from the bad guys. Roy is also trying to protect a nerdy scientist (Paul Dano) who has invented some kind of super-duper energy source. Maybe. 

It doesn't really matter. Roy has a mission, there are bad guys, and some top secret thingie that must be kept safe. What works about Knight and Day is that the movie is pretty much implausible from start to finish, but nobody ever pretends otherwise. Realism is not what this movie's about. It's about a guy who can dispatch his enemies with maximal efficiency while simultaneously trying to reassure his increasingly hysterical hostage and/or protectee June that things are not as bad as they seem in spite of all the bullets and bombs and assassins and crash-landings. Roy's a real chatterbox, which is a most unexpected character trait in a superspy-assassin type. He's like Jason Bourne played by Cary Grant -- all talk, all action. June, for her part, holds up her end of the increasingly absurd conversation, although why she sticks with Roy when to do so is to live in mortal peril is... well, there's no reason she should, but if she didn't, this would be an entirely different movie, so it's just as well. There's nonstop banter in the script by Patrick O'Neill, and it sets Knight and Day apart from the action pack. There could have been more talk, and less action, but director James Mangold manages to juggle both the snappy patter and the hectic crashings and smashings and maintain the movie's sense of humor. In addition to laying on a thick base layer of chatter, the movie has fun elbowing all kinds of spy movie conventions in the ribs. Speedboats? Check. Parachutes? Check. Motorcycle chase? Got it. Mysterious meetings in narrow alleyways in Salzburg? It's in there. Post-it notes? Yup.

Knight and Day is fun, which is something spy movies usually are not. They can be cool, and intriguing, and exciting, and insightful. Knight and Day is not really any of those things. It has stuff that's sort of exciting and there's a little bit of mystery, but that's not the stuff that really matters. And the romantic part of the romantic comedy gets waylaid, because Roy and June are not very convincing as sweethearts -- they seem decidedly undecided about the whole thing. But that might just be the secret of their success -- they kind of grow on each other, and on the audience too.